Our bit of sky
It’s not easy being a Welsh football fan. Aside from the usual non-football ‘banter’ received from the other inhabitants with whom we share these islands (such as ‘Taffy’ and ‘sheepsh*gger), the Welsh football fan must also grow thicker skin than other international fans to endure the constant bombardment of “you’re sh*t” as well as the fact that in the 1958 World Cup we were invited to compete – we didn’t qualify. The latter is a fact many of us try to keep to ourselves. We moan amongst ourselves that England cling to their past of a home World Cup victory in ’66 – last time I checked the ’58 World Cup was 8 years previous.
Despite the banter, it was hard for a child growing up to be a fan of team who, as a rule, didn’t do too well. Children want success. Failure turns kids away. And even though I lived at least 11 miles on the correct side of the border shared with our English neighbours, growing up in the early ’90s I’d see far more England shirts worn by youngsters than the red of Wales. Kids want success – something their own country struggled to offer. 1996 saw a passion for English football which, unfortunately, turned the heads of many Welsh kids in border lands to the three lions. Despite the sea of white on the backs of Welsh-born friends, I never even considered doing the same. As bright a white as they wore, it was always the dark side to me – even though my mother is English-born herself. Well, not everyone’s perfect, are they?
Footballing pain was something I just endured. I will always remember something my uncle told me;
“These are the cards we’ve been dealt, Ste. We’ve got to play them.”
In that simple quotation I felt so much. In the first instance it instills confidence, passion and optimism. Look a bit deeper and the epitome of being Welsh peers through – we’re sh*t, but we stand by them. I seem to remember him laying that quotation on me and as soon as he noticed I too had realised the downside of it, he said this;
“It’s our bit of sky.”
As much as his only footballing love at club level these days, like myself, is Wrecsam, in the ’90s he was a season ticket holder at Manchester United. To hear someone so used to success tell me to hold on to my nation was enough to ensure I kept on supporting the boys – despite the sadness.
I think football enhanced my passion for my country. Supporting the underdog is what I always do, but it’s a different feeling when the underdog is your own team. As a Wrecsam, Celtic and Liverpool fan growing up, Wales seemed to be the only team I followed who were actually underdogs. I was never used to seeing a team constantly humiliated and battered. As much as you come to expect it, it hurt…. but it never looked like changing.
Being born in 1989 is something of a blessing-in-disguise for the football fan in me. I wasn’t even thought of when Joe Jordan fancied taking a leaf out of Diego Maradona’s book and I was four-and-a-half when Bodin rattled the bar. I weirdly remember my 4th birthday where my dad brought in the cake as my friends and I leaped up and dug our hands into the creamy, hundreds-and-thousands-filled, sugary sides. The cake looked like a mushroom when we’d finished. Thankfully that’s the only memory I have of that year.
Throughout the ’90s into the early 2000s my dad and uncle would take me to watch my country whenever they graced the hallowed turf of the Cae Ras or even Anfield – my dad, being a Liverpool season ticket holder, loved seeing his country in that famous old stadium.
I have conscious memories of losing to Switzerland at the Cae Ras and losing to Italy and Denmark at Anfield. All 2-0.
I’ve seen Canada, New Zealand, Liechtenstein and many more up here but Cardiff was too far to travel for a Wales game when I was still to reach my teens. I remember the 1-0 win against Canada and the roar when Wrecsam’s own Chrissy Llewellyn took to the field. A solitary Canadian fan sat in front of me waving her mini flag – it didn’t stop Paul Parry’s header grab the Welsh win.
Up here in Flintshire we’re probably closer to Ireland’s capital city than we are to our own and travelling to Cardiff meant at least a 4 hour drive through A and even B roads (as well as half an hour in England!). Still the case today, this fact means that Welsh games are much harder to reach than for those inhabiting the M4 and surrounding areas.
