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.