Aggression Trumping Nuance? The rise of the commentator as General of the troll army

I was reading an excellent blog by fellow communications professional Karan Chadda last week, when an idea for this blog started to crystallise. Karan was considering the technique of the professional commentator and their use of rhetorical tricks to communicate their attention grabbing point of view. It’s a short piece but makes some punchy points about how much opinion is spouted and how a lot of it is pretty tenuous if exposed to calm, sober analysis. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/inside-mind-mediocre-opinion-writer-karan-chadda?trk=hp-feed-article-title-like

Simultaneously, I observed a twitter dust up between Piers Morgan and David Baddiel, regarding the content of the US Presidential communication to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. Baddiel believed ignoring the unique targeting of Jews for racial extermination and instead considering the Holocaust as a period of more generalised mass slaughter and repression could be seen as deriving from a seemingly moderate and therefore insidious form of Holocaust denial. Morgan was pugnacious in his responses, essentially defending the content of the speech by saying that there was no way that President Trump and his team could be anti Semitic because the author of the speech is Jewish and that Trump is very pro Israel.

Most of the discussion can be found here: https://twitter.com/Baddiel and here: https://twitter.com/piersmorgan on 1 February.

What interested me as a communications advisor was the technique. Linking back to Karan’s article, there was a certain amount of “whataboutery” and “straw man” going on from both sides, but what really jumped out were a number of issues that seem to be something of a trend in the universe of the commentariat:

Generalist commentators lack detailed / sophisticated subject knowledge. Morgan chose to engage on a high profile historical issue that has contemporary political relevance about which he would appear to have a limited historiographical understanding compared to his counterpart. Something similar happened a few days later when he was interviewing Owen Jones http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/piers-morgan-owen-jones-awkward-argument-live-tv-good-morning-britain-anti-donald-trump-muslim-ban-a7555721.html

Aggression. Morgan’s short, clipped responses on twitter did not engage in the nuance of the wider issue of the perception but attempted to turn the debate into a binary question: “is Trump racist / anti Semitic?” Baddiel acknowledged that the subject was too complex for 140 characters when posting a JPEG of Deborah Lipstadt’s detailed analysis of the historical development Holocaust denial. Morgan however eschewed nuance with threatening and bombastic language designed to threaten and belittle his opponent – https://twitter.com/piersmorgan/status/826846995893669890

Perhaps some commentators are playing a game. Morgan has turned himself from a fairly respected journalist and media executive into a showbiz brand and mouth for hire. He represents a self fulfilling prophesy; the more the likes of Morgan speaks aggressively, the more high profile he becomes and the more he can monetise his fame / notoriety. A recent profile in the Guardian bears this out “Everyone on TV is [trying to maximise publicity]. I’m just better at it than most of them.” Then there’s the old columnist get out: “But I’m just putting opinions out there. I’m a columnist, it’s my job.” https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/jan/28/piers-morgan-im-just-putting-opinions-out-there-its-my-job

Anyone reading this might think that I’m complaining about a long standing media position of commentator as provocateur and therefore income stream. We buy newspapers because they fit our personal views and we like having our preconceptions confirmed. Whether it’s Richard Littlejohn or Nick Cohen, newspapers have used columnists to get people talking about the product and therefore drive demand. However, it’s the interactive nature of social media that adds a new and scary element – that of the commentator acting as a general directing an army of supporters.

I used the above scenario because I studied the Holocaust in depth as an undergraduate and it caught my imagination. I also used it because I don’t think Morgan is a denier and / or anti Semitic, but he got involved due to his wish to self publicise as much as possible and he’s ended up in the position where he has to play to a certain constituency. Unlike Littlejohn or Hopkins, I think Morgan is more of a gun for hire, rather than committed crusader; which adds a layer of dramatic irony and nuance to the situation. But. Take a look at the comments connected to this “debate” and you’ll see two sides of tweeters drawn up for war, mimicking the bile of their commentator generals and attacking the other side with passion.

Perhaps I’m just a sensitive snowflake. However I have a bit of personal experience in being on the end of digital attack. Thanks to some poor decision making, I was attached to an article that placed me on one side of a divide. It went viral. I suddenly acquired a LOT of followers. Threats to my well being were made. Due to professional confidentiality issues, I couldn’t (and still cant) say anything and therefore ignored the issue, bar one particularly dramatic evening where I consumed most of a bottle of Manzanilla. Don’t judge me, I was in Spain on holiday and it was very tasty.

