The announcement that Millennium Stadium will host next year’s European Championship qualifying game between Wales and England has caused plenty of discussion and no little fury amongst Welsh football supporters.
Much of the discussion about the game has taken place in the Welsh Language Media and a heated debate on Radio Cymru in the past few hours perfectly illustrated the polarised viewpoints of those involved.
Gwilym Boore is one of the Welsh international team’s most ardent supporters, and hasn’t missed a home game in 20 years. Ian Gwyn Hughes is a popular Welsh language broadcaster, turned Match of the Day commentator who has latterly been appointed the FAW’s Director of Communications. This is the first time I’ve heard IGH speak publically as part of his new role and he was certainly ruffled by Gwilym’s criticism of the decision.
So what’s the problem? England played at the Stadium in 2005 with only minor problems. What’s changed?
Well things are different now. Wales’ level of support has plummeted. In 2005, the match was sold out primarily to season ticket holders; Wales supporters who had bought tickets for each match of the campaign and would be unlikely to pass on the chance of a ticket for the big one. During this campaign, ticket sales have been poor, and there would be less than 10,000 of the available 70,000 tickets guaranteed to go to genuine Wales fans. There are plenty of die-hard fans who fear that it would be impossible to stop the home support being outnumbered by our visitors and that serious disorder would follow.
There is a sporting argument here too. The previous manager John Toshack publically stated that he wanted to play against England in a smaller capacity stadium to give us as much of an advantage as possible. There is a suspicion that the FAW have announced this decision now, while we are managerless, to take that decision away from the next incumbent.
During the radio discussion, Gwilym referred to the 1977 match between Wales and Scotland which the FAW chose to play at Anfield in order to raise more money. The result was that Welsh fans were outnumber heavily by Scots on the night and Wales lost our biggest chance to qualify for the finals of a tournament. For many people, this decision is repeating history.
Ian Gwyn Hughes was adamant that we should stop looking back at past incidents and start afresh, looking forward to a new future for Wales. He practically accused Gwilym of scaremongering and suggested that if Cardiff and Swansea can arrange big games, and Cardiff can host FA Cup Finals, then this fixture should also be manageable. Indeed, that we need it to be manageable to prove that Wales can deal with big occasions.
Now IGH is no mug. He knows full well what the differences are here. Cardiff and Swansea deal with big games well because the opposition support is localised. Team support comes from one place, and can be monitored, and travel restrictions can be made easily. He even compared the England visit to a game against Italy after the problems in Milan.”Would you play the Italians in the Millennium Stadium” he asked? Well yes, said Gwilym (apart from the rugby stadium argument) , because they need to cross a border and there would be less than 1,000 travelling support. Totally different scenario. And I think IGH knows that full well.
When England play in Cardiff we could see an exodus of at least 20,000. They would filter into Wales without any possible border checkpoints other than the Severn Bridge. Despite his wish that Gwilym stopped looking to the past, Ian Gwyn Hughes cited previous occasions when we had played England without problems, including the famous victory for Mike England’s team in 1980. The show’s presenter Dylan Jones remembered that game well – it was kicking off all over the Wrexham Kop as he recalled.
One way of managing the game would be to sell only to people on the FAW database. Yes of course this should be a requirement, but it’s the desirability of the game itself which will cause problems. There are plenty of people on that database who have given up on Wales, and the chance to obtain tickets for English friends, or sell on the black market would be grasped. And remember that 20% of Wales’ population is English-born, so there can be no effective postcode control on ticket supply.
The potential for trouble is obvious to all. Personally I don’t feel as strongly as Gwilym, but I agree with his assessment that the match attendance is uncontrollable. The only way it can be safe is if enough Welsh people buy tickets and don’t pass them on. In the current political and sporting climate, I don’t think we can rely on that commitment.
I think the FAW don’t have much choice. They are not a rich body and the financial income from this game is too attractive to turn down. But that’s what it is. It’s a financial decision which sacrifices our sporting advantage to pay the wages of administrators and to fund the sport’s development. It isn’t a decision based on Ian Gwyn Hughes’ new-logo, new-future, fresh start for the team, nor is it about demonstrating our ability to manage events. This is all about the green stuff, and the FAW should admit that while they construe an event-control strategy that involves more than finger-crossing.