If you loved Wales, you’d go
No one can deny the North-South divide in Wales. This imaginary line separating our nation is only something felt within our lands but it definitely exists. Over the border, everyone thinks we’re all from the valleys, we all speak like Nessa from Gavin and Stacey, we all know Tom Jones and we all live 20 minutes from Cardiff. Amongst ourselves, the gogs are backwards and the hwntws get all the funding for new stuff. Simple as.
I know many Cardiff, Swansea and Newport followers who bemoan the minuscule amount of support gained from Wrecsam fans at international level. The aforementioned mission down to Cardiff for games (usually on a school / work night) was not realised by our Southern cousins. To them, we hardly showed up.
Maybe hearing this from people who never missed a Wales game spurred me on in other ways to support my nation. We never had the money (or time) to visit the Arms Park or the Millennium Stadium. As much as I was always gutted to not see Wales play at home, I knew away games were a definite no-go. Growing up on a council estate ensured you appreciated the times you did see your country play.
Square eyes from watching Wales
The 2000s for me ensured I fully deserved the title of an armchair Wales fan – but not out of choice was the fact that the only chance I got to see my nation play was on a tiny box. The bigger TV was downstairs and my mam is a football-hater from England – watching a Welsh game on the big telly downstairs had less chance of happening that platting fog. The TV I had was no bigger than an iPad but that old workhorse ensured I rarely missed my nation’s games – until Sky came along…. which we couldn’t afford.
Back in the ’90s, 3-1 and 7-1 successive defeats by the Dutch made me never want to watch football again at all, never mind simply on a TV. Neville Southall, a hero of mine, was destroyed in that second game. I felt for him more than anyone else. But I stood by my team and, as I mentioned earlier, got the chance to see Wales in person 3 times – we lost all 3.
Not even the fact my dad and uncle bought me a new Wales kit every birthday until I was in my mid-teens with my name and number [ie my age each time] could stop me from wondering “why do I even bother following us?” Dwindling crowd numbers down South proved I wasn’t the only one with these concerns. The Racecourse was full in that 2-0 defeat by the Swiss, however…. just saying!
Beating Italy in 2002 was incredible. It was the first time I’d ever really tasted a huge and significant win. I remember it taking Robert Earnshaw less than 13 seconds to sink the Germans – but that was a weakened German side in a friendly, and England had just hammered their first team 5-1. This had followed amazing friendly draws to Argentina and the Czechs but Italy was different. The Manics before the game, the closed roof, the fans. Oh how I’d have loved to have seen that in person. Prices and time meant I was again left with my TV. For days and weeks later I was on cloud nine as a fan. I don’t think I took my number 14 Kappa shirt off – not that I ever did anyway whilst growing up. I was slammed back down to earth when I watched the away leg on TV at my Taid’s [granddad’s] house. 4-0. Humiliated.
The next game of which I have significant memory of catching on TV was the Russia game at home. It was the closest I’d been to consciously witnessing my country come to qualify for anything. A draw out there meant we had an awesome opportunity.
Kick off, Hartson scuffed first chance of game, Gusev forced a corner from Barnard, Evseev smashed in Gusev’s free-kick, Giggs shot wide, Speed shot wide, game over, down, out.
After whispers of possible doping amongst the Russian team were denied repeatedly by UEFA, I was raw. In international football tournaments my general rule of thumb was ABE – anyone but England. In Euro 2004, it was definitely ABR. When they were knocked out it was back to the norm. I don’t think I’m over the Russian defeat yet, even now. Trust that we drew them for France!
I remember tuning in (and I mean literally tuning in by twisting a tiny piece of plastic as fast as I could while my right hand moved the coat-hanger ariel to search for a hint of anything that sounded like a football commentator’s voice) to see Earnshaw put 3 past the Scots which felt good. A 4-0 win was topped off by one Gareth Taylor – later of Wrecsam. Despite the huge pain I was learning to endure as a Wales fan, there was reason for optimism.
