I was doing a bit of research earlier and came across this letter from the Usk Observer published in 1859. The correspondent calls for the formation of a ‘Football Club” to play when cricket was out of season. We don’t yet know whether the club was formed, and we don’t know what form of the game they intended to play.
The likelihood is that they would have played rugby football. Lampeter Town RFC had been formed in 1850, and rugby was very much the preferred game of the south. but who knows? If the club was indeed formed, then we might have found a new contender for the first football club in Wales. But for now, Wrexham, formed in 1864 retain that honour.
We’ve become used to Sky’s revisionist version of football history which ignores any records that were created before their coverage began in 1992, so it didn’t surprise me much when their peers at ITV began to claim Swansea City’s recent Capital One Cup victory as their first major trophy. It surprised me a little more when respected journalists repeated the claim. It shocked me to see the Welsh Government’s First Minister tweet the same fallacy. But it astounded me when Swansea City’s official media department was quoted as the source of the lie.
Now in modern footballing terms, I can see why they have re-assessed their definition of ‘major trophy’, but they are wrong to do so. Any prize that a club wins in its history must be quantified by its worth to the club at the time they won it. And that’s why Swansea City’s first major trophy was not the Capital One Cup, it was a trophy that they won for the first time when Swansea was still a town, exactly a century ago.
The history of association football in Swansea is interesting. Welsh football had first blossomed in the north, but there was a club called Blue Star playing in the town as early as 1870. At that time, many clubs in the south would play both rugby and association football. We know that Swansea Grammar School was playing some form of the sport in 1865, and were definitely playing association football by 1877. The Swansea cricket club formed a football team as early as 1872, some 27 years before their opponents at Riverside CC gave birth to a fledgling Cardiff City. But sadly, the Swansea cricketers converted to rugby in 1874, became founder members of the WRU and never looked back.
And so it was that when Swansea Football Club entered the first ever Welsh Cup in 1877, they quickly withdrew on discovering that this would be a football competition, not a rugby one. Their club captain CC Chambers had earlier reacted with fury in 1876 when he saw the first Wales international football side would be populated with northerners, and maybe this strengthened his conviction to make rugby the sport of his town.
“I can only come to the conclusion that there must be some error, and that the team to play Scotland is to be selected from North Wales only. I shall be happy to produce from these parts a team who shall hold their own against any team from North Wales, either at the Association or Rugby Union games, the latter preferred.”
Swansea football then went through a pretty anonymous period when no single club emerged as the town’s senior team. Swansea Association Football Club appeared in 1890, though interest soon fizzled out, and another club adopted the name in January 1893. This second Swansea played in front of very few spectators on a patch of ground called the Vetch Field, but would survive only until 1899. (Many people repeat the misconception that ‘vetch’ was a type of cabbage, when in fact it was a legume, planted by a contractor in the mid 19th century to feed his cows. Interestingly, the Vetch Field has now returned to its roots as a location for plant cultivation.)
After seven years without a senior side, an amateur club called Swansea Town was formed in 1906 and played at Victoria Park. But in 1912, the current professional Swansea club was formed to meet requests from the expanding Southern League and the new club leased Vetch Field from the Swansea Gaslight Company. The ash-covered ground had previously been used for all manner of sports including trotting, cycling, ballooning and parachuting. There were huge efforts made to get the pitch ready for the new season and on 7 September 1912, Swansea Town played its first Southern League match against Cardiff City in front of 8,000 spectators.
1st match programme (http://scfcheritage.wordpress.com)
And it was in this very first season as a professional club that Swansea won their first major trophy. The Welsh Cup had been won exclusively by northern teams since its creation in 1878 as the third oldest competition in the world (after the FA and Scottish Cups). There was an oblique club connection with the competition; the ‘Father of Swansea Town’, Chairman JW Thorpe had trained as a solicitor in Ruabon with Llewelyn Kenrick, founder of the FAW and instigator of the Welsh Cup.
A team called Swansea United had entered the competition in the past two years, but this was Swansea Town’s first attempt. And astonishingly, they went and won the thing! They were forced to qualify via a preliminary round game against Milford, and then beat Mond Nickel Works in the 1st round. (The Nickel Works from nearby Clydach were early rivals to Swansea, and there was on-field violence, and reports of crowd trouble from the November 1913 fixture). Llanelly came next, and then the game which put Swansea Town on the map.
The Swans’ 3-1 victory away at Wrexham not only announced the new club’s arrival but it gave warning that the newly professional south-Walians were undoubtedly the equal of the northern counterparts. Wrexham had already won the trophy nine times, but had recently lost at home to Cardiff and watched helplessly as the Bluebirds and newcomers Pontypridd Dragons fought out the 1912 final to take the cup south for the first time.
Swansea’s reward for a 3-0 win at Merthyr was a semi-final tie at Ninian Park in front of of 12,000. Cardiff were top of the Southern League 2nd Division, while Swansea were 8th. And things were running to form as the home side took a 2-0 lead into the second half. It was then that fortune favoured the Jacks. Long before substitutes were allowed in football, two Cardiff players were injured and forced to leave the field. With a two-man advantage, Swansea pulled a couple of goals back to equalise. When Cardiff went down to 8 men with Jack Evans (Cardiff’s first professional player, from Bala) injured, Cardiff scored an own-goal and conceded a fourth to put Swansea into the final.
When the 1912 Welsh Cup Final between Swansea Town and Pontypridd at Ninian Park was played out as a draw, the replay was set for Athletic Park, the home of Mid-Rhondda FC in Tonypandy. Mid-Rhondda, known as ‘The Mush’ were one of Wales’ biggest clubs at the time, and the Final drew an attendance of 10,000 for a game played on open ground in torrential rain . After Swansea won the game 1-0 with a goal from Greirson, a thousand fans waited for their late arrival back in Swansea Train Station to celebrate their first major trophy. Celebrations went on long and hard into the early hours at the Royal Hotel.
