Exactly 10 years ago today, almost 2,000 Welsh football fans flew to Moscow to support Mark Hughes’ team in the first leg of a play-off to reach the finals of the 2003 European Championships, to be held in Portugal. I’ve never been a regular on Wales away trips, but this was too important to miss.
Unfortunately, I discovered in the days leading up to the flight that my VISA was invalid. The dates on my VISA did not match my passport, and I would effectively be entering Russia illegally. After much consideration, I decided to chance it. I would be flying on an official supporters flight and hoped that our path would be quite smooth and not under huge scrutiny. And so it proved. I arrived without problem, but this meant I was restricted largely to the Hotel Rossiya as I didn’t want to risk a police spot check and end up in the Gulag.
The atmosphere in Moscow was intimidating with stories of unporovoked attacks on Welsh fans and theft and robbery travelling quickly around the four nightclubs which were situated on the four corners of the now demolished hotel near Red Square. I ventured out during the day and for a few hours one evening, but that was it – my trip to Moscow was largely contained to the hotel.
For another group of fans things were different. This group of loyal and committed Wales supporters had met on various trips to far-flung parts of Europe over the preceding years and had created strong bonds. Many of them had been to every game of that campaign, including trips to Finland, Italy, Serbia and Azerbaijan. And their travels had been covered by a small television crew.
Emyr Gruffudd was a Director working for Cwmni Da , a television company based in Caernarfon. A keen supporter himself, he saw the potential for a programme which followed the fans instead of the players. Accompanied by a single camera operator (who had absolutely no interest in football), he followed the fans throughout. The result was an iconic documentary called ‘C’mon Cymru’, which was recently shown again on S4C , 10 years after its original broadcast.
That original programme went out after the end of Wales’ group games. But Emyr took the camera to Moscow and also filmed the 2nd leg in Cardiff, planning another programme which followed the supporters to Portugal. But of course that never happened, and the tapes lay forgotten on a shelf for a decade.
Coincidently, I began working for Cwmni Da two years ago, and heard about the footage which had never been seen. After a long search, we discovered that the tapes were possibly being stored in a building nearby. I arranged to meet with a former S4C archivist in his lunch hour, but we held little hope of finding the small box of mini-DVs amongst thousands of similar cases.
Conveniently, we found the tapes on the first shelf, at head height, straight in front of us as we opened the door. After viewing the rushes, we thought there was something worth publishing. Its not often you get footage like this from a fans perspective, and I thought it would be interesting to look back on the pre-match hopes and experience that trip from the fans point of view.
I also think that there is something culturally worthwhile here, as the vast majority of the dialogue is conducted in the Welsh language. The short film shows Welsh as a living language, spoken naturally by a group of lads from all corners of Wales, on a football trip – this isn’t Welsh on a stage, or Welsh as a political statement – it’s just their mother tongue. I know that as a young boy growing up in Cardiff, I had no idea that people actually lived their lives through the medium of Welsh.
I’m really grateful that Cwmni Da allowed me the time to work on the film and to BBC Cymru Wales for allowing me to use the radio commentary which describes the match action.
Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to provide subtitles, but there is plenty to enjoy here for those who don’t understand Welsh, not least a cracking version of Teenage Kicks in the minibus. All of us fans have experienced the raw excitement of the trip across an unfamiliar City, the tense walk to an intimidating ground, the confusion as we look for our entrance.
In the stadium, the camera focus is on the fans as their expectations change from a respectable defeat , and we share their rising hope as a disciplined performance keeps the game scoreless towards the end. I feel tense even now, rewatching this film and remember the explosion of joy that greeted the final whistle. That long chorus of Hey Jude is still one of the highlights of my life as a Welsh football fan.
Of course, there is a miserable sequel to this story. The tapes of the second leg in Cardiff sit in front of me, unused. The truth is that I’m sick to death of Welsh failure, and for once I wanted to finish on a happy ending. Let’s pretend that the second leg never happened, and relive that unforgettable night in Moscow.
I was given the opportunity by my son’s local football club to make the two hour trip to Manchester last night and watch the Champions League fixture between Manchester City and Bayern Munich. I’m now well into my second season of boycotting Cardiff City in protest at the club’s rebranding and that decision has robbed my young sons’ of the experience of attending big professional games. The international team’s persistence with midweek home games, four hours away in Cardiff means that they don’t even get to see Wales play. I felt I owed them this one, and gladly forked out the £128 that would secure our seats and a place on the bus.
In a sense this was my first experience of the modern domestic game at the top level. I’ve been away with Cardiff at Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool in the past decade, but that was slightly different. The Cardiff away crowd at that time still hadn’t bought in to the new shininess and we were unwelcomed ragged-arse visitors smirking in awe as we stood on the padded seats and our naughty boys smoked weed in the expensively fitted disabled toilets. It wasn’t part of our world. We still gleefully booed every player we’d seen on Match of the Day.
