“It never disappoints, does it,” he says, a grin the size of Godalming on his face. He caught his first roller derby bout less than a year ago. Hasn’t missed a Brighton Rockers home game since. Even took his wife for a romantic weekend in Glasgow which just ‘happened’ to tie in with a Rockers away game. We first knew him as a hardcore football fan. Someone who had spent three decades getting up at dawn on a Saturday to travel in a minibus, heading off in a fog of flatulence to some far flung corner of the country in support of some (frankly rubbish) lower division team. The way many people do. This one’s a football fan no longer, though, as clearly demonstrated by him now standing in front of the big screen in this Haywards Heath pub, flipping V-signs at it and shouting “boring, who the **** cares” at the FA Cup match in progress. The people trying to watch the game aren’t happy with this display. “Sorry, our mate’s drunk,” we say, as we pull him down to a seat. He isn’t, though. Neither drunk nor sorry. Not in the way they think. Having maintained a booze-free 2014, it’s not alcohol he’s tipsy on, but the sheer excitement… the dizzying, nail-biting, adrenaline-pumping high of having just watched Brighton Rockers Roller Derby.
The next day we bump into another associate, one whose path we failed to cross at the bout or after party venue (which we’re here revisiting, incidentally – like a dog returning to its sick). Yesterday she popped her derby virgin cherry, but we don’t need to ask how she feels/felt about it. We can see that from a distance, from the insane grin on her face before she utters a word. “Yesterday was AMAZING,” she says. [NB We’re not fans of typing in capitals, but in this case the manner in which she said it can’t be expressed any other way – also it allows us to politely miss out the many swearwords she included before ‘amazing’.] The role of spectator clearly won’t sate the sports itch the Rockers-Rainy bout has scratched in this one. On her way back from the event she asked someone for a pair of derby quad skates for her imminent birthday. Right now she’s in the process of e-mailing the Rockers from her mobile to enquire about their next Fresh Meat intake. They say this sport can be addictive, but that ain’t the half of it.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves here, though. Let’s rewind to 3pm on Saturday (15th February). To a frightfully slippery sports hall, curiously named after an aquatic mammal despite being fifteen miles inland (maybe because of how slippery it is?). There’s an oval track. Marked by tape. Warning tape. Danger tape. Police tape. Black and white striped shirts inside and out. They are the law. A raised arm in the centre. “Five seconds.” Ten skaters on track. Today five black. Today five purple. Twenty skates. Eighty wheels. Two stars. Two stripes. Arm drops. Whistle sounds. Whole world of amazing begins.
It’s early in the bout, but already things aren’t looking good for the Sussex league. A couple of hit-the-pack-and-call lead jammer passes, one per side, begin the game, but a bustling power jam from Faye-Tal Blonde and fine work (coming off a star pass) from Fay Roberts have respectively chalked up twenty Northern points twice in a row. Brighton are on the numerically challenged side of a 3-43 scoreline after just four jams. Yeah, this is derby and everything can change in an instant, but we’ve seen enough hammerings over the years – by the Rockers home and away in 2012, against the Rockers away in 2013 – to know that things can easily drift away from a side, and even just a 20-point gap could (without being checked back) blossom into a 200+ one.
Yet Brighton – new Brighton, the 2014 model, forged in reduced-strength combat against unspeakable odds on battlefields owned by the UK’s top sides last year – are made of resilient stuff (as November’s stunning comeback against Central City demonstrated) and that points gap will close rather than open today. A flying power jam from Kapow after Faye takes lead. Single passes from Chariot Sophia and Rose Bleed. 25-46. Rainy City are a tough proposition, though. They’re missing Missy [Rascal], arguably their most influential player, who’s off hammering France and sanding down Canada with Team England today. The Northern league still ooze quality and experience at every position, though, being well worthy of their 5th place spot in the UKRDA table. England training squad member Roberts is a particularly sharp thorn in Brighton’s side today; rangy and fleet-footed in the star, tough and technical in the pack, she plays a major part in keeping the differential from narrowing too much. 25-52 – ooh, palindrome – now 30-64.
The Rockers start Jam 12 with only two blockers on track. Rainy down one too. Sin bin proving very busy at the moment, and it’s the Brighton pack picking up most of the penalties. The Rainy defence is tough, physical and a hard ask for the Sussex jammers to break through, even without the pack disadvantage. Rose battling, draws a penalty to even the numbers defensively, now on a power jam, calls it with Rainy’s jammer standing but not quickly enough. The Mighty Mighty Bash gets lead next, but is overtaken and has to call. Rose out first now, but not clean. Rainy with lead but half a track behind and calling. Shambolic trying to take out Faye next, jammer on jammer, but the Rainy starhead shakes the hit off. The Hairy Fairy holds her up really well at the back of the pack though, and Brighton have closed to 55-71. It’s breathless stuff and words can’t really explain this sport to newbies [“Pikachu takes first mana, Batman holds the globe, penalty on Boudicca – scything major – and three points to Olive from On The Buses“] let alone do it justice, so here’s a picture instead.