Match report, 1913 (www.swansea.vitalfootball.co.uk)
If you don’t consider that extraordinary Welsh Cup win in their very first season to be the club’s first major trophy, then you might consider one of the following Welsh Cup wins in 1932 or 1950. If not these, then you would surely have to concede that the 1961 Cup win was a watershed for the club, as it bestowed Swansea with the honour of becoming Wales’ first competitors in European football. Swansea were delayed by fog as they travelled to Austria on their first European adventure to face Motor Jena of East Germany over two legs. Unfortunately, East German nationals were banned from entering NATO countries at the time, and Swansea had to find an alternative home venue despite already having sold tickets for the Vetch. After the Republic of Ireland was ruled out, the Swans decided on Vienna, only for UEFA to insist they play in the town of Linz, closer to the German border. Both legs were played in the space of three days, and Swansea unsurprisingly went out.
But if that is not major enough for you, how about a couple of Championship trophies? Maybe the 3rd Division South trophy of 1925? Flushed with success, the winners’ medals and trophies were proudly displayed in a High Street shop window, only to be stolen in a smash-and-grab raid. Swansea also won silverware as Champions of the 3rd Division in 1949, in 2000, and League One in 2008. Not to mention the play-off trophies of course.
At a rough count, I make that ten Welsh Cups , two Football League trophies, and four Championships. That’s a lot of history and a lot of very important success for the Welsh Government and the club to be writing off at the feet of the Capital One Cup. You can’t just decide when you want your history to begin, whether you’re Sky Sports, Cardiff City or Swansea City. History is immovable, and it’s made us all what we are. In any rational assessment, it has to be a century since Swansea won their first major trophy.
In 1899, some 35 years after Wrexham had became the first football club in Wales, the cricketers of Riverside FC in Cardiff decided to take up the association game as a winter pastime. Football had played a poor second to rugby in the south since the codes split in the 1860s but was now finding favour with the large migrant working population. The town was growing rich on the coal dug from the valleys, and Cardiff was granted City status in 1905. After pottering about in the Cardiff and District and south Wales Leagues for a decade, the ambitious Riverside FC merged with Riverside Albions and laid claim to the name “Cardiff City”. After several refusals, the club secretary and driving force, Bartley Wilson finally received permission to use the new title from the South Wales and Monmouthshire FA in 1908. That only proviso was that should any club become professional in Cardiff, then Riverside would have to give up the name.
This wasn’t an idle threat. Riverside had lost 3-12 to Cwmparc in the Welsh Cup, and Aberdare, Merthyr and Treharris all had bigger claims as south Wales’ biggest clubs. Many Welsh football fans travelled regularly to watch Bristol City’s professional Division One team. Ton Pentre were one of the main local sides, and when they played a match at Bristol in 1908/09, over 1700 supporters travelled from south Wales, including 800 from Aberystwyth. Riverside were insignificant by comparison.
Riverside’s secretary was a Bristolian. And when Bart Wilson eyed up a place in the successful English Southern League, his flirtatious advance was returned. Harry Bradshaw was the Southern League secretary who toured south Wales looking for clubs to boost his young competition in 1910. He wanted a Cardiff side to enrich the League, but insisted that Wilson found a stadium. Once Lord Ninian Crichton Stuart came on board as guarantor, the deal was settled. The Southern League would get its Cardiff side, playing at the newly built Ninian Park in 1910.
First known pic of Riverside FC early 1900s
The club had started wearing blue shirts even before that very first professional game at Ninian Park, probably after the merger with Albions. They had definitely discarded Riverside’s chocolate and amber quarters by the time of the very first photograph taken before 1910. Of course, there had been no protest about this change, because Cardiff City had no support base. They were a parks side who had attracted decent crowds for a few exhibition matches, but these were curious spectators, not supporters. This was a social club with little history and no identity.
The club soon became known as the Bluebirds. There is a legend that the name is related to a stage play that was popular in Cardiff in 1909, but it is likely that the Bristolian Wilson, simply started using a name that reflected that colour of the club’s shirts. Bristol City wearing red, were the Robins, so Cardiff in blue, would be the Bluebirds. To this day, Cardiff City are the only football league club ever to have used the nickname. (Barrow only started calling themselves Bluebirds in the 1980s by which time they were non-league).
With a newly professional team hired mainly from Scotland, Cardiff City immediately attracted crowds of 4-10,000. These were brand new supporters of course – plastics in modern parlance. The more established Ton Pentre, Aberdare and Merthyr drew bigger crowds. But by the time the club were accepted to the Football league in 1920, City could boast huge attendances of 30-40,000 for their games.
Cardiff’s blue shirts were plain until the 1925 Cup Final, when the City’s Royal coat of arms was sewn onto the badge as an indication of civic pride and royalist gratitude. There was no badge normally, but the coat of arms was used again in the 1927 final. The crest had also appeared on the club’s programmes during the 1922-23 season and alongside a drawing of the civic centre in 1934. This was a ‘Cardiff’ iconography, not ‘Cardiff City’ and is still worn by the City’s rugby club to this day.
The coat of arms used during the Cup Final was not the football club badge, it was a garnish for the big occasion – Sheffield United shirts also displayed their own civic crest in 1925.
The earliest example I have of the Bluebird as a club symbol is a letterhead from 1947, when the supporters club used the bird as their logo.
And that was it until 1959 when we saw the appearance of a club badge on a Cardiff shirt for the first team photograph. The club had played in blue probably since it had first been called Cardiff City but clubs did not wear badges as a rule. Naturally, the Bluebird was Cardiff’s first badge, cementing its place as the club’s emblem – the heart of its identity.
The badge then disappeared until 1967-68, when the word ‘Bluebirds’ was stitched into the clubs shirts. And by the time Cardiff City beat Real Madrid in 1970, the shirt featured a classic, simple Bluebird on its breast. The clubs greatest moment since 1927 would be identified with that badge.
The bluebird remained on a simple round white background without any writing until 1980, when the background turned yellow for a while. Still, the badge on the shirt needed no words. Everybody knew that logo – the Bluebird was Cardiff City Football Club. It was as simple as that.
The club had been using a crest on promotional material and its programme covers since 1979, when a daffodil and a dragon were incorporated as symbols of Wales. (If my memory serves me right, cricketer Tony Lewis – the Head of the Wales Tourist Board was involved with that decision). The crest featured the Bluebird prominently, and also had the word ‘Bluebirds’ as part of the design.
