When I was growing up, my uncle Nigel was proud of his Manchester United season ticket. Every other weekend he’d arrive back around 9pm after another win and would inevitably pop open a bottle of champagne around May time every bloody year.
This was much to the dismay of my dad who, as a Liverpool season ticket holder, would hold fast to the memories he had of Liverpool winning EPL titles year after year until I came along in ‘89.
They were both avid followers of their respective clubs and, on top of their home game commitments, travelled to the continent regularly too. Even their older brother, Stephen, who passed away before I was born, was a big Tottenham Hotspur fan who attended games when he could.
When Nigel finally gave up his season ticket at Old Trafford – just as the price crossed over the £1,000 mark – he continued to watch the games at home on the box. The only difference I noticed was I’d see his smiling face much earlier than 9pm every Saturday afternoon. The champagne still came out every May.
Football was always going to be in my blood but, to add to my dad’s ‘90s-football heartache, my family thought it hilarious to ‘entice’ me into supporting another team my dad loathed; Everton. My impressionable mind fell for it hook, line and sinker, and I was Duncan Ferguson’s biggest fan. At the tender age of six, the 1995 English FA Cup final remains one of my earliest memories of football on the telly.
One of my dad’s mates – one of the many people who eventually succeeded in ensuring my nose was most definitely blue and my favourite sweets were toffees – would regularly give me Everton badges and other memrobilia to make sure I continued to ‘football-disappoint’ my dad every single day. I remember him once giving me a Celtic badge when he had no more Everton ones left, but my love affair with Glasgow’s Green and White is another story.
My first live football game, however, was at the Cae Ras in Wrecsam. A 2-2 draw with Stockport County (for which I still possess the matchday programme) with my dad followed by a pre-season friendly against my beloved Everton; a 4-3 Everton win in a game where Andre Kanchielskis scored all four for the blues and John Parrott sat right in front of me…. in the away end!
FIFA 2000 was my favourite game and, after starting a season with Everton, I would end up spending copious amounts of time in the transfer market until I had all of Liverpool’s players playing for Everton (except Ferguson up top). I soon found it much easier to start with Liverpool and just buy Duncan Ferguson. When he actually ended up going to Newcastle United in real life I was bloody heart broken. Comparing photographs of him in sticker books, it seems he felt the same about leaving Goodison Park too!
Over years of playing as Liverpool on computer games, and with my dad sending me to most Liverpool home games (probably to encourage me to change allegiences and so he could avoid the cr*p football the Anfield faithful had to endure during the late ‘90s and early 2000s), I turned from blue to red – like Abel Xavier or Nick Barmby, if you will.
I always (and still do) keep an eye out for Everton scores – preferring only to hope they lose on two Saturdays per annum.
It was one day walking around Aberystwyth in my university years that I was asked what part of Liverpool I was from by a random stranger. It wasn’t until I realised I was wearing a Liverpool shirt that my mind clicked. “I’m not from Liverpool!” I replied.
The next time I went home to take my washing to my mam, I bought myself the first Wrecsam shirt I’d purchased with my own money. Definitely worth the 14-or-so pints on which I eventually missed out by buying it.
That occasion turned out to be the first and last time anyone ever asked me from which part of Liverpool I hailed. I met another Wrecsam fan in uni – the son of my primary school headmaster – and we made the hallowed Cae Ras our second home. I respectfully turned down more and more trips to Anfield in favour of Wrecsam. The town we first saw daylight, as Amlyn often puts it.
In that same year we were relegated out of England’s football league. I remember my tutor in the university – also from the north east – arrive to lectures on the day we went down wearing all black and he spoke the only sentence of English I ever heard him utter; “It’s a dark day, Stephen bach.” I agreed.
Clearly missing the buzz of live football, my uncle soon joined my mate and I and remains a Wrecsam season ticket holder in the Mold Road stand to this day.
“Whether the football’s good or bad,” he’d say, “these are the cards we’ve been dealt and we’ve got to play them. It’s our bit of sky, up here.” As beautiful as those words were and for however long I’ll remember them, there have many times over the last 12 years when I’ve hoped we were dealt a 13 in Pontoon and we could ‘burn the cards’ and have another go!
Truly finding Wrecsam was the best footballing thing I ever did – even if they were always with me anyway. I went from being a Liverpool(/Everton) fan who kept an eye out for Wrecsam, to a Wrecsam fan who quickly realised the only attraction to England’s top leagues was the incredible support, rather than the fancy, showcase football on the pitch. The lads who played at Wrecsam were probably earning not much more than me, didn’t roll on the floor when they were tackled (unless they really were injured) and wore boots that disn’t have their names on. This was football and nothing will ever beat walking to the Cae Ras in the darkness and depths of wintertime with our massive floodlights guiding the way to our place of sporting worship.
My love for the Town has taken me to York, Kidderminster, Altrincham, Macclesfield, Northwich and many more including Wembley and a trip to Flintshire’s own chester FC – whose name I still can’t bring to capitalise.
Pre-season was in no way out of bounds either – in fact, it was watching Wrecsam play against Connah’s Quay, Rhyl (RIP), Bangor City (RIP), Airbus, Cefn Druids et al that opened the next chapter in my footballing story.
In recent years I’ve made more and more of an effort to not only watch Sgorio on S4C, but to actually go to Cymru Leagues (formerly the Welsh Premier League) games. Just this season I’ve seen Cefn Druids, Airbus, Porthmadog, Buckley, Caernarfon Town, Newtown, Llanfair United, Bala, Connah’s Quay and a few others for whom my memory fails.
