WHERE’S the ball?
That’s the recurring question which follows in the slipstream of the athletes currently pioneering a fledgling sport which really puts the rock into roll.
Mean City Roller Derby is Glasgow and Scotland’s first male flat-track roller derby team.
Imagine the James Caan film ‘Rollerball’ with no motorbikes or steel ball, but enough high-octane action, strategy, full-throttle fun and excitement to satiate the most voracious of fans (and skaters).
Make no mistake, there are strict rules, but that doesn’t make this thrilling sport any less intense, bruising or downright energising.
Each team can field five players at one time – four blockers and one scorer (called the jammer). Bouts last for two halves of 30 minutes, carved up into jams which last up to two minutes.
Jammers score points by slipping or barging their way through the opposing blockers, fizzing round the track and then lapping their adversaries – each body passed is another point in the bank.
It’s full contact, but there are conditions – you can’t punch, elbow or kick an opponent out of the way. You can use your shoulders and body to block or knock someone off track, but again there are rules as to what is acceptable.
Fall foul of these and you’re spending at least a minute in the sin bin.
There are more thrills and spills than your average rollercoaster, so that’s why I found myself nervously approaching a community centre in North Glasgow – preparing to take my first tentative steps on eight wheels.
To put this into context, I find it difficult enough to walk upright most of the time – never mind when you put casters under my hooves.
Nevertheless emboldened by a fabulous time at a recent Glasgow Roller Derby bout (those girls can skate) I decided to grab a piece of the action and hoped I wouldn’t be ending the night broken in casualty.
My timing was fortuitous as it coincided with a visit to Mean City by a VIP skater – Will Power from Europe’s top men’s team, the London-based Southern Discomfort.
My host for the evening was Mean City captain BruiseDog - aka Jason ‘Jazza’ Crawford – and I arrived to find him in full flow with Will and the rest of the City crew.
The team currently includes members from all over the west of Scotland – including Glasgow, East Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire. There are currently around 11 hardcore members, with 16 others orbiting the squad. The minimum age is 18 and currently the most veteran skater is 57.
They cut an impressive sight, even in an enclosed space, and it was a genuine thrill to see them weave, dodge and power their way around the hall.
BruiseDog – who also plays for the Scottish all-star men’s team, The Jakey Bites – broke off from practice to give me the low-down.
“Every type of person can play,” he assures me, eyes appraising my pot-bellied profile. “Size doesn’t matter and body shape doesn’t matter.
“It takes dedication and determination. You have to free yourself in your head – become more liberated. If you can let yourself go with the flow it seems to come a bit easier.
“One of the things we teach people first is how to fall because you are going to fall. We try to make it safe and fun.”
True to his word, the first thing I do when I don knee pads, helmet, elbow pads and wrist guards (imagine an extra from Judge Dredd with a dodgy physique) is fall to my knees.
“Like falling on pillows,” chortles BruiseDog as I struggle like an inebriated toddler to get back to my feet.
He then guides me round the hall, urging me to look up and adopt a Z-shape, ensuring the body weight is always distributed towards the front – definitely the way every skater wants to fall.
As if by magic, and to prove his point, I immediately hurl backwards myself on to the most naturally padded area I possess – my rump. I reinforce the point a few minutes later by falling backwards on to my hip.
Despite feeling like a turtle denuded of shell, there definitely is something liberating about not caring how many times you fall or what you look like.
To my amazement, no-one laughs and no-one offers false sympathy – BruiseDog merely congratulates me on not breaking myself and I get back up and carry on.
Somehow by affecting a Steptoe-like crouch and gingerly avoiding contact I survive to the end of the session. Although I’m nowhere near the level of the ‘Mean Machine Massive’, I do feel pleased.
BruiseDog enthuses: “There’s a community feeling here that’s so strong – we’ve very inclusive. We have people from all sorts of walks of life and backgrounds.
“It’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s also addictive. Some people will look at it and say it’s fairly violent, but it’s also very controlled and it’s safe.
“We have an open door at Mean City. We do have fresh meat intake every three months, but at the moment because we are trying to grow the team, we will take people when they come to us.”
Jazza (34), who works for Dell, enjoyed skating as a youngster along the esplanade at Helensburgh and in the 80s used to go to a roller disco at the Allander Centre in Bearsden.
“I was never a sporty person at school,” he recalls. “I would actively avoid playing rugby.”
Time passed and skating faded from his radar . . . until wife Lindsay took him along to a Glasgow Roller Derby (GRD) bout and the flame began burning again.
Perhaps it was the amazing, inclusive atmosphere, the sporting endeavour, the skills on show, the excitement of the crowd . . . something inspired Jazza to get involved.
As it’s female-only on track, he decided to be a referee and from May 2011 to early 2012 he helped GRD . . . but the lure of competition proved too great.
A historic meeting in early 2012 in an aircraft hanger in Perth saw the birth of the Jakey Bites, Scotland’s first men’s team.
Adopting the name BruiseDog, Jazza said: “The question we get asked most is ‘where’s the ball’, followed by ‘is it like the film from the 70s’. We thought let’s take it to the max.”
Hence the team’s uniform – orange shirts modelled on 70s sci-fi classic ‘Rollerball’.
The players kept training and played their first bout against Tyne and Fear last April.
BruiseDog recalls with a wince: “We were annihilated. Many of the skaters had only just passed their minimum skills test the week before.
“These guys were right on their game, but we thought ‘we know what we’re doing’. It didn’t put me off – it enthused me more!
“I managed to get 10 points and I thought ‘that’s amazing – I’ve managed to get 10 points against one of the best teams in the country’. After that I had got the bug – I was addicted.”
Bouts followed against Manchester, Sheffield and – earlier this month - South Wales Silures.
The Jakey Bites are still Scotland’s all-star team and have bouts every couple of months, but new regional teams are following in the skate steps of Mean City all the time – including Bairn City Rollers, Capital City Roller Derby and the Tay-minators in Perth.
BruiseDog credits the women’s roller derby leagues for leading the way (a wise policy as wife Turbulinz stars for GRD) – stressing the welcoming, liberating, no-one-left-behind, DIY ethic that has seen roller derby spread like wildfire across the world.
Will Power – aka Stuart McCaighy – agrees.
The jammer and blocker with Southern Discomfort said: “The women are trailblazers which is really refreshing. I think that’s really empowering.
“I just liked derby. The speed, the action – it’s quick, quite violent and just good fun. The men’s game is really exploding at the moment.”
Stuart (35), who visited Mean City on a trip north to visit his parents in Saltcoats, stresses the all-inclusive nature of derby, with a place for everyone regardless of size, sexuality and skill level.
So back to the original question,where’s the ball? The answer is as clear as the stars in the sky as I leave the community centre with strange new aches and a burning desire.
Where’s the ball? They’re having it…
Mean City train twice a week and plan to hold their first bout this year. They are supported by 5th Blocker Skates, Roller Stop and Cafe Phoenix. For more information visit www.facebook.com/MeanCityRollerDerby
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