By 1985, that crest started appearing on the shirts, and it stayed there unchanged for the next 18 years unchanged until a new owner arrived. Even when the crest had gone from the badge in 1994 , it was was incorporated into the thread of the shirt.
But Sam Hammam was keen to impose a new identity on the historic club, and the black and yellow colours of the St David’s cross were incorporated into the design from 2003 until 2008 when we returned to the more traditional crest.
Cardiff City’s bluebird identity lasted another three years until the news broke this Summer, that without consultation, or regard to the club’s identity and history, one man from Malaysia would be changing everything. Vincent Tan changed the club’s colours and drastically redesigned the badge to feature a dragon and a cringeworthy ‘Fire and Passion’ strapline. The bluebird was relegated in significance until a final indignity at the home game versus Brighton, when 20,000 of the club’s own supporters waved red scarves bearing the legend ‘Cardiff’ (not Cardiff City) and displaying a red bird where there used to be blue.
I no longer recognise the famous club that has played in blue since it was honoured with the title Cardiff City, and which has always been known as the Bluebirds. I suspect too that the club’s name will change over the next few years. Who knows what further insults will be thrown at the memory of Bart Wilson, Fred Stewart and the millions of other who helped build a national institution over a century, only to see it demolished in a single shameful season.
On a visit to Nantporth Stadium recently, I came across this comic strip on the walls of the clubhouse. It comes from Hornet magazine, and was published in 1964. It tells the tale of Bangor City’s famous victory of Napoli in the European Cup Winner’s Cup of 1962.
I had a nice surprise last week when I was sent a pair of football boots to review. Now I last trod the green baize of Cae Seilo in 2008, but I like to think I know a good boot when I see one. Bear in mind that the last pair I bought was Adidas Mondiale 1982. Patrick boots were all the rage when I was an aficionado.
I hadn’t heard of the company, Warrior, or their new boot which is called ‘Skreamer’, but I reckon those names would go down well with my boys, who can name the boot choice of every single player in the League I think. The boot arrived and I was struck immediately by the weight, or rather lack of it. I reckon they would float if it wasn’t for the laces adding a few extra grams. The design is a fetching blue and orange with plenty of styling bling to make them stand out.
One thing that struck me was the design of the blades, which seem to be some sort of dual-mould design, with the sharp orange tooth design encased in a clear plastic surround. I know that endorsement is important to the kids, so was interested to hear that the boot was worn by Marouane Fellaini when he scored for Everton last week.
So let’s cut to the chase. I have a pair of Warrior Skreamer boots to give away, in the size of your choice. I’ll keep it short so that you have a chance of getting the boots in time for Christmas, but they will be coming directly from the supplier, so I can’t guarantee that.
To win, just answer the following question.
Q. Who are the two players who feature on the cover of ‘Red Dragons: The Story of Welsh football?
Answers to firstname.lastname@example.org by mid-day on Friday 14th December, 2012. Winner will be drawn at random.
In 1854 the English writer George Borrow described a visit across the border to ‘Rhiwabon’ in the book “Wild Wales”:
“I ascended a hill, from the top of which I looked down into a smoky valley. I descended, passing by a great many collieries, in which I observed grimy men working amidst smoke and flame.. A woman passed me going towards Rhiwabon; I pointed to the ridge and asked its name; I spoke English. The woman shook her head and replied “Dim Saesneg” (English: “No English”). “This is as it should be”, said I to myself; “I now feel I AM in Wales.”
Just three generations later, less than 15% of the locals speak the Welsh language here, and the village is better known by its Anglicised spelling of ‘Ruabon’. But this unremarkable place, about four and a half miles south of Wrexham features prominently in the history of the Welsh game. There were complaints from the chapel about young men following ‘the useless pursuit of football’ in Ruabon as far back as 1856, and the Ruabon Grammar School played a part in migrating the association game to Wales from the English colleges. The FAW’s rules and regulations were first drawn up in Ruabon, at The Wynnstay Arms in February, 1876, under the instigation of its founder , a local solicitor called Llewelyn Kenrick . The village’s Plasmadoc club was founded in 1869, soon becoming the famous ‘Druids’ side, providing six internationals for the first ever Wales game.
But to the modern football fan, the name Ruabon has a different significance. It was here on the 1st of November 1963 that Leslie Mark Hughes came into the world. The football-obsessed youngster would excel in a sucessful Manchester United Youth side and go on to find fame in a glittering career at old Trafford, becoming one of the first British footballers to take his skills to the continent where he representd Barcelona and Bayern Munchen. Hughes’s club career is well-documented, but as he leaves his fifth managerial post at QPR, I wanted to look at his international career with Wales, and the spell as Welsh manager in the early part of this century which forged his managerial reputation.
At 20 years old and with a scattering of matches for Manchester United, Mark Hughes was first called into the Welsh side to face England in May 1984, scoring on his debut to give Wales victory in the last British Championship match against their neighbours. Hughes took to international football like a duck to water and Joey Jones was more than impressed by the debutant: “His upper-body strength was incredible. He gave the English defenders a torrid time and it was no surprise when he scored.”
Hughes’ reputation as one of the great Welsh international players was secured by his goal against Spain in April 1985.The 3-0 victory over the Spaniards became one of Welsh football’s most famous nights, and it was capped by Sparky’s volley towards the heaving Wrexham Kop, still ranked by many as the greatest goal ever scored in a Welsh shirt. Hughes’ introduction coincided with the development of one of the best ever Wales teams in the mid eighties. At a time when football was at its lowest ebb, and our professional clubs languished in the bottom divisions of the Football league, this Welsh side were glamorous, sexy even.
The core of the squad came from top Lancastrian clubs who could draw on huge support from north Wales. There was Hughes, Mickey Thomas, Alan Davies, and Clayton Blackmore from United. Liverpool provided Ian Rush and Joey Jones, while Everton supplied the spine of the team. Kevin Ratcliffe, and Neville Southall were world-class players, and persuaded their mate, by the Cymro-Belgian Toffee, Pat van den Hauwe to become Welsh. The fans from the north felt huge club-based-affinity with the national side, and for those of us in the south, this star-studded team offered an escape from the grind of our domestic support.
