Seven weeks in New Zealand generated a lifetime of memories for photojournalist Ken Skehan and his wife Val, who joined the thousands of British and Irish fans cheering the Lions to a drawn series last summer.
Skehan has produced a record of the tour through the eyes of those supporters and, with nearly 600 photos and 79,000 words, he has done a fine job in reflecting the scale and fervour of the Lions invasion.
“People were extraordinarily generous with their time and their stories,” says Skehan, who lives in the Wiltshire village of Ashton Keynes.
Along the way he meets people who took early retirement to go on tour or who had saved up for 25 years; families on world trips where children had been taken out of school for a year; couples on delayed honeymoons; a farmer who had to buy a horse for his wife to get permission to go; a Kiwi fan who knitted a 7ft scarf in the colours of all the teams; and a guy who shaved his head after dreaming it would ensure victory in the Lions’ next match.
Many of the hordes wear bonkers outfits and spend cash like there’s no tomorrow, and the New Zealand people seem to adore them for it. In fact, it’s difficult to conceive of a bigger love-in in sport, with numerous examples of Kiwis offering hospitality way beyond the conventional boundaries.
Nearly 2,000 Kiwis offered to ‘adopt a Lions fan’ via a Facebook page created by West Coast resident Adam Gilshnan, who was annoyed by reports of hoteliers and B&B owners hiking up prices.
Skehan and his wife saved considerably by using a home-exchange site and the book serves almost as a self-help travel guide as the author charts the successes and failures of his actions.
Among the problems he encounters, none appears bigger than missing the accreditation deadline, which meant any photos in the book taken inside the grounds appear courtesy of fans. Ironically, however, had he been accredited then none of his pictures would have been useable anyway because of commercial rights.
He promoted his book on a tabard that he wore everywhere, and also handed out flyers, but in promoting Hertz – in exchange for discounted car hire – he fell foul of the rules on ‘clean zones’ around the stadia and was sometimes asked to move on.
Other snags for the intrepid Ken included IT faults, camera damage, incorrect plane tickets, monsoon-like rain, a petrol crisis in Queenstown and even Val suffering from cystitis, but the lows don’t come close to matching the highs of being part of such an adventure.
Among well-known faces he bumps into are Shane Williams and Phil Vickery but pride of place is his chance encounter with Trudi Gatland in Dunedin, which helps secure him a sit-down interview with hubby Warren later in the tour.
If the unquenchable enthusiasm of the fans is the book’s central theme, a side issue is disgruntlement expressed by many fans at the profiteering of the Lions’ commercial operation – although the excellent quality of the travel packages was acknowledged by most.
Official Lions packages brought the peace of mind of guaranteed match tickets, but Skehan reports how John Tidy and his wife Lizzie were able to buy tickets for the first Test at Eden Park the day before the match – simply by going to the ticket office at the ground. They bought tickets for the third Test at the same time.
Were they just lucky? Certainly those who became members of Auckland Blues in advance, getting preferential ticket rights and thus being able to book accommodation and flights with certainty long before the tour, can congratulate themselves for their foresight.
If you went on last year’s Lions tour and spoke to the highly visible Ken Skehan, chances are you will know already whether you’re likely to be in this book.
Even if you’re not one of the 600 or so fans featured, it’s a pleasing and unique record of the Lions tour experience.
Focus on the Fans: Lions Tour 2017 is a hardback that costs £24, plus £5.95 per copy for first-class P&P. You can buy it here and for every copy ordered, Skehan will donate £8 to charity – a magnificent gesture. You can even nominate your favourite major club’s charity to receive your £8 if you wish.
He has also kindly provided us with six copies to give away in a competition. For a chance to win one, answer the question below and fill in your details. The competition closes on Monday 5 March.
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