The connection between my scenario and the other is the role of the commentator. I felt that the attacks were permitted by the poorly researched and aggressive tone taken by a bunch of commentators who should perhaps have known better. They didn’t tell people to troll me, but their pieces created the atmosphere where trolling me seemed morally acceptable. I was the bad guy that needed to be told what I bad guy I’d been.

I hate anything that has the whiff of bullying, and when it comes down to it, this is what has motivated me to write 1000 words on this subject. Whether it’s the left of right, all sides have weaponised comment for use by their provisional wings. There’s probably no way back from this abyss, but as communications advisors potentially involved around this dynamic (or members of the church of Wittertainment) we should be aware of the result of looking into the abyss for too long.

 

Post script: A few days after publishing this blog, the #shitgibbon issue went public. President Trump threatened to “ruin the career” of a Texas legislator who opposes a policy that is a favourite of  the conservative Trump supporting constituency. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-destroy-state-lawmaker_us_5899fde8e4b09bd304bdd5b9

The casual and brutal comment, made as an aside in a meeting with Texas Sherrifs was later described as a “joke” by a White House spokesperson. A Pennsylvania Senator, Daylin Leach, then referred to Trump as a “Shit-Gibbon” on twitter – which is what originally grabbed my attention and made me and Kirsty chuckle at 0630 this morning. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pennsylvania-senator-calls-trump-a-facist-loofa-faced-st-gibbon_us_589b6cd2e4b0c1284f2a1456

This is a good example of violent language that can enable a violent response from a supportive constituency. We all know that “it was a joke” is often the excuse of last resort of the prejudiced who can’t quite bring themselves to publicly identify with political extremists.  It’s something I recognise from my own experience. I’ve been called “working class Irish navvy scum” and been asked for “90 years back rent from my ancestral lands” by 2 very senior PR professionals. When I suggested they back down or face an aggressive physical response they said “calm down, I’m only kidding”.

What is interesting for professional communicators is that Trump is normalising the communications tactics of the extremes of political society. Trump’s use of the alt-right as cheerleaders and footsoldiers (or are they using him to further their agenda?) has brought what had been the periphery to the centre, both ideologically but also in terms of multi channel communication tactics. One could make similar arguments to the current UK Labour Party leadership’s alliance with Momentum. This is not just an issue of right wing communications. As communications advisors, we have to get our heads around the fact that, for now at least, the rules have changed.

This could mark the point of departure of radical long term change. We must not ignore this. The trouble with  sticking your head in the sand is that you can still get your arse shot off; and the other side in this dynamic has a lot of guns.

 

Restaurant Review, MeatLiquor, Boxpark Croydon

This article originally appeared in the Croydon Citizen: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/restaurant-review-meatliquor-boxpark/ 

 

I’ve been eating at MeatLiquor since I demolished its celebrated ‘three dead hippies’ dish in a pub off Peckham Rye. I’ve been a fan of their burgers for years. I often get a dead hippie with chilli fries as a takeaway at work for our Friday blowout team lunch, and I’ve had a few great nights out in Meat Mission in Hoxditch.

You could make the argument that Meat Liquor is, along with other brands such as Hawksmoor, a genuine pioneer in bringing a fundamentally American idiom (in this case gourmet dirrrrty food, whereas Hawksmoor does upscale steak) and putting it in an acceptably British context with imagination and wit. Both have done very well in the last decade, starting in Zone 1 Central London and moving out.

I love Meat Liquor’s choice to go for a higher fat content in their top quality beef patties. The combination of high quality beef and a higher-than-what-had-been-standard fat content creates what Sam Jackson once referred to a ‘tasty burger’. They’re so juicy you need a few napkins. Bearded chaps such as me need to wash afterwards. The sides are also outstanding, particularly the chilli fries. The buffalo chicken is the sine qua non of the genus. There’s also good hoppy craft beer that complements the food and cuts through the big flavours. The cocktails aren’t my sort of thing (I’m a Martini/Manhattan/old fashioned/negroni sort of cocktail drinker) but mates who’ve had them say they’re good stuff. Want to know how good MeatLiquor is? Look how many imitations there are of the model in Central London, some of which are backed by multi million pound funds.