Wales’ adidas-clad team of that era were very good – and went ten games undefeated in matches in which Hughes and Rush played together, from his debut against England in 1984 until defeat in Prague in 1987. (Immediately after that game, Hughes would fly to Munich to play for Bayern against Borussia Moenchengladbach that same evening). Sadly, this outstanding Welsh side were denied the chance to perform on the World stage at Mexico in 1986 due to a controversial penalty decision against the Scots at Ninian Park after Hughes had given Wales the lead in a match that decided the qualifiers.
After Terry Yorath was appointed on a three-match trial basis to replace Mike England in 1988, he switched Hughes to a midfield role in order to accomodate Ian Rush and Dean Saunders in his 5-3-2 playing system. Yorath would often utilise Hughes in midfield, where he played without complaint as another Welsh team came so close to qualification for USA ’94. Significantly, Hughes was absent due to suspension when Wales lost to Romania in that deciding game in 1993.
Mark Hughes’ cult status in Welsh-speaking Wales was assured when he took part in the popular comedy series, C’mon Midffild. Filmed at the ground of Caernarfon Town, Hughes turns up at the end of this clip, and asks, ‘Siawns am Gem?’. (Any chance of a game?’)
John Toshack had a different plan for the player when Wales played Norway at Ninian Park in 1994. This time it was Hughes who was the sole front man, with Ian Rush withdrawn to a deeper role as Toshack tried without success to implement his continental ‘sistemat’. Wales lost unceremoniously and Toshack walked out after just 48 days and one game in charge.
Bobby Gould’s appointment in 1995 seemed to signal the end for Mark Hughes’ international playing days. The 32 year old had withdrawn from a match in Albania after hearing he would not be starting and was left out as Wales lost 0-2 in Switzerland in April 1996. Furious at being dropped for the friendly, he telephoned Gould and demanded an explanation. “I’m Welsh and I adore playing for Wales,” said the Chelsea player. He would go on to play another 13 games with Gould as Welsh manager, who resigned in 1999. In a final gesture, the departing manager recommended that his position be given jointly to Neville Southall and Mark Hughes. The FAW agreed, on a temporary basis and they acted as joint managers for the defeat against Denmark at Anfield.
Southall did not disguise his ambition to become permanent manager. “If they talk about having to throw a hat into the ring I will throw in a Stetson,” he told the Daily Mail. “I believe the players have shown more commitment, character and bravery than for a long time.” After a seven-week search, interviews were give to Terry Venables, Kevin Ratcliffe and Roy Hodgson, along with Southall and Hughes, though Hodgson ruled himself out after taking a position at Grasshoppers of Zurich. This left Venables as the prime candidate. Venables had reportedly demanded a £200,000 salary, but Wales could only offer half that amount. The search took a bizarre turn, when the Manic Street Preachers offered to donate £30,000 to the FAW if they appointed Terry Venables. FAW Secretary General, Dave Collins refused to rule out the move. “If we wish to appoint Mr Venables and someone is genuine about giving money, we will talk with them.”
The FAW’s eventual decision to appoint Mark Hughes (without Southall) on a temporary basis was not popular. It seemed they were simply buying time. “We have a chance of finishing second in our group if we win our last two Euro 2000 matches and Mark will have the opportunity to prove his credentials to take the job on a full-time basis,” said Collins. “Mark doesn’t say a lot but what he does say makes sense,” said the admiring Gary Speed. “If he says something then you listen and that’s a good quality to have. Whatever happens in these next two games, I’d like to see Mark get the job permanently.”
Hughes’ Wales come back from a goal down to win 2-1 in Belarus but Italy’s defeat at home to Denmark a few days later dashed any remaining hopes of qualification. With only pride to play for, Hughes was swiftly reminded of the task ahead when Switzerland won comfortably at the Racecourse to complete a disappointing, disjointed campaign. Nevertheless, Hughes had done enough to impress, and was given a four-and-a-half year contract after an FAW meeting in Llangollen on 16 December 1999. “I think everybody has got a little fed-up with waiting and wondering what exactly the situation was,” he said following his appointment. “Now it has been confirmed I am obviously delighted and am able to get on with the job.” The first 18 months however would be part-time as he fulfilled his playing obligations with Southampton.
There was promising news for the new manager ahead of a friendly in Qatar in February 2000. Hughes knew that Ryan Giggs’ availability would be a key to any possible success, and he was fully expecting his star player to join the squad after discussing the matter at a boxing match in Manchester. “He is as keen as anyone for us to have a good World Cup campaign,” said Hughes. “Ryan knows that the game in Qatar is important to us because it is a big part of our preparations.” Hughes was to feel the same disappointment as a series of Wales managers when the winger missed his 18th friendly in succession. Hughes even joked he would step in himself to fill a place in the squad, before confirming that his playing days for Wales were over after 72 caps, and 16 goals.
Mark Hughes began his Welsh managerial career with an experimental 5-2-2-1 formation which was criticised for its defensive approach. Hughes however, was unbowed: “Playing with only one striker is not a defensive tactic” he argued. He was lucky in that he followed Gould into the manager’s chair. The Welsh support would have accepted anybody, and he enjoyed an extended honeymoon period when Wales went 12 games without victory. You wonder whether the manager would have survived in the modern era when social media allows critical, demanding supporters direct access to journalists and decision makers. I think that #hughesout would have been trending on twitter in Cardiff in 2001.
The manager looked to ease the pressure on his players. “Sometimes our expectations are a bit high,” he told the Independent. “We had a good spell under Terry Yorath, but it was a slightly false impression. Any game we won would take the form of Ian Rush getting a goal on a breakaway at one end and Neville Southall making 10 saves at the other.” He set about transforming the international set-up, which he considered unprofessional. Players were issued with daily itineraries, and the squad wore blazers rather than tracksuits. But Hughes allowed his players plenty of freedom, instigating the ‘Super Sundays’ when members of the Welsh squad would be allowed time to ‘socialise’ during Wales meet-ups.