I often stand (yep, seating is few and far between at most of these places) and ponder how Wales’ domestic football scene might look if the crowds mirrored other nations. Uruguay, who share a similar population to Wales (and are bordered by nations with powerful domestic scenes) average around 5,000 per game, with the top clubs seeing averages of 20,000. Not looking too dissimilar to Scotland, I might add.
So what’s the problem with Wales? Well, the elephant in the room is quite clearly that 5 of our top sides (of whom two are quite clearly at another level to everyone else in the country) play in the English pyramid. The history behind this often leaves English fans who moan about ‘adopting’ Welsh sides a little bemused as our participation predates the establishment of seperate English, Scottish and Welsh systems. In many cases, the English system would never have developed the way it did without the Welsh clubs. In truth, it’s only Newport County who truly can refer to themselves as an ‘exiled’ Welsh club.
Even if we ignore for a moment the ‘foreign five’ (cool name, huh?) [Cardiff City, Swansea Town/City, Wrecsam, Newport County and Merthyr Tudful], attendances at Welsh club-level games rarely peak above 1,000; a far cry from Uruguay and Scotland.
I once made the argument in favour of a truly, all-Wales league that saw the ‘foreign five’ compete IN WALES week in, week out. My favourite response stated we’d just be another Scottish Premiership with two teams dominating to which I replied, “GOOD!” Imagine thousands of people coming out supporting their local sides, multiple tasty derby matchups pretty much every weekend and the carrot of European football for at least three clubs every year. I’d love the Welsh system to be as respected as the SPFL.
The reply to that? “What about promotion in England?”
To take my beloved Wrecsam as a mini case study, I find it shocking that our supporters believe that the holy grail of football resides in the fourth division of English football and not in potential European football back at the Cae Ras. Cardiff and Swansea’s arguement is, admittedly, slightly different here. But I guess staying in England means we might get a one-off cup game against Crewe Alexandra and get stuffed 6-0 at home…. That’s the pinnacle, right?
Another argument that pains me is “but Welsh football is poor quality” (or words to that effect). In honesty, and as difficult as it is for me to admit, most sides in the Cymru Premier would give Wrecsam a game and the argument around money is no good either because many players have left Wrecsam over the years to play in the Cymru Leagues and have been paid much more handsomely than when they were on Wrecsam’s books.
Cymru C (Cymru Leagues select XI) vs England C (National League select XI) matches have seen a narrow defeat 3-2 away in Salford and a 2-2 draw in Newport in recent years proving there’s not much difference in the standard of football between the two divisions. Then look at League 2 and how sides promoted from the National League regulary challenge for promotion spots to League 1 and the standard of Welsh football already appears to be in decent shape.
In the (sadly unlikely) event Wrecsam were to switch to the Cymru Leagues, the only reason behind a drop in attendance would be that maybe our fans aren’t as passionate and as ‘where you go we’ll follow’ as we are led to believe. A tough pill to swallow for the lion’s share of Wrecsam ‘fans.’
But the truth is, even with Colwyn Bay returning to the Welsh system and Merthyr Tudful toying with the idea in recent years, a Welsh league for ALL Wales’ clubs is mightily unlikely. Even when Wales gains its independence from the UK, there’d be no obligation for our clubs to leave the English system.
Yesterday I found this graphic from WalesOnline and it absolutely broke my heart.
We’re all aware that WalesOnline is the south Wales arm of the Daily Mirror (the northern variation being the Daily Post) so I take these statistics with a pinch of salt. West Ham was clearly a mix up with Wrexham, right? And how are Leeds not on there?
It broke my heart because English football seems to be all we know and habits like this are some of the most difficult to shake. The whole “I support [insert English club here] because my dad does” is one with which it’s tough for me to argue – my following of Liverpool is down to that very notion.
My passion for all football in general means I’m the last person who’ll try to encourage anyone to break their ties with clubs that have brought them such happy memories. Further, I’m against the jokes made at the expense of people who say they have a ‘second club.’ In truth, my soft spots for Celtic, Liverpool and, of course, my beloved Wrecsam, are joined by a love for Barcelona and their sheer Catalan passion and Sankt Pauli whose cult scene is the best around.
What I will do, however, is fight the case for support of our national, domestic system. Especially in the current climate, and with Rhyl FC (founded in 1879) the first club in the British isles to succumb to the coronavirus pandemic – even if their situation was fragile beforehand, now is the time to get behind the Welsh pyramid which affords Wales an international place in world football and puts Welsh towns on the map in obscure European cities – at least for a week or so in late July.
Find your local side and buy a scarf. Get updates of their results pushed to your phone. Find their rival sides and diss them in the pub. Start a season in the Cymru Leagues on Football Manager. If you’re the betting type, whack a quid on your local side. GO TO A GAME OR TWO every season.
And, for a bit of a laugh, if you’re ever asked who you want to win the “Premier League,” always reply with “anyone but TNS” and watch their faces. Absolutely hilarous! Disclaimer: I make no apologies to TNS fans!
But perhaps more importantly than all these ideas, just don’t bad mouth our league. Without it, UEFA would not allow Wales to compete as an independent football nation and there’d be no Euro 2016 or Euro 2020. Ok so the latter doesn’t work but we still qualified!
Maybe one day I’ll even get back the £800 I spent on flights to Azerbaijan!