We should kick this off with reference to the Battle of Hastings really. Too obvious an opportunity to pass by. Of course a pedant will point out that unlike today’s event – the home debut of the Bourne Bombshells roller derby team against Croydon’s B-team Vice Squad – the events of 1066 took place not in Hastings but in Battle. (How handy a decision was that, incidentally; both armies could just follow the road signs to find the right location.) But we don’t listen to pedants, so expect us to make parallels between the visiting South Londoners and the Norman invaders. We’ll no doubt compare Bombshells captain Toxic Block Syndrome’s repeat visits to the penalty box to an arrow in King Harold’s eye. Heck, instead of words we might just deliver the whole bout report as pictures stitched onto tapestry, Bayeux stylee.
Before that, though, the venue. We can’t put into words how excited we were when Toxic told us the Bombshells would be taking on Croydon B in Somerfields. We’ve never seen roller derby in a supermarket before, and the possibilities seemed limitless. Ten skaters bombing around the aisles, blockers building towers of cereal boxes to try and halt the rival jammer’s advance, penalised players riding in shopping trolleys to a penalty box located behind the deli counter, nibbling on slices of prosciutto while they wait for their 60 seconds to run down. It all sounded brilliant. Then we remembered that Somerfield rebranded as Co-op a couple of years back, and learn that the bout’s actually in Summerfields, a leisure centre. Gadnammit.
The Eastbourne league get off to a good start. Things are kept fairly clean, with the penalty box completely (or at least relatively) empty across the first few jams, as a procession of Bombshells jammers – Toxic, Bomber, Shortcake – take lead, hustle their way past three or four opponents and call it. The fifth jam sees something of a turning point. Eastbourne have two blockers in the box and three on track for the start of the jam. Boxed pivot PhilosoFear is shouting at the pack to take a blocker off, but she’s too far away to be understood and the jam starts amidst some confusion. We learn at the after party that possibly one of the players in the penalty box hadn’t been sent off. Either way, Croydon have started clawing back at the deficit and sit on the soft side of a 17-10 scoreline as the jam ends.
Next up in the star for Vice Squad is Agent Cooper. This may be the first time this B-team have bouted as a unit, but by no means is it a public bouting debut for the individuals in this tough Croydon side. Take the case of Cooper, who seems to have popped up on track in mixed openers at pretty much every derby event we’ve been to over the past few months; and not just in the South East, try farmyards in Leicestershire and beyond. With a blend of well scrim-fed rookies and A team crossovers, this South London side has eaten up more track miles that almost all of the Sussex contingent, and that experience may well tell. A series of ninja-fast power jam passes from Cooper turns the scoreline around. Croydon now lead 24-17 and that gap is destined to grow bigger.
Today’s theme, Oh My Quad, is 90s (or more specifically, the movie Clueless) inspired. Announcers Smashlyn Monroe – fresh from a marathon announcathon at last weekend’s 105 contest Sur5al event in Windsor – and Rolling Thunder, who skated in said co-ed tournament, are suitably bedecked in 90s gear. Thunder, who coaches the Croydon A team, has opted to wear skates for announcing. Whilst this proves useful when he takes to the centre of the track to supervise a pre-bout roller derby demonstration, the rest of the time it just seems to be showing off (but there’s nowt wrong with that). This may be the Bombshells’ first home bout, but they’ve nailed it all organisationally, and the scoreboard’s pre-bout display of profile shots and skater names puts even the biggest derby leagues to shame.
A blistering power jam performance in Jam 13 from Hell Block H, who is up against a full Croydon pack with only two Bombshell blockers in support, closes the deficit to 50-76, the kind of gap that a single power jam could bridge. Unfortunately Eastbourne’s skaters, already no strangers to the penalty seating, end up playing musical chairs over the next few jams, starting most of them without a jammer on track. The Bombshells are still tethered to 50 points as Vice Squad up their numbers to 130. Toxic clocks a few passes in the final jam of the period, before a penalty calls switches the PJ in Croydon’s favour. The Londoners take a 136-64 lead into the half-time break.
We lurk by the door for the last few seconds of the first half so we can make it to the bar ahead of everyone else. Unfortunately we’ve also made it ahead of any serving staff. A young Bombshells fan actually skated up the stairs (Daleks have got nothing on her) to make it in second place. As a long queue builds up, we notice wiped tables and piled up chairs which suggest they’ve actually closed the cafe. Are they mad? Have they never hosted a public roller derby bout before? Oh, that’s they right, they haven’t. Five minutes elapses before someone realises they’d better reopen it. Quite right, before there’s a riot. We have Croydon in the house, and they burnt down their own town – what do you think they’ll do to the cafe of a seaside leisure centre named after a defunct supermarket chain? Meanwhile, in the hall, Smashlyn is warning raffle winners not to take the handbag as she wants it; an unnecessary cautioning it turns out, since the first winning number she calls out is her own.