Hughes’ team poor wins record was defended by Collins in 2001, who gave the dreaded ‘vote of confidence’. “Mark’s position is not an issue. We will discuss terms with him when his playing contract ends this season” he insisted. Belarus arrived in Cardiff in October looking for the win that would ensure second place, but a Hartson goal gave Wales their only win of the campaign. It may have saved the manager his job, and there was certainly no evidence to suggest that Hughes’ team were about to enjoy a run of unprecedented success.
The Welsh team were growing in confidence, and Robert Earnshaw scored on his debut to beat Germany in a May 2002 friendly. “It is the biggest victory of my managerial career,” claimed Hughes, who had been released from his playing contract at Blackburn and offered the Welsh manager’s job full-time. With Mark Bowen unavailable due to club commitments, Hughes turned to the recently retired Chris Coleman for help with coaching duties. Wales beat Finland away, and then came the game which lit up Welsh football and earmarked Mark Hughes as a manger for the future. Italy were defeated 2-1 at the Millennium Stadium in October 2003.
Welsh goalscorer Craig Bellamy was understandably elated and optimistic about the future. “The Wales squad is the most together football group I’ve ever been involved with,” he said. “I have so much respect for everyone there; the coaches, the manager. Mark Hughes is exceptional, so much common sense, his eye for detail.” “We have a really strong team,” said Hughes, “maybe the strongest ever”. Wales were in uncharted territory – five points clear of Italy after three games and they went on to make it a record ten consecutive games undefeated for the national side. Qualification was theirs to lose.
There was controversy when Senegal were award FIFA’s Most Improved Nation award in 2003, even though Wales had climbed 52 places in a year, unmatched by any other country. Still, the Welsh team had won the BBC Wales Team of the Year award and Hughes became BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year in 2002. A year earlier, the same group of players had been close to setting the record for the worst run of results for a Welsh side.
Hughes was hurt by criticism after a cautious display saw the team lose against an unmotivated Serbia at the end of the campaign. After all, these were the same tactics he had used all along, and he claimed the Welsh media and public were being unfair. The defeat in Serbia was followed by a hammering in Italy, a draw against Finland and defeat at home to Serbia. “Stumbling over the finishing line in the group isn’t what we wanted, but people have to remember how well we have done to get to this stage,” said Hughes. “We were the fourth-seeded team so to finish above Serbia and Montenegro and Finland is a magnificent achievement.”
Hughes was right, but it was hard to escape the feeling Wales had blown their chance. That game in Serbia had been key: if only Wales had pushed on for the win. Even after that defeat, could they have held out for victory against Finland had they played more positively? The momentum had gone and Wales would need to pick themselves up against play-off opponents Russia. “I think it’s a good draw,” said Hughes. “We avoided a couple of big names and it’s positive in that we have the second leg at home.” Sadly, once again, Wales would fail after a drug-boosted Russian side won in Cardiff.
Manager Hughes had two years left on his contract, but was downbeat about the future: “I haven’t done what I set out to do, which is to qualify for the finals of a major championship. It’s up to others to make the decision on my future.” There were hints he had become disillusioned after friendlies against Scotland and Hungary when he complained that “the number of withdrawals before the two games was greater than I was entitled to expect.”
Once again, Wales needed to rebuild, and Hughes’ team was experienced, but ageing. The first games of the 2006 World Cup campaign were disappointing, and concerns were raised about his creaking side, with an average age above 30. There was a feeling that Hughes was struggling to motivate himself and his team, and the announcement that he was leaving to take over Blackburn Rovers came as no great shock. It was a surprise however that Hughes would remain in charge for Wales’ next two games, which included a tame defeat to England.
Gary Speed shed tears as he retired from international football after skippering the side for a record 44th time in the 2-3 home defeat to Poland. It was a fine performance from the Poles who scored three excellent goals, but it was a sad farewell for Speed, and also for his manager. Wales had been put to the sword in Hughes’ final game. Many felt he should have gone earlier to give a new man the chance to make his mark before qualification was out of reach. After a run of ten games without defeat, Hughes’ side had now failed to win in 10 competitive matches. His tenure had produced a win rate of 29 percent, exactly the same as Gould and the worst of all Welsh managers. But his supporters argued that 14 defeats in 41 games was a decent record. “My legacy is for others to judge,” Hughes told the Western Mail. “But I would like to think I have restored respectability to Welsh football.”
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W H SMITH COWBRIDGE
Most people associate Fred Keenor with his club, Cardiff City. But Keenor was also one of the greats of the international game. After making his debut against England in the Cardiff ‘Victory’ match of 1919, Keenor would become an all-time great of Welsh football. While the Cardiff City captain’s game was not based on skill, his driving play and inspirational presence emboldened his team-mates, and his commitment to his country was unquestioned. The Roath man loved playing for Wales, and made no secret of his favourite opponents. “I do not mind very much if Scotland or Ireland beat us, but I do love for Wales to slam England,” he once said.
The famous Evertonian Dixie Dean would confirm Keenor’s commitment to the game, complaining that “he would kick his own mother for a couple of bob”. Keenor had signed for Cardiff from local parks side Roath Wednesdays in 1912, and had been hit by exploding shrapnel at the Battle of the Somme in World War I. His knee injury was so grave that it was thought he might never play again but thankfully he recovered after six months recuperation in a Dublin hospital, and went on to become one of the leading footballers of the 1920s. According to the Times of the day, “Keenor is one of the great centre half-backs of the Century, and without him Cardiff City are only half a side.”
But Cardiff were often without Fred Keenor, as he gave his country priority even when City were contesting the Football League title. There should be no doubt that had Cardiff City not released their regular five or six international players from crucial club games at the end of the 1924-25 season, then Cardiff would have a League Championship to their name. Keenor even skippered Wales against Scotland just a week before the 1925 FA Cup Final. Sheffield United had withdrawn their best player, Billy Gillespie. from the Scotland side, and he was well-rested before he led the Blades to an unexpected win at Wembley.