These are all very good reasons to go to Meat Liquor if you’re in the Croydon area, feel hungry and have £30 to spend on a tasty, but pretty swift, meal for one person including a few drinks. The food is worth four stars in itself and it’s the best burger within a mile or two.

Ready for the ‘but’? Meat Liquor (like the aforementioned Hawksmoor) is not just a burger restaurant. It’s now a brand, undergoing an (international) expansion programme. Maybe it’s because I’m a communications adviser by day (and night) but I feel that this should be taken into account when considering the overall experience there. It’s not a quirky independent joint anymore (which it really was at the start), but a business that has honed itself to appeal to a certain audience, which is one that I’m not sure I’m part of.

I was interested to read the comments of its creative brand agency Tinder & Sparks: ‘Meat Liquor doesn’t have Brand Guidelines. We like Meat Liquor. The guiding principle can be summed up in one of their many briefs to us: “Can you make this look cool?”’.

If you’ve read this blog, you’ll know that I’m not cool and have no wish to be so. I’m a thirty-seven year old who lives in Sutton and is the father of two young kids, happily married and geekily obsessive about a small number of things. This is probably not ‘cool’, or perhaps not the cool envisaged by T&S, which has created a brand designed to drive enhanced and long lasting income streams for their client from a young and affluent consumer group. They want you to feel like part of the club. Like this is your sort of place. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s not mine; at least, not anymore.

This is at the heart of my issue with Meat Liquor in Croydon. I like the way that the burgers taste and the way that the buffalo chicken stings my mouth. I just don’t want to be in the environment enough to get to it. I can’t see it purely in a Croydon context as I don’t live in Croydon any more and am not going to simply pop in. Croydon is somewhere I visit for food that’s a combination of convenient for big groups of mates, something that I can’t get in Sutton or something I can’t be bothered to go into London for.

I know the MeatLiquor brand well enough so that for me it’s just another (small) chain that’s offering a quality product to an affluent audience on a repeat basis. Think Pizza Express in the 1980s before the big expansion. Sort of exclusive in look and feel, offering a premium product but in reality available to most with a bit of disposable cash.

The travel time there for me is twenty to thirty minutes door to door, and for me, it’s not worth it, especially as it’s not somewhere to linger, either due to the afore mentioned style, or because the chairs, stools and tables are clearly designed to fit the brand aesthetic, but not my slightly oversized arse.

On its value purely as a burger joint, for me it is hamstrung by its connection to Boxpark which is massively unfriendly for young children. Meat Liquor itself is very much an adult destination. I will therefore go to the two Purley burger restaurants instead whenever my family want a quality burger.

So in conclusion, the food alone gets four stars. The experience, however, wasn’t for me.

Transforming the PR industry through upgrading our reputation and demonstrating an understanding of value

This blog started as a BTL response to Mike Love’s blog posted on Linkedin. Mike is a senior communications advisor with remarkable experience and a very good way with words. We come from different places politically and adjacent spaces professionally, but I’m always interested in his thoughts, especially as they’re usually communicated with humour and intelligence. Suggest you click on this links before you read the rest of this post. https://oldbeansblog.com/2016/12/15/trust-me-im-in-pr/

Right, you’re back. I’m sure none of you are surprised that I pretty much agree with Mike’s core arguments about the value of communications, how we win and earn trust and that we need to demonstrate our relevance to the core balance sheet / share price correlation to be considered genuinely strategic partners to management. It’s too easy to be labelled as either sales marketing / support or “fluffy”; for which the Germans have no word apparently; either of which suggests the function should be managed significantly below Board / leadership level.

The bit that really caught me was less in the piece itself, but was in the linkedin note that encouraged me to click in the first place: “Nobody cares what PR is called, how many events and seminars it has, or whether it is a “profession” or not. What they care about is whether it can do anything for them and their businesses. Trust is something earned by delivering business benefit – Show me the money!”

I might be wrong, but this feels like a dig at the fairly high profile constituency of senior PR professionals that is extremely keen on the upgrading of PR, especially when compared to other industries; such as the law, banking etc.

As some of you might know, one of my major hobby horses as regards the PR industry is its lack of diversity. We are an extremely white middle class industry, due in part because graduate salaries are so low as to need a certain amount of parental support, especially in London. In an ideal world, we’d be able to persuade a 22 year old from to choose Bell Pottinger over Goldman Sachs. To do this, we need to fundamentally change the perception of PR as an industry and the value of the service it provides. For the industry to have a future, we have to be able to persuade the best and brightest 22 year olds to consider communications as an equal to finance and law.