I was there
It was comedian and Welsh rugby fan, Max Boyce, who made famous the line ‘I was there.’ Passion is rife in Wales but to see sporting events is definitely the pinnacle. Everyone wants tickets – especially to the rugby. With the football teams losing to teams like Cyprus and the rugby team hammering the entire northern hemisphere of the planet, many people hopped back on the egg-shaped bandwagon – if only to scrape some reason to giggle at the English. A World Cup hosted in Wales, a new rugby arena and multiple grand slams throughout the mid 2000s up to the present day gave football no chance.
Coupled with the fact that rugby meant nothing to us in North East Wales and the fact that the shirts of the respective sports were a toss up between English / German feathers or a f*cking dragon, my allegiances stayed with the round shaped ball of leather. I was also a weakling so football suited me better.
I remember scraping past Northern Ireland after losing to Cyprus (clad in one of my favourite kits of all time – the John Charles tribute shirt by Kappa remains one of the only past kits I still wear to this day) and then being brushed aside twice by England. Unreal.
The day we lost to England I was walking around Mold on my own with my white Kappa shirt on (which thankfully had red sides otherwise it, for all intents and purposes, looked exactly like an England shirt). The Wales flag around my shoulders proved it definitely was not the shirt of our opponents. I was dressed as if I was going to the game. I wasn’t, of course. It was in Cardiff. As I was waiting for my dad to take me to Flint Mountain Golf Club to watch the game, so many cars beeped at the sight of my flag. It was good to know that my area still had passion for our national team. Either that or they were England fans beeping and swearing at the same time. I like to think it was mainly the former. We lost to England home and away that year.
When I started university I met loads of awesome people. I also met one, Amlyn Jones. The son of my primary school headteacher, he was as mad about Wales as I was. While the whole of Aberystwyth wore normal clothes, I was so glad to have someone else there who defied the conventional jeans and hoody combination and wore a football shirt every day – usually a Wales one. We watched many under 21 games up in the Racecourse (as well as a 3-2 defeat to England in Ninnian Park) and dropped our heads into our hands watching televised defeats to the likes of Finland much like we did during the 5-1 drumming at the hands of Slovakia – another of our rendez-vous friends.
It was Amlyn, however, who first opened my eyes to defying the odds and watching games in person. Yes, Aberystwyth was closer to Cardiff than Wrecsam, but for the first time in my life I had a student loan. Most people spent this on booze but thankfully I kept some back to visit the last few games we played in the Millennium Stadium. None were classics and the stands were more half empty than half full but it was awesome. I’d travelled to see my country. Resigned to the fact that this national team (founded in the North East) would never again play a competitive home game in its birth place, going to watch us in Cardiff proved I could do it.
Don’t get me wrong, I saw more games on TV than I saw in person. Brazil at White Hart Lane, a draw to Germany while the world watched England fall and a whole host of largely uninspiring friendlies.
Brought back down to earth by defeats to the Netherlands, Germany, Russia and even Georgia and Montenegro, I was glad my skin was sufficiently tough to withstand the pain. Not even a 3-0 win over Scotland could cheer me up.
I still donned my Wales football shirts as often as I could but following Wales was becoming about as satisfying on a sporting level as watching Tim Henman at Wimbledon. People supported Henman because he was English – not because he was any good. Wales was my Tim Henman. It was becoming more about showing people where I was from and that I was proud of it, rather than for any sporting reason.
This damning fact was epitomised in this now iconic quotation by the radio station TalkSPORT;
“Wales are now ranked below the Faroe Islands in 112th place in the latest FIFA rankings, meaning they’ll be in the bottom pot of seeds for this Saturday’s 2014 World Cup draw. With the GB Olympic football team debate still going strong, is it time for Wales to admit they will never qualify for a major tournament and pool resources with England and Scotland?”
At first glance by a Welshman this looks like just another case of English arrogance against the pesky natives of the islands but the sad thing is, they weren’t out of order to ask this.