Fred Keenor was self-harmingly brave to the point of masochism, and during his Welsh career, injuries suffered during internationals included a dislocated knee, which was already full of shrapnel from the war, and burst blood vessels. During one game against Scotland in 1928, Keenor had twisted his neck and was heavily bound in strapping, with a doctor’s ban on heading the heavy wet leather ball. “I gave my consent knowing full well that I could not keep my word, but I was in agony throughout,” he admitted. Keenor was glad to finish his international career as a Crewe Alexandra player after winning 32 caps in an era when there were only three international games a season. “I shall always be proud of the small part I was able to play in bringing honour to Wales,” he would say.
On the day that a statue of Fred Keenor is unveiled at Cardiff City Stadium, here is an extract from ‘Red Dragons:The Story of Welsh Football about Keenor’s most famous international performance aganst Scotland in 1930. The Football League had banned players from representing Wales on Saturdays during the season and Keenor was the only recognised international in the side.
‘A depleted Welsh team travelled to Scotland in 1930 as whipping boys, returning famously as The Unknowns. The Wales team at Ibrox contained three amateurs, four players from non-league clubs and nine debutants. Bookmakers were offering Wales a five-goal start. The side deserves naming: Evans (Cardiff City), Dewie (Cardiff Corries), Crompton (Wrexham), Rogers (Wrexham), Keenor (Cardiff City), Ellis (Nunhead), Collins (Llanelly), Neal (Colwyn Bay), Bamford (Wrexham), Robbins (Cardiff City), Thomas (Newport County).
The players came from clubs with a mixed pedigree. Nunhead were an amateur London side; Swansea Town and Cardiff City were rooted to the bottom of the second division while Wrexham and Newport were both in the lower leagues. Wrexham’s half-back Billy Rogers would die five years later of tuberculosis, aged thirty. Fred Dewie’s Welsh League team Cardiff Corries were formed in 1898, a year before the more well-known Cardiff City club, and even turned professional for a few seasons in the early 1920s. In 1921 the Corries played a series of friendlies against Barcelona, losing 4-0, 2-1 and 2-1. The club still exists and now plays at Radyr Cricket Club.
From the north, John Neal represented Colwyn Bay. Bay had been formed in 1881 and played in the North Wales Coast League until the 1920s, when they tried their luck in Cheshire and Birmingham Leagues before returning to the Welsh League (North) in 1937. In 1984, the club moved to Llanelian Road, which coincided with their admittance to the North West Counties League in England, gaining promotion to the Northern Premier League First Division in 1991. After Bay had spent just one season in the league, the FAW announced its intention to form a national League of Wales, and a disgruntled Colwyn Bay were forced into exile at Northwich and Ellesmere Port while fighting their case in court, returning to Wales in 1995. In the late nineties, the club faced Blackpool in the second round of the FA Cup, and they remain in the English system.
Fred Keenor, now in his mid thirties, was the only man of real international experience in the Welsh team, and requested time on his own with the team at least four hours before kick-off. He spent the morning playing music to relax his team-mates before spending half-an-hour on basic tactical instructions. When the time came to face the partisan Glasgow crowd, Keenor offered a pre-match exhortation: “There’s eleven of them and eleven of us, and there’s only one ball, and it’s ours.” Wales took a sixth-minute lead and battled bravely to leave Ibrox with a point. Keenor was awesome. He chased down every Scottish attack, and urged his shattered players to fight until the end. The old hero played like a man possessed, and was warned by the referee for swearing at his team-mates. The official received his own volley of Cardiffian expletives which would have cost Wales their captain had the referee been a less patient man.
“Keenor was so engrossed in the game and getting everything out of his players that he did not know what he was saying. I did not send him off and to this day I considered it was the best decision I ever made during my time as a referee.”
Wales’ display was described by the Scottish press as “the pluckiest display in the history of international football,” and Ted Robbins wept with pride. Keenor’s greatest game saw him presented with an Airedale dog by a Scottish admirer, but it ran away from his new owners’ Roath home just a few days later.’
As we walked triumphantly underneath the Ninian Park railway bridge, I heard the first Scottish accent complaining about the Welsh ‘needing to cheat to win a game’. I laughed involuntarily and uproariously. This was a Scot complaining about us cheating. A Scot! I thought it must be a joke, some playful, intentional irony, but no, she was serious. That exchange put the seal on a perfect evening. If the Scots felt robbed, well good – bloody great! Because their sense of injustice after losing a meaningless bottom-of-the-table dead rubber is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the sickening disappointment that we felt in 1977, and 1985. Friday’s win didn’t even go close to repaying them for those sporting burglaries.
So now that the grass has been combed and the hangover has receded, let’s talk about what happened to give us a victory that was made ever more delicious by it’s rarity. Let’s relive that once-in-a-decade evening when things went right for Wales. We’ve spent years tasting fungi in our fruitless expeditions across the muddy football fields of Europe, poisonously peppered by the occasional destroying angel. But we unexpectedly unearthed a perigord truffle on Friday night, and I can’t resist stirring a few tasty morsels into the thin cawl of Welsh football.
The first thing that went right was the choice of stadium. Cardiff City’s ground was just about full with an official attendance of 23,000, and I would say it was about evenly populated, with maybe 10,000 visitors who had infiltrated all four corners of the arena. The atmosphere was absolutely bouncing because of this genial invasion, and those who complain about the proximity of the whiskey-breaths should relax. What are we saying? That we can’t sit alongside people because they want our opponents to win? This wasn’t England, whose presence would be denying Welsh fans a ticket. This was Scotland, whose benign, if outrageously-drunken support helped create a special night for everybody who experienced it. We even had those under-rated elements which play a part in so many memorable football evenings – there were streams of driving rain, glistening through the rays of powerful sparkling floodlights. The scenario was perfect.
This atmosphere was what the move to more compact stadia was meant to achieve, and though a game like this deserved a full Millennium, the FAW should be given credit for their decision. I was reminded a lot of the match against Belarus in 1999, played in similar circumstances, with a Welsh hardcore which gave encouragement even as we were losing. This time of course, we had the Barry Horns as accompaniment. There is a school of thought that Wales’ cheerleading brass band is an unwanted imposition – an unnecessary infliction upon a traditional football crowd-generated atmosphere. But the truth is that for years now, the Barry Horns have provided the only atmosphere at Wales games, and only miserabilists would complain of their presence.