Captain (or should that be Kaptain) Katastrophic Kandi powers in a powerful 21-point power jam. Pow. 55-87. Teams taking lead in alternate jams now, but both packs mostly at full strength – the game’s got a whole lot cleaner – and working hard. Just a couple of points here and there being eked out by the jammers. Oona Bomber and Mama Firefly amongst the standouts in the Rainy defence; Bash and Hairy working hard in the Brighton packs. Just a few minutes left on the period clock. Rose pulls it back to 80-89 on the power jam, calls it with Faye standing. Sham takes advantage to break through as the Rainy jammer rejoins at the back of the pack. Lead change, lead change, lead change! (That’s our new lead change song, by the way. The lyrics may need work.) Brighton break the 90 point mark, but Sham is off to the box and Rainy use what’s left of the jam to regain the initiative. 92-99 at half time. Everything to play for.
Half-time entertainment provided by bar staff not knowing how to work the Guinness surge machine (which is supposed to turn a flat can of syrup into lovely frothy booze) and a remote control rollerskating Barbie doll making her way round the track. Noise Tank jam refs the doll as Rainy players try to recreate its leg-splitting moves. We compose an e-mail to WFTDA suggesting the introduction of a new bar ref position for any derby venue with a Guinness surge machine. To the penalty box with you, Slop Serving Sir. Slightly truncated bleachers today, but jam-jam-jammer-packed. Bourne Bombshells types occupying the outside straight seating as usual. Really good crowd vibe in general, as befits the contest we’re watching.
Second half ready to start. What have Rainy bench coach Vital Sadistic and line-up manager R.E.D cooked up in the break? Do Brighton line-up Maude Fondeo and bench Scar Wilde – deputising for the recently enbabied Mass Janeycide – have any tricks up their (theoretically non-sleeveless party gown) sleeves? The Northerners get the better of the opening exchanges with several leads in a row. By the time Kapow takes the line in the Brighton star for the start of Jam 5, Rainy have added twenty without reply to give themselves a little breathing room at 92-112. Good interference from the Rockers on the Oldham pack for a five and call. Sophia next up. Looking much better for Brighton now, but an official review sees a cut track call and the Rockers jammer starts the next one in the box. A few minutes later and it’s 106-129. Eep!
P2/J9. Full sin bin for Rainy. Rose takes advantage and pulls it back to just a three point deficit. The impressive Kandi gets lead for the visitors next jam, but Bash sends her floorwards and she has to call. Kapow blasting through for lead now. Hit it. Quit it. 130-129. Lead change, lead change, lead change! Kandi takes two and calls in Jam 14. Lead change, lead ch- no, wait. Fantastic dart through the inside line from Sophia as the end-of-jam whistles ring out. Four fingers raised in the air by both her and – more importantly – her jam ref. Took just half a second for the lead to swing back to Brighton. Football bloke is on his feet along with half the crowd in the bleachers. Pub lady is sat in the back row writing ‘ASK 4 SK8s 4 BDAY’ on the back of her hand. Roberts pulls it back next jam, though. Tied game. Dr Whooligan down hard, winded but back on her feet waving to the crowd. “I’m fine.” Rainy take a couple of single pass jams. 134-142. Little over ten minutes left.
There’s an all-star supporting cast here today, a sign that this is one of the quieter weekends for UK derby. Cherry Fury, probably the UK’s highest regarded referee, in the centre track. Croydon’s Rolling Thunder prowling the outside lane in the stripes, looking (as ever) more like a badger than a zebra. The country’s – possibly the world’s – most travelled NSO/announcer El Toupée imparts his encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport through the microphone. Lurking alongside him is yet more derby royalty in Portsmouth/LRG’s Duchess of Crutches and hometown hero Mistress Von Über Vixen, with the latter today playing the combined role of cheerleader and unofficial relayer of hand signals from the Rockers bench.
Brighton team timeout over and we’re back. Faye looks to be taking lead for Rainy, but the Rockers pack edge her back at the last moment as Sham swoops through to take the pointy finger. Falls and calls. Five point game. Sham back in the star every other jam now. All over the track like icing on a cake. [Oh yeah. Forgot to mention. Today’s the Rockers fourth birthday bash. Jelly and ice cream. Ace venue dressing and such like. Goodie bags for the kids. Party hats for the skate out. Happy Birthday from the crowd and so forth. It’s really too exciting and nerve-wracking to recall the planned theme now though, so shush your mouths and enjoy the new theme, which is just plain butt-clenching edge-of-the-seat sporting AWESOMES.] She makes two passes in Jam 20 – the second a really tough push through a solid purple wall – and it’s now a two point game. Jeebers. Rose up next for a natural five and change, with the visitors sneaking three of their own at the whistle. 156-153. Mouths too dry from screaming and/or cheering to sing the lead change song this time. Sham dancing through the pack again. Rockers doing well to hold back Faye, who is all over this bout report the same way she’s all over Brighton, jamming near enough one-in-three now (both sides are fielding very restricted jammer rotations late on) and getting feisty with it. Bash and Hairy off to the sin bin. Roberts to the Rainy box ‘J’ seat now, power jam Kapow, Bash back on track and sending Sookie Sook’em to ground. Hard. Hurt. Paramedics on. Take a knee. Hope she’s OK.