The reason we have to change this perception is somewhat financial. The perceived value of law / corporate finance etc means they can charge higher fees. Whilst Senior PR people earn well into 6 figures, getting them close to corporate financier / legal eagle levels; at the graduate level there’s a massive disparity of up to £50k. An ex colleague Stephen Waddington had it exactly right where he tweeted recently “enhance perception of value, enhance fees, pay staff more”.

So how do we do this?

Mike has the core argument set perfectly. PR can and should be seen as a strategic management function, just as much as law or corporate finance. What we need to do is harness this strategic understanding and vision, remove the cynicism which is hardwired into Mike’s political soul and then combine with the modernising and proselytising zeal of the Stephen Waddington type communications industry advocate.

If we can effectively demonstrate the balance sheet value of strategic communication, the PR Industry will be more highly valued by those that “buy” it than is currently the case. Then we can reshape the industry to something more equitable.

Oh look, a unicorn!

Imagine Brand Was Worthless….

This is going to be a fairly brief blog that might turn into something longer that involves proper research depending on feedback from peers and (ex)colleagues.

3 months after leaving agency for a new role in house, I’ve had a few offers of support from my communications advisors. I’m always happy to meet and chat, although as I’ve told everyone, I’m not looking for external support at the moment. My initial role as an inaugural Head of Comms is to properly define the value proposition of communications to my new employer. They’ve shelled out on me and the associated costs of hiring, I’m not in a position to justify further investment at the moment.

Anyway, a few people I’ve met commented something along the lines of “if I had any spare budget that had to be used by the end of the year, they’d be happy to take it off my hands”

I know it was a joke, sort of, but that line has combined with some long standing misgivings about our industry and associated trades (marketing / advertising etc) and has led to the title of this blog.

I wonder how much communications / PR / marketing / advertising work carried out in London has virtually no value – or at least nowhere near the value of the services that are actually paid for?

Take a fundamentally commoditised product sold wholesale to cost conscious clients. There is no difference between this product and that sold by rivals. They both create the same outcome. Often they are created in the same place and traded multiple times. They are entirely interchangeable. Let’s say this product might be quite close to my heart and professional experience.

Does brand really matter in this case? Is there truly a justifiable benefit for the $millions spent on any number of communications services designed to help drive sales of this and many similar products?

I’m honestly unsure of the answer. I have deep respect for senior ex colleagues & peers who have had very successful careers doing exactly this sort of work. I also respect a number of the companies that have committed both philosophically and financially to this approach. Obviously it gets more complicated if one is dealing with a consumer product, however I still have this little nagging voice at the back of my mind.

This isn’t about agency or in house. It’s not about big or small agencies. I’ve now worked for a small agency, one of the world’s largest and I’ve just gone in house. It’s about communications as an industry and whether we can be accused of maintaining a loop of self justification for what can be extremely expensive products that have limited discernible benefit?

Of course evaluation methodology is improving but equally this could be included in the self justification argument; as to be truly objective, we should consider what the commercial outcome would be without a communications solution, or at least a more limited baseline. Think about that for a second. Would products still be sold if our work didn’t exist? AMEC’s “Barcelona Principles” are a strong step in the right direction here, but I’m not sure they answer that nagging question in the back of my mind.

This isn’t a Jerry Maguire moment. I’ve seen people fall out of love with PR and say, “It’s all a load of BS; I don’t believe in what I’m doing and certainly don’t believe what my clients are selling” – this isn’t the case for me. I love working in the communications industry and I’m committed to doing the best job possible for myself, my employer, and more so now than earlier in my career, for the wider industry.

I would however welcome thoughts and feedback from peers or all levels, as this is the sort of thing we need to work together on. We’re naïve if we don’t recognise that communications can have a negative perception with those outside the industry – some of whom we need to persuade to sign off on budgets and / or hire us.

All thoughts welcome, thanks in advance

Restaurant review: Bianco 43

This article first appeared in the Croydon Citizen: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/restaurant-review-bianco-43/

I lived in Croydon for over a decade and during that time, Mirch Masala on South End was a firm favourite. Great spicy grills in a no frills environment and BYO booze policy meant that I was there a lot, lateish back from the city, grabbing a quick, cheap, excellent dinner.

