Fans converted by rugby's new voice

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The Independent Online
My friend Alex once treated his wife to a weekend in a spraunchy hotel near Bristol, only to find the place overrun by the Welsh rugby union team, intent on drinking the bar dry. As the evening wore on, certain players were all set to continue a battle that had taken place earlier on the pitch.

One 17-stone monster barged into Alex, who was no mug when it came to a scrap. "Are you looking for a fight?" the Famous Player glared.

"The size of you? You must be joking," said Alex.

That always struck me as an eminently sensible way to defuse a potentially damaging situation, both for Alex and the hotel furniture. Insulting someone whose middle name is Mayhem might seem heroic at the time, but the benefits are generally outweighed by the surgery costs.

No such worries appear to beset the editors of the ground-breaking Gloucester fanzine, Shedhead, which insults with impunity everyone from Gareth Chilcott (Fat Git) to Phil de Glanville (Elephant Man). Nothing odd there, you might say. Football fanzines have been doing that for years. But rugby has never seen anything like it.

It's arguable whether Shedhead was the first rugby fanzine, but it is undeniably the best and the most successful. Started in autumn last year, it easily outsells Gloucester RFC's official programme. People queue outside the unlovely ground to buy the photocopied pages. Its fame has spread so far that supporters from other clubs as far away as West Hartlepool now ask the editors for advice.

It is everything a good fanzine should be: irreverent, outspoken, rude, crude, misspelt, badly punctuated - and with its heart firmly rooted in the terraces. The surprise is that the brains behind it are not spotty teenagers but two men with successful business careers.

Ed Snow, a Gloucester fan all his life, had dreamed of running a fanzine but did not have the production expertise. The catalyst was Bob Fenton, who had recently moved to the city and whose strait-laced job as senior press officer for Nuclear Electric clearly belied his anarchic tendencies.

The pair were eminently qualified as terrace critics. Neither had played much rugby beyond the sixth form and, though Fenton looks like a useful front-row, he admits: "I played on the wing. I thought it was a bad day if I had to wash my shirt afterwards." But they knew what the Gloucester faithful wanted - and what they didn't want.

"There are a lot of professional rugby writers who get away with murder," Snow says. "They turn out sycophantic tripe to get sweet with players. What the public is getting is not what is happening in rugby. We aimed to address that by being funny, up-to-date and writing things as they really were."

Fenton adds: "We had a rough idea what we were going to do. There was a lot of anti-Will Carling and anti-Bath stuff, though I have to admit that the majority of the first issue was self-opinionated waffle."

In keeping with fanzine ethos, they did not tell the club what they were doing. And because they were not quite sure what the feedback would be, the first issue of 150 copies was anonymous. But they need not have worried. When Snow added his address in the second issue, the pair were delighted to find supporters writing in and encouraging them to continue.

The first five issues were free, but success was costing them a packet. They took the decision to sell it for 50p. "We produced 600 and sold out," Fenton recalls. "It meant we could start to pay back some of the debts we had incurred." Now they print 1,800 (against an average Gloucester following of about 6,000) and queues form to buy a copy.

"Gloucester is quite an insular community and it's quite working class. They still look upon some players as outsiders. There is no rugby team like it, and no place with the same intensity. It's real in-your-face support, which is very intimidating," Fenton says. Shedhead (named after the stand where proper supporters stand) reflects this.

"People would rather buy this because we are more in touch with what they want to read," Fenton says. "The official club programme spoke to us about binding all or some of the magazine inside the official programme. What a cheek! We said no." Snow adds: "We have gone from being a minor annoyance to a thorn in their side."

So the pair continue to slam most rugby writing ("Light years behind football, they take themselves too seriously," says Snow); their fierce rivals Bath ("More money than sense") their own club, ticket prices, the ill-planned fixture list and racism. The decision to shun takeover moves means Snow can continue his unique programme seller's approach. "I shout Sneer, Smut and Innuendo," he admits.

Of course, when you call officials useless tossers or players a bunch of mercenaries, chances are that the odd person will get upset. "People are amazed we are not bombarded with writs," Fenton says. "So far we have only had one solicitor's letter. It was a hard decision not to run the letter and write `Bollocks' after it."

Their closest run-in with Messrs Sue, Grabbitt and Runne came when Simon Devereux was banged up for nine months for breaking a player's jaw. Fenton still gets enraged about it. "The charge of GBH with intent meant he went on to the pitch intending to break someone's jaw. It was ridiculous.

"We even got a textbook out of the library to read up the law on intent, and wrote a one-page special. It was the closest we have come to being in contempt of the law. We ran it through a lawyer, who said: `How long do you want to go to prison for?' We made a few changes."

That Saturday, they organised a collection outside the ground and raised about pounds 500 to pass on to Devereux's heavily pregnant girlfriend. "I think it was our finest hour," says Fenton. "It got us notoriety in the area because we were prepared to say publicly what a lot of people were saying privately." He adds: "I think we are making a difference in the way that Gloucester RFC is reported. At the end of the day, Shedhead is not an incitement to riot. We just try to add a bit of fun to Saturday afternoons."

And what of their insults to some big, aggressive men who bite the heads off puppies for fun? "The players like the idea of having terrace-level feedback," Fenton says. "They seem happy to be ritually humiliated by us - I think."

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