In the start of 2010 up to September 2011, Wales played about 12 games and won 3 against Northern Ireland, Scotland and Luxembourg. And don’t think we had tough games. The other 9 were all defeats to Sweden, Croatia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Ireland and Australia. I now had the time, money and opportunity to see my nation play whenever I wished…. at a time when I wished I didn’t. But whether I was in the stadium or once again in front of a screen, I watched. I teared up at every anthem and fell silent each time we conceded.
Omitted from the above this were two fixtures against neighbours and Euro 2016 rivals, England. We would lose again to the old enemy in 2011 – a 2-0 defeat I’d witness in person after making it to Cardiff in my Ford Fiesta full of 4 Flintshire boys in just over 3 hours. In the return leg at Wembley, Earnshaw missed that sitter.
The prospect of a TeamGB Olympic football team worried me greatly. Coupled with no chance of qualification, a couple of young players showing promise and an England team just short of winning something, I feared for our status as an independent football nation. Both in sport and politics I’m of firm belief that I’d rather fail as Wales than succeed as Britain. Thankfully the FAW stood firm.
To see a fellow Flintshire boy take over as Wales manager was great. I mean it was awesome to see Mark Hughes there but he’s from Rhiwabon – Mancot is closer to me. And a fine job he did too. Some tough results to start (to which I’ve alluded above) but the cogs were churning and turning and moving. We changed our badge to show the new direction in which we were moving. We smashed Norway and it felt good. The future felt good.
Wales lost Speed in November 2011. The nation was in disbelief. Someone who had given the nation a ray of hope for the future, as well as being himself an incredible and professional servant for his country on and off the field of play, was gone. When the dust settled after many, many months and even years of mourning, we began to turn our attentions back to the football. We were left with a team of experienced players who had lost a friend and promising youth who had lost a leader.
After getting a teaching job in the Wrecsam area, I was back living in Flintshire myself. The distance and the job requirements meant live games were more difficult than ever to witness in person. Marking even made me close to missing most of the games I watched on TV. I watched them all but rarely did I see a goal live. With my head in exercise books I relied on replays to see our goals. But replays or not, Wales were scoring. Coleman’s task of getting the boys back on track was working.
I managed to get down to Cardiff to see the Gareth Bale show in October 2012. The blue stadium was literally half full of Scots. After travelling on an 8-hour round trip to see it, I genuinely felt like it was an away game. I watched the actual away game while waiting for Angharad on our first trip back to Aberystwyth since leaving the university there. We won that game by the same 2-1 scoreline. What a night.
Aside from getting one (or should I say, two?) over on our Celtic cousins, the campaign was benign once again. Losses to Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia meant I’d have to go back to ABE for the World Cup.
Thankfully, our group for the Euro 2016 looked alright – but I’d said that about groups throughout my time as a Welsh fan. My heart ran with the prospect of an enlarged number of teams able to qualify for the Euros but my head dragged me down to earth and kept my feet on the ground. A combination of which, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m now proud.
Belgium and Bosnia & Herzegovina had put us in our place in previous campaigns but, as always, the Welsh were ready to endure it again. Cyprus seemed an attractive tie but it wasn’t too long ago they’d beaten us. Israel seemed to be on the up and Andorra were always a potential banana skin – especially after moving their home games from Spanish grass to Andorran altitude and plastic. Out came my new Adidas Wales shirts – worn once again with more simple national pride than sporting confidence.
It must’ve been one of the first games I saw on SkyHD – the enhanced picture showing every tiny clump of black plastic fly up from the artificial Andorran grass. We truly did scrape through that game. It was going to be another one of those campaigns, wasn’t it?
We were expected to beat Cyprus and did. An insignificant scoreless draw to Džeko’s Bosnia, just back from their first World Cup in Brazil, seemed a good result but 7 from a potential 9 points given the fixtures was only a point more than we should have naturally expected, with all due respect. The only shred of confidence was that other results were going our way. I’d seen that happen in the past too.
Then we drew in Belgium.