However, I moved back to Sutton, and Mirch Masala coincidentally moved down to Coulsdon at about the same time, leaving the restaurant vacant. Until, that is, a small chain of traditional trattoria, based around classic Italian cuisine and a wood fired oven, moved in. Croydonians should sing an Ave Maria in thanks: this is a seriously good restaurant, masquerading as a proto-chain of the Zizzi/Pizza Express format in something of a warehouse/barn type building.

Let’s start at the start. A short list of appetisers includes wonderful buttery green olives that I’d guess were something like nocellara. Better than anything that you’d get at a chain. They also have a short classically Italian cocktail list that included a very well made negroni. This made for an epic start that in Soho would have cost £20. At Bianco it was £10. As a brief aside, the negroni was very good, but where else in Croydon could you find a well-made one? Answers in the comments below would be appreciated.

For the same price as either Zizzi/Pizza Express, Bianco is a significant step up
Our party ranged widely across the menu and everything was fantastic. There was a delicate hand with the deep fryer for bone dry crispy courgette and calamari. A deep, rich, gooey melanze parmigiana was great comfort food, skilfully put together, with a confident hand on the seasoning of a brilliant tomato sauce. A selection of cured meat and a tomato/mozzarella salad showed the team source very high quality ingredients and have the guts to let them sing for themselves, adding context with lovely grassy olive oil and aged balsamic.

The mains kept up the quality. The wood-fired pizza adds heft to outstanding Neapolitan-style pizzas. A bit of char on the crust to combine with a lovely sweet tomato base and some great traditional toppings. My diavola was properly spicy but it also had real depth of flavour. The best pizza in the Cronx by a long way. For the same price as either Zizzi/Pizza Express, Bianco is a significant step up.

My wife said that her very generous portion of spicy sausage and mushroom pasta was great. Again, nowhere to hide with this. A deep rich sauce with fiery sausage and herbs. Could have been dull. At some well-known chains, or local trattoria, it would have been professionally bland. Here, it wasn’t.

Everyone else raved about their steak, chicken Milanese and lasagne. Six old mates – who due to careers, moving away and kids, don’t see as much of each other as we would like – spent less time talking than would have been expected, due to the quality of the food.
Desserts weren’t really investigated as we decided to give the all-Italian wine list some serious attention.

I’ve seen some TripAdvisor reviews suggest that the wine is expensive. I fundamentally disagree. Of course you can get a cheaper glass/bottle in a Wetherspoons (more on that later) but I actually thought that for the quality on offer, the wine was keenly priced. The Montepulciano was a great accompaniment to both meat and pizza; a classic spicy, savoury red.

Proper Italian dark roast espresso and a grappa provided a traditional end to a great meal. We walked out into the night very well fed and watered, all of us of like mind. This is a great Italian restaurant that might be part of a chain, but had the charm and quality of a neighbourhood favourite.

The variety on offer was reflected by the diverse range of parties dining in the restaurant
Bianco offers its customers either a cheap dinner out or something rather more special. You could pop in for a pizza and a beer and be out for less than £20. That will keep them in business on wet Wednesday evenings. Or you could range across the menu, drink a lot and spend twice that per head on a special occasion. This was in evidence with the range of parties in the restaurant. It was pretty diverse. Romantic couples; young and old; a few big tables. Lots of different accents. The place was rammed and I hope that they continue to be as successful.

A short postscript to this review is to note that the restaurant is next door to the Skylark. We met in there and then went back after the meal. It is a great example of how when a ‘Spoons is good, they can be very good indeed. Polite, engaged, efficient staff serve a great range of beer at an unbeatable price, served in a simple, comfortable pub. As is traditional when I’m out in Croydon, I was able to drink locally. Cronx American pale ale was a technicolor dream of hops and tropical fruit. Just the thing to finish off another great night in Croydon.

How Clausewitz helped me think about poppies

There has been an awful lot written and said about the wearing of poppies. There has been a growing pressure in the popular media that poppies must be worn from mid October onwards.

I’ve seen this professionally, with fellow PR advisers understanding that our clients, even if foreign, must be seen wearing a poppy at this time of year, or they are likely to attract quite intense, personalised criticism.