So what did I make of the Etihad? Firstly, I found the name itself was really jarring. “Are you going to the Etihad?” That makes no sense, and neither does the “Emirates”. They are absurd names for stadia and I think it’s instructive that fans have happily adopted them. The names have no connection to the local area, yet it seems that those who count are prepared to embrace such naked commercialism for the perceived gift of high quality football that it gives them. And who am I to argue with the sycophantic banner that declared Manchester’s gratitude to the Sheik?
Eastland stadium is beautiful. Its curved roof and particularly the turreted entrances offer a welcome relief from the breeze block designs which blight so many cheap modern grounds. There is character in those new Manchester walls, and only a curmudgeon would resist a keen sense of anticipation as the stadium comes into view. The sky-blue floored Mercer Way adds a sense of grandeur to your approach to the arena – a nod to the famous Wembley Way.
But it was about the time that I saw my first programme seller that I started to get an uneasy feeling. The booths are decked out in images of old programmes from the seventies, eighties and beyond. And there were old images of action from Maine Road plastered everywhere on the concourse walls . There was a collection of huge images from the clubs history and a series of ‘my first game’ fan soundbites which provided a romantic, nostalgic background to your arrival. One such mural featured Helen ‘The Bell’ Turner, a wekk-known City supporter of 30 years standing. Ironically it celebrated the very type of obsessive fan that will struggle to emerge from the current generation.
In the now ubiquitous ‘fanzone’, we each ate a £10 meal of burger chips and pop while we listened to a live brass band – another conspicuous nod to nostalgia. Meanwhile, City ‘legend’ Paul Dickov was interviewed live on stage by a cheesy DJ in front of the Colin Bell Stand. Are you getting my drift? Manchester City are supreme exponents of modern football’s infallible business plan. They take the history generated from experiences that we helped create – and they re-package it as nostalgia for a wider audience and sell it back to us at premium prices. It’s brilliant, and we lap it up!
The turreted entrances at Eastlands offered a concrete metaphor for the Premier League ‘matchday experience’. This is Disneyland Football. And in that sense it’s great – I’ve been to Disneyland twice and I loved it. But this is just football as a theme park, and if you’ve experienced the real thing, this sanitised, shiny, processed event is nothing but an empty vessel. I’m from a generation that created its own entertainment – we watched Pongo repeatedly throw his bobble hat over the fence, we rushed to the back of the Bob Bank when a train arrived at Ninian Park halt, and we watched nutters worship flags and scarves in the centre circle as we sang our hearts out. These days, we’re not even trusted to celebrate a goal without loud music prompting us to sing along to Tom Hark.
Manchester City’s marketing team have expertly manipulated the fans’ hunger for nostalgia to create a feeling of attachment that seems unnecessary at a club who already had the most loyal fans in football as their customers. But it is working – not all of those many thousands of loyal fans who followed the club in Division 2 could now afford the £48 ticket to watch last night’s game. But somebody needs to finance the obscene salaries commanded by the players who were so outclassed by Bayern, and in the UK, ticket prices reflect that greed. The Bundesliga has it spectacularly right – the partying Bayern fans last night reminded me why I was attracted to football in the first place – and you could feel an old-fashioned connection between the team and its supporters . In contrast the home support was inflated by too many football tourists, by occasional special-event visitors, and by middle class spectators and businessmen who returned late from their delicious half-time nibbles. As one of the football tourists, my own half-time nibbles included a £2.50 bag of skittles. Somehow top class football has persuaded us that ridiculous prices are acceptable – much like outrageously priced popcorn at the cinema. Spending over-the-odds is part of the experience for the occasional visitor.
But it is the success of Man City’s unashamedly nostalgic marketing campaign which makes me wonder once again about Vincent Tan’s strategy at my club. If he had followed Manchester City’s model, kept the bluebird and milked our club’s history then I would have been putty in his hands. I’m very much in a minority now – I have great friends who are enjoying Cardiff’s time at the top, and there are many genuine, long-suffering supporters, who can happily look past the rebrand in the name of progress. I refuse to judge them, and respect their position, but I’m not one of them. I firmly believe that anybody who attends games, even if they protest-march their way to the ground are actively supporting Tan’s megalomania, and hastening the demise of Cardiff City as we know it. I just can’t be part of that.
I very much enjoyed watching the best club team I’ve ever seen live last night, but even my 13 year old son could tell the difference between the photo-snapping star-gazing of the large crowd and the collective intensity of a small club’s support. I’m not against modern football, it’s just a different, more polished product. I prefer my matchday experience to be a little rougher round the edges.
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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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.’