In March 2015 I was in London ready to eventually see Wrecsam lose to North Ferriby in the FA Trophy final at Wembley – a trophy I’d seen us lift two years before. Sadly it was to be the second time I’d see Wrecsam lose at Wembley. The night before we all went out for some over-priced food. Amidst the food and chatter, I had my phone out rinsing my monthly 3G allowance to watch Wales away at Israel. In hindsight it would’ve been cheaper to pay the mad prices for the WiFi than to stream 90 minutes over 3G but you live, you learn. It was worth it to see us win 3-0. Top of the group with some of the hardest games done. I kept my feet on the ground.
Amlyn asked me if I fancied the Belgium game on the 12th June, 2015. Thankfully it was a Friday night but I still had to get to Cardiff from Wrecsam before the game. 3:30pm I was out of the school gates before the students. I arrived on time. The stadium was packed. I was right behind the goal in which…. well, I reckon that if you’re still reading this you’ve got a pretty good idea of what happened.
There’s a professional video from behind the goal showing Bale’s goal under the legs of Courtois – the goalkeeper of the 2nd best team on the planet. I’m pretty sure I can hear myself screaming on it! The spontaneous anthem with around 15 minutes to go was spine tingling and tear jerking.
After the game, Amlyn and I walked from the stadium to the centre of town. Whilst waiting for our lift, a Belgian man shook our hands and said ‘Bon chance en France.’ After getting over the realisation that we were close to qualification that had only just hit me (as well as the fact his French statement rhymed which was also cool!), I replied ‘We’ll see you there, mate.’
A few months after that game I visited Belgium with Angharad. Even if we hadn’t beaten them I’d have still worn my Wales shirt. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had quite so much of a grin on my face, though.
I witnessed Bale leaping like a salmon about the Cypriot defence in a pub in Mold. That place was bouncing. I went back for the game that could have seen us qualify but it was not to be as Israel had finally realised that they had the pedigree to do well against a sh*tty team like Wales. Despite the filthy Israeli tactics, the 0-0 draw meant we were 8th in the FIFA World Rankings, England were 9th, and we were a point away from qualifying.
What was happening?
I watched the Bosnia game sat on my floor in the living room of my home. Angharad thankfully didn’t have the same problem with football on the main TV as my mother did. Come to think of it, I think this game was the first one I’d ever witnessed on a big screen in my home village of Leeswood. Usually seeing Wales concede goals is fine because of my thick, Welsh skin but this time I truly didn’t care. Wales lost 2-0 but thanks to our friends in Cyprus beating Israel, Wales had done it. It was weird seeing the pictures of Coleman and the boys looking dejected in defeat while I watched from the floor knowing we’d done it. It felt like a soap opera. It felt like a dream.
There was no way I was missing the Andorra game and, thanks once again to Amlyn, I didn’t. I had joked before the game that I was gutted Cyprus had won – it would’ve been cool to see us qualify in person. But even though we eventually won the game 2-0, I wouldn’t have put it past us to somehow slip up and fail to qualify at the last hurdle…. again! Perhaps that’s where we’ve been going wrong for so long – we aren’t meant to qualify by ourselves, we’re supposed to wait for another team to secure it for us!
The Andorra game itself fell on a Tuesday…. a school night.
I left on the bell after having booked someone’s driveway on a website. I was sceptical but I had nothing else. I arrived in plenty of time in Cardiff – the 4km walk would do me some good. The drive was empty and no one was home. Not that I cared. I was so excited that I quickly parked on the drive jogged to the stadium and waited patiently for the gates to open. I was first in the queue. Awesome.
Then I received a phone call. I didn’t recognise the number but I knew it was a local Cardiff landline. The only person in Cardiff who has my mobile number is Amlyn’s girlfriend, Emily. It had to be her telling me that Amlyn was on his way.
I answered and the Cardiff voice said ‘Hiya, is that Stephen?’
In an attempt to confuse Emily, I replied ‘no.’
The voice sounded confused so I admitted it was me after all.