The match build-up had been peppered with some poisonous sneering from sections of our own people. They would boycott the match while a Swansea man was in charge. Chris Coleman’s patchy career had been rubbished constantly and his abilities demeaned until the impression was created that Arthur Picton had been given the task of managing the world cup favourites. Yes, Wales had been awful under Coleman, but they had also been awful under every other manager, including Gary Speed. The criticism of Coleman might be acceptable if it was based on any of his decisions. If you called him useless, I could respect your view, but if you call him a useless Jack twat, you’re only revealing the prejudice behind your opinion. He has behaved impeccably in a very difficult circumstances. His decisions have been proved right – he made the correct call for the captaincy, and his substitutions on Friday were decisive. At on Friday, we would see what Coleman was all about – he had spent previous games trying to replicate another man’s management. If he was going to fail, at least he would now fail by his own methods.
The tactics were plain to see right from the start, and I was mightily relieved to watch Chris Gunter, and the impressive debutant Ben Davies clear their lines without hesitation. The back-five tiki-taka passing game is great if you have the players for it, but I don’t think Wales have ever looked comfortable playing football on their own six yard line. Coleman’s tactics were simple. Clear your lines, play football when our footballers are in possession, but otherwise play to your players’ relative strengths. Use Bale as often as you can, let Morrison fight for it in the air, and let Vaughan win the ball for Ramsey and Allen to play. It is unsophisticated and unfashionable, but it gives us a chance to compete.
The team was understandably low on confidence, and gave the ball away a lot. But luckily we were facing weak opponents. I think a more technical side would have destroyed us again, but the Scots were leaden, prosaic and unimaginative opponents. And Ramsey and Allen started to control the game. Ramsey in particular demanded possession in attacking areas, and his influence led to a Scottish substitution which successfully targeted his dominance. At times, Ramsey was careless and inaccurate, but he bossed the game. And when Gareth Bale presented the no-longer-bald Steve Morison with a simple chance, Wales should have scored and gone on to a comfortable victory. But he missed, and another elemental defensive failure saw the double-r’ed Morrison score for Scotland. Until we find another centre-half to accompany Williams, this will continue to happen. Darcy Blake gives his all, but I don’t think he would claim to be an international class centre-back. This goal wasn’t particularly his fault, but I think a more influential figure would help organise a flaky defence.
It was an exciting game even if the Swansea and Cardiff supporters are used to watching more accomplished football. But to be critical of the standard is pointless. Those are the players available to Wales and Scotland, and they tried their best. This was committed football from two teams who represented their countries proudly, and it was a pleasure to witness. I thought Wales were denied three or four straightforward penalty claims, though things weren’t so cut and dried on later television viewings. It was suggested to me that Ramsey purposely took a booking to avoid a trip to Croatia, and I don’t think I‘d have complained in hindsight if he’d been sent off for one of two dives in the area.
Gareth Bale’s penalty was well-deserved though, as admitted by Maloney, who fouled him. Bale was stupendous throughout. We’ve had great players before, but not since John Charles has one of them been such an influence on a game. Only one player has come close to this in recent years and he was disappointingly missing; Craig Bellamy’s performance in the 5-2 win over Slovakia in 2007 was outstanding – if he’d have been playing on Friday, we’d have destroyed Scotland on both flanks. And Ryan Giggs constantly failed to match Bale’s commitment and drive, which leads me to call this the greatest individual performance I’ve ever seen from a Welsh player. Even after 80 minutes with a defeat looking likely, I was reasonably content. This is what it’s come too. I was happy enough to see an improvement, even though we were losing.
I stole this pic from the Scottish Daily Record in revenge for them nicking our penalty spot and goal nets after they cheated us in 1985.
On another day we would have lost. Scotland’s second would have been justifiably allowed, and Bale’s shot would have travelled a metre wider and hit the post. We would have argued about the merits of the performance and read plenty of bile aimed at our manager. People put themselves in such an entrenched position with their views on the FAW and the manager. Welsh success would prove them wrong, so how can it be enjoyed? This is one of the curious things about football. You can be drawing 1-1 in the 89th minute, and one piece of misfortune, or individual brilliance causes people to completely disregard the previous 88 minutes of play. The final result colours our whole perception of the performance.
Thankfully, the 89th minute of this particular contest belonged to Gareth Bale. No man is an island, and others played their part – Ramsey closed down in midfield and forced the error which allowed Allen to release our talisman to earn a free kick. And then Gareth Bale produced something extraordinary. With three minutes left, he scored the greatest goal that I’ve ever seen live. That one instant released an explosion of joy that I haven’t experienced since Ledley’s FA Cup semi-final winner against Barnsley. I’ll admit that I’d grown disillusioned with the game recently, but my enthusiasm was instantly reignited – I’ll treasure the memory of that unexpected, shocking, beautiful goal sequence for the rest of my life. Nights like this only happen for Wales once in a decade, but when the elements fuse to create such spectacular magic, international football is simply unsurpassed.
Ever since I finished the final proofing of my book, Red Dragons: The Story of Welsh Football, people have been asking me what I learnt from the two years of research, from revisiting the past struggles and isolated glories of our national side. And now that I’m waiting for the printers to start churning out the first edition, I’ve had time to reflect. And the over-riding feeling I have is one of despondency. Because as I thumb through 135 years of the FAW’s existence, I see a gradual, but clear erosion of the status of the international game. Another perusal of our sport’s development leaves me certain that we are now presiding over the death of the Welsh international team.
Let me take you back to 1877, and Wales first ever home international against Scotland at The Racecourse. The town council designated the day a “quasi-general holiday”
in honour of the meeting “between the renowned Football Association of Wales and the celebrated one of the land of the thistle.” This was a major public occasion, and Wrexham would hang out the bunting, with the whole population taking a day off work. Similarly, in 1906, the Lord Mayor of Cardiff allowed children to finish school early to rush to Cardiff Arms Park for the visit of England. There were 2,000 fans present at kick-off, but by the end of the game, an estimated 20,000 people lined the ropes.
