“Are you here for the funeral?”
It’s 7am, and I’m strolling through customs at Birmingham International Airport on the second to last day of Aston Villa’s 2015/16 premier league season. I’ve been a Villa fan for as long as I can remember. A massive perk of my choice of university – Warwick, based in Coventry – was the opportunity to switch from regular trips up to Villa Park with a friend of my dad’s to a fully-fledged season ticket holder in the Holte End Upper. I’ve made a point of dropping back when I can over the years, even while living abroad.
My interest in the intervening years has varied from ‘makes sure I check in on the score’ (living in Asia for several years made it hard to watch regularly, and pushed things down my priority list), to being utterly besotted. Strangely, the link between quality and my interest has often worked in reverse: my most dedicated Villa years were the ones where they weren’t very good.
I vividly remember another second-to-last game of the season in which an extremely late goal from Marcus Alback ensured survival. It was tense and uninspiring, but also a heavy relief. While I’ve also witnessed that ridiculous game against Newcastle, a Europa League defeat of Ajax and a cup final that we should probably have won (the last one not in person, sadly), tense and uninspiring have summed up a large part of the whole experience.
But you can’t change your football team, right? So the customs lad summed it up: I was here for the funeral.
Sport, often, is a clean-cut, disappointingly attitude-free undertaking, but not tonight. Roller derby’s skating queens are ice-cool, heavily made-up skating juggernauts, powering round a track in a speedy, fishnets-and-tattoos blur. When AU arrives in the Valley Leisure Centre tonight the place is already rammed with punk-ethos, blasting Stiff Little Finger’s ‘Alternative Ulster’ on a loop as if to welcome us, and chock full with manic skaters wearing their knickers on the outside. Perfectly lit pitches and one-track lives this is not.
The Belfast roller derby league formed 18 months ago, after the skater calling herself Hannahbolic Steroids took the advice of friends in Birmingham, and took on the burden of formation herself. A quick mail to a few friends had a first practice session in place, and training, featuring regular ‘fresh meat’, has been growing ever since. Tonight, there are 28 skaters who’ve reached a level necessary to compete publically. Like many more recent teams, the Belfast girls grew in numbers as Barrymore’s film ‘Whip It’ gained popularity. The film sees the actress playing an indie-alternative small-town Texan girl escaping the world of pageants to find her own identity in an extremely (and unrealistically) aggressive form of rollerderby carnage. ‘Sigourney Cleaver’ – whose off track costume includes a large (fake) blooded knife – is one Barrymore-inspired recruit, joining “only a couple of days” after seeing the movie. Others, like J-Mag were recruited through an undercurrent of word of mouth and the flyering of Belfast’s more alternative corners.
The basic principles of Roller derby are fairly simple, though the heavier technicalities extend to a half-inch-thick rule book. Each team fields five players, eight of whom (four from each team) circle the track as ‘blockers’, led by the strategy-calling pivot. Behind them, and starting just a touch later, the speedy ‘jammers’ – one from each team – power towards the pack, and attempt to skip, twist and bash their way through to the front. The blockers job is a dual one: they’re responsible for both blocking the opposition jammer, and helping their own to pass through the rolling bodies unscathed. For each opposition blocker that the jammer passes after their first run through, or for lapping the opposition jammer, they pick up a point. Each ‘jam’ lasts two minutes (though it can be ended early by the lead jammer), while a ‘bout’ – or contest – has a one hour limit, but crams in as many jams as possible. In practice, the jammers are slightly more important than the blockers (both of whom rotate from a 14-girl team), though a good blocker can prevent a jammer from cashing in at all, and so also be worth a whole lot of points. Explaining the blocker’s strategy, J-Mag argues “the concentration is mainly on the other team’s jammer. Helping your own jammer is secondary.”