What I’ve found particularly frustrating is that over the past few years the issue seems to have intensified into a binary choice. One is either a patriotic supporter of the U.K. Armed forces, or you’re a traitor. The voice of entitled moral indignation makes me grit my teeth. The certainty that they are right and anyone that disagrees is simply beyond the pale. Take the PM in the house today moaning about FIFA. I hate being told what to do, even if it’s something I might well do anyway.

I’m a big supporter of the British Armed forces, not least because I’ve compared them with other Sovereign operators such as Russia, France and the US. (Some people reading this might be aware of my fascination of military history, which lead to post graduate study of War Studies. I had a particular focus on the integration and interaction of intelligence and military capabilities in low intensity war zones, specifically Ulster & Chechnya). In general HM Forces intelligence, professionalism and commitment to operating within legal and moral guidelines does our country great credit, and has done for many years. I’m not saying I’m desperately keen for Aidan to become an infantryman, but in general I think the institution is a positive one.

Of course WW2, Bosnia the Falklands and Sierra Leone and other conflicts were entirely “just wars”. Of course WW1 was a national tragedy, if not one as morally simple as WW2. These are the conflicts we are meant to remember with poppies and pride. These are the conflicts my family fought in, and were effected by.

Ready for the “however”? The British Army, Royal Navy and RAF have not always been used for pure, certain, moral purposes. Geopolitical decision making in briefing rooms in London can lead to exceptionally nasty reality on the ground. Whether it was the colonial operations of the early to mid 20th century to secret wars in the Middle East for nasty allies; from decades of questionable operations in Ireland by a small minority of the U.K. servicemen actually engaged, to Iraq; UK armed forces are both prone to occasional moral failure and are the tip of the spear, executors of government policy that may in hindsight have been regretted.

This leads me to my final points. The poppy is designed to commemorate all UK combat casualties since 1914. There are therefore two lines thrown around a lot that I just don’t buy.

1- “they fought and died so you’re free to moan”

P2- “poppies are not a political symbol”

Both to me feel incorrect if you’re referring to a combat casualties in conflicts that are Clausewitzian in that soldiers are in harm’s way due purely to British geopolitical interest, particularly if we are referring to professional soldiers and not national servicemen. Often these men are not “defending” us in any meaningful way. They are hard, methodical professionals executing government policy. Saying the poppy is apolitical feels somewhat naive. Forget arguments about how the Irish / Germans / Kenyans / insert your choice here, feel. These men often died due to simple Clausewitzian logic. If war is the continuation of policy by other means, the wearing of a poppy can be seen as a political act.

So my conclusion? Wear a poppy if you want. Be proud of our outstanding armed forces. Give a lot of money to the Legion and Crisis because a horrible % of homeless are ex forces and need help. We should ask why we have to give to a charity, as surely the government should be taking better care of men it has held too close to the fire? At the same time there are plenty of reasons why one might not want to publicly celebrate the memory of wars which were far from self defence or glorious. Those people should not be made to feel as traitors.

As it happens I’ve given regularly to the appeal this year, as I do every year and I wish all UK servicemen well. I don’t necessarily wear a poppy as I lose them all the time. I don’t feel I have to have to wear one on every day up to 11 November. With the slashed budget and capacity stretched to breaking point and some kit not fit for purpose, HM Forces need a lot of luck.

So, Dail Mail Dacre and team, who’s the real traitor, someone who doesn’t buy a poppy, or a government that won’t properly equip troops but send them into combat of questionable legality against enemies who don’t follow Geneva or Hague conventions, and then not support them when they come home and return to civilian life?

Axel Foley RIP & why I love Munster Rugby

Anthony “Axel” Foley died today aged just 42. He was an excellent rugby player, good enough to play 60 odd times for Ireland in the back row. In a year of celebrity deaths, this is one that’s left me genuinely miserable.

As some of you know, I’m a Munster fan. Which might seem strange. I’m a British bloke from south London. Yes, my maternal grandparents are from Kerry, but my sporting identity was basically English. Spurs, Surrey CCC, England cricket / rugby / football. When I was a boy I followed the Wasps team of Rob Andrew, Nick Popplewell & Dean Ryan. I liked their combination of being from London, playing tough rugby and their slightly earthy reputation. Basically, they weren’t Harlequins. I love rugby, but I’ve never been one of the Barbour brigade.