The national association used to have some power. During the 1920s, the FAW lobbied the mining companies to relax working rules and so it was that 15,000 miners were able to watch Wales beat Ireland at Aberdare in 1908. In 1954, 43,000 men finished work early to be at Ninian Park in time for a 5.30pm kick-off against Yugoslavia. International football used to be important to the people. That’s not to say that the footballers and clubs themselves would always give the international game that much significance. There is a long and disappointing history of player withdrawals from our games. Even the first game ever against Scotland in 1876 suffered from a large amount of ‘disappointments’ (the early term for withdrawals).
Some clubs were worse than others. Bolton would rarely release Ted Vizard in the 1920s, and Liverpool always held on to Maurice Parry. Few of the big clubs would ever allow their top players to travel to Belfast for a 3-day trip by ferry, and Wales were hampered throughout their history by the absence of stars like Gren Morris, Trevor Ford, Dai Astle, and John Charles. In the 1970s, Leeds United under Don Revie were notoriously possessive. Of course, we know all about the modern day issues, highlighted by Ryan Giggs who played in only 64 of a possible 116 games for his country. Early retirement is a relatively modern curse on the national game as players increasingly look after number one. The notion of self sacrifice for the honour of representing your country is now laughed at.
So the issue of player release has always been there, but we can see from a few notorious historical incidents that club football began to take control of the sport from about 1930, when both Wales and Ireland were forced to complain officially after the Football League refused to allow their players to choose country over club. They were not allowed to play for any other country except England even if they wanted to. It was this situation which led Wales to select a team of ‘Unknowns’ to face Scotland in 1930. Welsh football was boosted in the 1950s by the general boom in popular culture after the war when huge crowds would flock to football matches for cheap entertainment. But that really was the last time that international football could be called the pinnacle of the sport.
By October 1965, Wales’ manager Dave Bowen would be absent from a game against England as he was needed by his club, Northampton Town. And in 1971, Wales needed to beat both Czechoslavakia and Romania to qualify for the European Championship. They were to be denied the majority of their squad due to clashes with the Football League Cup 4th Round, and then eight players withdrew from the trip to Bucharest because they were needed for Watney Cup duty. Yes, Watney Cup.
FIFA haven’t helped. When Wales were in dispute over player release, such as for the game in Azerbaijan in 2002, FIFA even opposed their own four-day rule in order to appease Manchester United. Both Savage and Bellamy withdrew after suffering injuries obtained in club games played in that period. And we know about the travesty of FIFA’s 2003 ruling against Yegor Titov, the Russian doper. Yes, he was guilty, but he had no effect on the game’s outcome according to FIFA. Earlier that season, FIFA had refused to allow Wales to call on players when their game against Serbia had been moved by FIFA to a date reserved for friendly internationals.
More recently, we’ve seen FIFA move to placate the clubs by insisting on Friday international fixtures, in order to allow the players an extra day with their clubs. This may well have severe repercussions for Wales. There is a whole generation of schoolchildren growing up, who will never see their side play live. It’s all very well for the hardcore supporter to insist that north-Walians should make family, financial, and other sacrifices to attend the fixtures down south, but that simply isn’t being realistic. Wales has always needed the floating supporter. And even when Wales did get through their group against all the odds, FIFA put in place a play-off seeding system which favoured the bigger nations. The Welsh Under-21 side even won their qualification group but were forced into a play-off against England. Do you ever get the feeling that the size of your television audience is determining your chances of success?
And that’s where we reach the crux of the matter. Our television audience, and our live audience is just too small. The truth is that not enough people care about the Welsh international team. This isn’t just about the size of the crowd – there were attendances of 3-4,000 quite often in the past. But there is a general apathy about the side which is disconcerting. As Swansea and Cardiff enjoy relative success, we hear more and more of their supporters decrying the efforts of the national side. It’s club over country for the vast majority of them now that the faded novelty of the new Millennium Stadium has dissipated ‘the best supported country in Europe’.
There is also the minor but nagging feeling that outside forces, and even plenty of Welshmen, would very much prefer to support a combined Great Britain side. In 1972, a motion in parliament proposed this very thing. The Uruguayans held the support of the whole South American continent when they blackmailed the home nations in the same year, and latterly we’ve seen the call for a regular GB side made from politicians and populists alike. Even our Glyndwr-tattooed players were thrilled to wear the Union Jack during the recent Olympics.
We’re witnessing a domino effect which is going to be very difficult to reverse. The big clubs control the players, and hold massive influence over FIFA and UEFA. The international association executives need income from television audiences to maintain their plush lifestyles, and so they put in place a seeding system which gives the bigger nations a second chance to qualify. They force international fixtures onto a double-header Friday-Tuesday weekend, which again penalises the nations with smaller squads. As football ever-increasingly becomes more of a business than a sport, our viewing habits are being influenced by global brands who have a weekly product to push. Everybody must show, and most do show blind loyalty to their club. And that leaves the international game in a precarious position.
As our international players abandon us in increasing numbers, disenfranchised by an ever-more hostile and critical Welsh public, the Welsh squad will become even more threadbare. Because whereas Welsh international players were once our heroes, our idols, they are now no more than easy targets for our sophisticated fans, spoilt by the gluttony of the professional club game. And from that position of weakness, we will spiral quickly towards the disappearance of the senior side. Friendlies will be the first casualty, disappearing within a decade. Smaller nations will then be forced to pre-qualify for tournaments in which the strong countries with large populations are guaranteed a place – just like the Champions League. If you think it’s hard to get a team together to face Italy and Germany, you just wait until we are playing in a secondary ‘Shield’ competition. As clubs dominate the whole sport, only Under 21/23 internationals will survive the next twenty years, as the clubs allow their fringe players to gain experience with national development teams. There will be no more evenings like Austria 75, Spain 85, Germany 91, and Italy 02, And the saddest part of all of this, is that not very many people in Wales will give a damn.