Sookie up and ice-packed. Double tough. Waves to the crowd that she’s OK. Gives Bash a hug on the way past. Official timeout for the refs to confer. Results in a penalty called on Bash – presumably for the takedown rather than the hug, though just the latter from the Mighty one would fell many. Sham has a PJ start. Passes. Calls. 174-156. Rockers nemesis Roberts back on now, clawing back another four for Rainy. Team timeout for the visitors. Minute or so left. Sham v Kandi as Bash stands in the box to rejoin. The Oldham captain pulls back another three then calls. Did she call in time (with more than 30 seconds left on the period clock to start another jam)? It doesn’t look like it, but only by a split-second margin. Teams line up for Jam 27, but the period ends just before the jam can begin. It’s all about split-second timing in roller derby – Sophia’s four point whistle-pass halfway through the period and the lack of a final (winning?) jam for Rainy both serve as evidence of that. It’s a messy ending, but it is an ending.
Final score 174-163 and another awesome home comeback from the Sussex side. The football dude wipes a tear from his eye and comes down to trackside for the victory laps and slaps. The pub landlady stops looking up derby skates online on the back row of the bleachers and joins the throng. An epic contest from two insanely well matched teams. It’s testament to the toughness of the Rainy pack that Bash – so often the totem of the Rockers squad – had what seemed to spectators like a quiet game. It wasn’t quiet at all, of course, but so much of it involved chess-like tactics. This was a game of packs holding their walls and forcing jammers to juke and jive. One where the sung heroes may have been the jammers who could – on rare occasions without numerical advantage or a power jam – break through, but the truer (less sung) heroes were the solid defensive players whose names don’t appear in this report, because they did what fans like us don’t notice, but what their opponents (particularly the ones with the stars on their helmets) most certainly do.
Off to the Cornerstone then, the Rockers’ home pub and after party venue, where things get messy. We waylay visiting bench coach Vital for an interview which is a series of scrawls when we look at it the next morning (we can’t read our own writing at the best of times). We’re pretty sure she told us she said to her skaters they couldn’t have done more than they did on the day. That they go wherever there’s a suitable bout to be had and thrive off the experiences (be they victorious or otherwise). And, most importantly for us, that Brighton are challenged to a rematch up at Rainy’s Thunderdome venue, whose brand new Skate Court surface – the only one in Europe – arrived just as the team were setting off down South yesterday.
Brighton award best blocker to Rainy’s Mama Firefly, jammer to Katastrophic Kandi and MVP to the commanding Fay Roberts (the athlete formerly known as Randi Razorlegs). The visitors picked out Chariot Sophia as Brighton’s best blocker, Shambolic as jammiest jammer, and Kapow – who mentioned in our fanzine that she’d never won an award with the Rockers – was a tearful MVP recipient. Sham wins the limbo dancing competition, as she always does, but by the time ‘bum coin’ and pyramiding come into play we’re too drunk to note down the results. Fine Olympic judges we’d make. Football bloke went straight home from the bout, sober that he is, but things get messier for others. The next day we hear of fans with broken glasses from walking into lampposts; of non-bouting skaters in A&E from too much drinking; and the venue wants to know why they have an entire ball gown in lost property. It was one of those days/nights. We head back to the venue on the Sunday for a full damage report, and also to find out what the landlady – who we caught sight of at the party, but didn’t get a chance to speak to – had written on her hand. Just being nosey, like. It was her first ever derby bout. We hope she liked it…
[Photos by John Hesse]
Rainy City’s first bout on the brand new floor at their Oldham Thunderdome venue (which is available to hire for other Northern leagues) is against Royal Windsor Roller Girls on Sat 8th March. Meanwhile, the Brighton Rockers are back in action in Haywards Heath on Sat 15th March, when they will be taking on the highly-rated and muchly awesome Paris Rollergirls. See the links below for more details.
BRIGHTON ROCKERS: http://www.brightonrockers.com
BRIGHTON V PARIS: https://www.facebook.com/events/291347387682129/
RAINY CITY ROLLER GIRLS: http://www.rcrg.co.uk/
RAINY v WINDSOR: https://www.facebook.com/events/704127112965059/