‘Oh, right, ok. Well it’s [insert whatever her name was here] from Cardiff. You’re parked on my drive for the game tonight?’
Sh*t! I apologised for my backfired prank and asked if there was a problem. She informed me that someone else had also booked her drive and I needed to move my car. Unbelievable.
I left my place at the front of the queue, and ran back. Was I now going to miss the Super Furry Animals or even the anthems? Running back I realised I’d taken a wrong turn. Already knackered I turned back and ran again. When I finally shifted my car I was informed that if I returned before the owners of the car in front, she would have their keys to let me out. Fair enough.
All in all I’d ran to the stadium, ran back to the wrong place, ran back to my car, ran back to the stadium, watched 90 minutes of a football game (and the Super Furries) and then ran back to the car for a quick getaway back to North Wales. All that running didn’t bode well for my long, night-drive home after a long working day.
Unfortunately, the owners of the car now parked in front of me were not yet back from the stadium and even though the woman had asked for their keys, they had refused saying they were leaving early from the stadium too. Not early enough it seemed. I had to wait.
As I stood waiting I could see the Cardiff City Stadium lights and could hear the cheers. I could’ve seen all the wonderful post-match celebrations after all – the owners of the other car had. The woman next door came out and informed me that she too loaned out her drive for supporters. Her drive had space for two cars but had a bigger gate so both cars could get out without blocking each other in. Talk about kicking me when I’m down. She was watching the game in her house and she told me all about what I was missing. Thanks for that!
I arrived home around 2 in the morning and although the following few days in school, especially that Wednesday, were a slog…. it was oh so worth it.
Rhedeg i Baris
As a pessimist, I always cling to the fact that if you expect the worst, when good things happen they mean more. Perhaps that’s why being a pessimist has made being a Welsh fan this year so sweet. Perhaps being a Welsh fan growing up MADE ME a pessimist. Perhaps it’s a bit of both!?!
Since qualifying we’ve lost to the Netherlands, drawn to Northern Ireland and lost to the Ukraine. Not a great set of results but I don’t care one bit. All I know is Wales are going to France.
But I’m not.
That’s what I’ve told myself since we qualified. Money aside, no way was I going to be able to get to France over a weekend. The weekend game would obviously be the game the most fans would try to see. Being a teacher it was the ONLY one I could even potentially see. But even if I could get there, the flights would be incredible prices and my history of seeing Wales in person was not great so tickets were never going to find their way to me.
It was the same story for many people across North Wales. We bought the shirts and scarves and shorts and socks and polo shirts and posters and stickers and badges and magazines and sticker books. We saw the odd weekend friendly when they happened too. But ultimately we live too far away to see our nation play in midweek qualifiers to warrant a Euro ticket. 8 tickets to all three group games (24 in total) to the guy who lives next door to the Cardiff City stadium who works 9-5…. none to the teacher from Flintshire.
As a kid I always promised myself I’d see us in a major tournament. Now I feel like I’m letting the child in me down. Not only is it merely in France (rather than in the depths of Eastern Europe) but, knowing Welsh football history, however optimistic our future looks we might not do it again for another half century. That’s the bare truth of it.
I’ve never told this story to anyone. I don’t even expect anyone to read it. Maybe it’s written simply in personal justification that I’ve just spent £230 on London>Paris>Bordeaux>Toulouse>Paris>London train tickets and £120 for a Slovakia ticket in the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux?
One thing it isn’t is justification to my wonderful Angharad. She doesn’t need to know this story of why Wales getting to France means so much to me. She already knew without me even telling her. If anything, she’s pushed me to go more than I’ve pushed myself – as weary as she was of me travelling to France for a day out on my own.
Teach on the Friday, travel to London in the evening, arrive an hour before kick off in Bordeaux on Satuday, watch the game, two hours after the game get back on the train, arrive in London Sunday morning, drive home on Sunday afternoon, plan lessons and mark books on Sunday evening and back to work on the Monday. Easy.
Où est mon livre français?