As the second half gets underway, it’s time to reflect on the difference between these two sides. There isn’t much of one, to be honest, the Bombshells are playing well. It’s the penalties that are costing them though, and very few times in the second period will they start a jam with a full five on track. Croydon meanwhile are dispensing some very physical blocking, but for the most part keeping it clean, or at least cleaner. Of particular note in the Vice Squad pack are Polly Filla, Bertie Bee Stings and Inara Terra; all three making things tortuously difficult for the Eastbourne jammers. Midway through the second period, with Croydon leading 186-94, Dreaded Shortcake finds herself held behind a one-woman Inara wall, barely able to push forward a couple of inches, let alone pass. As the seconds tick down, and Agent Cooper adds another 18 to Croydon’s total, Shortcake passes the jammer panty to Hell Block H, but in all honesty it needs a star pass to Commando-era Arnold Schwarzenegger to get past the wall of Terra.
Bombshells bench coach Sassy McAwesome and line-up manager All Seeing Ivy are mixing things up as best they can, trying to draw blood from the stone solid Vice Squad pack in the later stages. That regular sea of purple in the penalty box is hampering things, though. Toxic, Eastbourne’s head coach and most experienced player, is popping up all over the track (in true triple threat style) when not making one of her five trips to the box. She’s giving it everything, and tips the Bombshells into triple figures as she ekes out six points in Jam 13 of the second period. The PhilosoFear takes on the pivoting duties in many jams, and controls the pack pace well, but the likes of Dot Cottonmouth, Psycho Sis and Turbo Chick are seeking out the openings as Croydon sneak another single pass four onto the scoreboard in most second period jams.
One of the standout blocking performances for the Bombshells comes in Jam 16. Toxic is through as lead and AmNasty has Croydon jammer Angel DDelight glued to her back. As feisty as this blocking is, the Vice Squad pack are keeping it tight too, and Toxic isn’t able to take advantage. The next jam sees the impressively swift-footed Bullet Bomber (who played alongside Toxic in last week’s Sur5al) unluckily sent off for a track cut, with Turbo Chick taking advantage of the PJ to stretch Croydon’s lead to 256-111. The South Londoners’ fans whoop and holler. There’s just the right size of crowd here for the amount of seating, and it’s pretty much a 50-50 split between Bombshells and Vice Squad fans. The Croydon crowd includes a large portion of their A team roster – Gin Atomic, Sookie Smackhouse, et al – whilst the nosiest enclave of Eastbourne fans are clustered around Surrey Rollerboy Richard Smashcroft (another Sur5alist) near the jammer line, a Budweiser-powered maelstrom of encouraging shouts and tactical advice directed at the Bombshells skaters.
The final stages of the bout are less penalty heavy, and as a result the Sussex league are holding their own more. Taking the final three jams in isolation, the Bombshells rack up nine points to Croydon’s five. Pivoting Toxic holds back the impressive Psycho Sis well in the penultimate jam, forcing the Vice Squad jammer to call it with only four points posted. Bomber and Hell Block win the other two jams, with classic ‘single pass and call it before the opponent hits the pack’ tactics that hint at what kind of a fight Eastbourne might have been able to put up with a quieter penalty box. The final score is 265-124 to the steely South London outfit. Hell Block picks up Best Blocker, Bullet takes Best Jammer and Toxic is awarded MVP for Eastbourne, with Angel DD, Psycho Sis and Inara Terra claiming the certificates (impressively 90s style, with accompanying bling-tastic medallions) for Vice Squad. There isn’t an award for Best Turned Out – the title a Bombshells-led side won at last week’s Sur5al – so we’ll award one ourselves, and it goes to Smash’er Fierce for her awesome gold leopard skin facepaint; er, at least we assume it’s facepaint, please ignore this sentence if it’s actually some sort of skin condition. Reuben Crash wins Best Baby Blanket.
We race ahead of everyone else to the after party venue, which is perfect for this event. A sleazy rock dive, pool table, garden, death metal band tuning up in the corner, tattoo-style graffiti and a Jägermeister machine. Proper ‘wipe your feet on the way out’ place, unlike the bemused gastro pubs some derby leagues end up after partying in. Croydon are first to arrive, as is usual for an away team (the homies will be breaking down the hall), a blur of rolling suitcases and snatches of conversation. “It was so hot I had to change my bra.” Bombshell clusters land in the venue, a crowd of NSOs here, a Bomb S’Quad merby posse there, as the garden fills up. The general consensus is that the home team played well, and but for all the penalties it could have been a much closer game. Indeed. In many ways, you have to learn to lose before you can learn to win. The Bombshells will be back, stronger and hungrier, a few mixed up closed doors’ more experienced, in November. We head back to the station, pausing only to grab a couple of cans of JD & Coke from Sainsbury Local. We can’t help visually measuring the interior (enough space for a full size track or three quarters?) and tapping our foot on the floor. 89a duro wheels, or maybe 86a for better grip on the apex around the Doritos display? Roller derby in supermarkets – it’s the way of the future. Believe.
[Photographs by John Hesse]