Wasps and the rest of rugby changed in 1995 and I was looking for a new team. It took a few years but when I was at university I watched a game that changed my life. Munster were playing Toulouse in the supposedly neutral venue of Bordeaux in a Heineken Cup match. Munster smashed the aristocrats of European rugby, with supposedly slow hooker Keith Wood doing international winger Emile Ntamck on the outside. I was giggling with excitement and I was hooked. A 16 year love affair that continues to this sad day.

Back then, Munster had a great story. They were proud outsiders, from the western edge of Europe, having surprising success against better funded French and English teams from richer, more glamorous parts of the world. What appeared to set them apart from their better heeled opponents was a heady mixture. There was the absolute embrace of their outsider status; a sense of community and pride in where they came from; an old fashioned embrace of the dark arts; an understanding you could win by being brutally direct. There’s nothing wrong with 10 man rugby if it’s always wet and windy, which it is all the time on the SW coast of Ireland.

It was this proud outsider trope, a refusal to bend the knee that hooked me in, combined with the fact that they were a very good team, and I had a personal connection in that the Connell and Higgins families that I’m related to are from Kerry, one of the counties of Munster. By discovering Munster rugby, I found something new in myself; a more sophisticated and sympathetic understanding and appreciation of my Irish heritage and history. I found something that willingly drew me into an Irish community where it was my choice to engage and learn as much or as little as I wanted to. I’ll stop now before I disappear up my own behind.

The story of Munster grew with the telling. Near misses at semi final and final stage added to the folklore. What became a highly professional elite sport organisation was somewhat romanticised by rugby media that saw value in promoting the “hard men from the edge of Europe with fanatical fans” narrative. Unlike the other three provinces, Munster had a flash Adidas kit, with Toyota as lead sponsor. We weren’t quite the poor relatives we liked to portray. The underdog tag was psychologically useful, if not quite accurate or objective anymore.

At the heart of the story however, there was a kernel of truth. Men like Axel Foley believed that Munster was different because they were representing something bigger than a sports club. Mick Galwey may have started it, but Foley took on the idea that Munster Rugby was a representative of a community on a global stage. They were playing for the honour of their home, each other and the wider community; which is why they played so hard and well. Foreigners that came in had to buy into this philosophy. We had a few great ones; Jim Williams, Dougie Howlett and others understood, and improved the team. They and their followers were on a journey. We were a true community, with triumphs celebrated vigorously and the rare losses mourned.

The narrative and feeling grew richer with time. A series of nearly moments made me wonder if we’d ever win the big one. The most exciting, highest quality rugby match I’ve ever seen was a loss. Wasps just beating us on a bright sunny day in a semi final that was better than any international I’ve seen. Poor old Strings got battered over the line in injury time in a one on one with a Polynesian prop. Incredible drama kept the story moving on time and time again. Also, Strings would get his redemption.

Axel Foley was the totem of the great Munster team I fell in love with. He took the journey from not good enough, to contenders that couldn’t quite make it. Then the next step. He took over as captain and we reached our Everest. Munster beat Biarritz in Cardiff on a desperately tense game where we deserved to win, but only just did do due to a mixture of what we’re even then Munster clichés. The 5 meter scrum where a smart TV producer showed live pictures of O’Connell Street in Limerick watching the match. The 60 odd thousand Munster fans in the crowd roared. The pack heard the roar, saw the screen and reacted. Or so the story goes. I was there but can’t confirm it did happen like that due to excessive consumption. I hope it did though.

That story wouldn’t be viable if it wasn’t for men like Axel. Deeply rooted in Munster rugby he was a second generation Munster player who embodied the history, passion and community, combined with ferocious sporting excellence that made Munster the team it was, and that made the story of Munster at least mostly believable. I have to admit, he wasn’t my favourite player. As a scrum half I loved Strings’s pass, I thought David Wallace was a quality flanker, Hendo was a great bosh merchant who with the Lions had shown he was far more and Quinnie & Leamy were very good players with a bit of edge. But Axel was the core.

He was the physical representation of what was an amusing irony. For a team that played brutally direct, effective rugby, Munster was about something romantic. The connection between the team, and a wider community that they represented seemed almost magical. For the first time in my life I understood the passion of the truly committed sports fan, and for us it was better because men like Axel seemed to buy into a narrative that we were all part of. Normally in sport there’s lip service to the fans, but for that Munster side, they seemed to share the belief that they played for us.

This experience has made my life so much richer, and it’s why I cried today watching this http://youtu.be/cPjso4MH8ic
RIP Axel