To understand contemporary Wales, look no further than sport. This is simply because until the creation of the National Assembly in 1999 sport was the only walk of life in which Wales actually existed – the 1536 Act of Union having abolished Wales as an entity and made it a part of England. As a result, Welsh expressions of nationhood have had no outlet other than sport. By chance, two of the most important global sports were invented in England, allowing Wales to be in at the very birth of both football and rugby: the FAW, founded in 1876, the first ever all-Wales body, was closely followed by the WRU in 1881. It is fair to say that, without these sports, Wales as a concept might not have survived at all. Lacking a specifically Welsh politics or media, the usual avenues for public discourse, it has been left to sport, by default, to act as the arena where buried questions of identity, allegiance and autonomy can surface. This is particularly true in the capital, a city virtually defined by the national sports stadium at its heart.
Cardiff is also home to nearly all the various governing bodies of sport in Wales, as well as the Assembly-funded quango, Sport Wales. So, in Cardiff in the 21st century, in a range of fundamentally inconsequential pastimes, the centuries-old struggle between Cymru and colony is bizarrely being acted out. Here, in alphabetical order of each sport, is the current state of play:
Since devolution many formerly moribund areas of Welsh life have begun to organise on a national basis, in readiness for the time when they have some genuine responsibility. In target archery the Welsh Archery Association was established in 2000, with its head office in Barry. In field archery, where Wales has a tradition of excellence stretching back to, ooh, 633AD when the King of the invading Mercians got one in the eye from a Welsh longbow, the Welsh Field Archery Association based at Fonmon Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan is completely independent, enabling Wales to compete in international competitions.
Athletics would have zero profile without the Olympics, and without athletics there would be no Olympics. Every four years track and field events take the Olympic limelight, only to disappear off the radar till the next time. Welsh athletes can only perform on this world stage as members of the GB team, wrapped in the very symbol of Welsh dispossession. This humiliation is utterly unnecessary because there is actually no reason why Wales cannot be a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in its own right.
IOC rules permit membership by “nations…independent territories, commonwealths, protectorates and geographical areas.” That’s why there are 205 IOC members compared to 193 United Nations members. Welsh membership would require political will from the Assembly and Sport Wales and some co-ordination with Scotland, Ireland and England, but otherwise wouldn’t be complicated – it’s already done at the Commonwealth Games. In fact it would hugely simplify sports administration in the UK, ending duplication and making use of the already devolved national governing bodies that exist in virtually every sport. It is the Olympics which are the artificial abnormality, requiring four sets of governing bodies in nearly 30 sports to coalesce for one month before disbanding for the next 47 months. The Assembly government is forever moaning about Wales’ invisible global profile (apparently, nobody has heard of us); well, here’s the surest, cheapest route to prominence in Palookahville. Will the Labour government in the Senedd fire off the necessary letter to the British Olympic Association in London? Don’t hold your breath: politicians whose first loyalty is to Wales will have to be elected before that happens.
Until then athletics in Wales has an unavoidable sense of futility about it. The governing body, Welsh Athletics (WA), was formed in 1950 as the Welsh Amateur Athletics Association. Based at Leckwith, WA has full-time staff, regional committees, coaches and development officers galore, issues reams of rousing mission statements, and receives more financial aid than any other sport in Wales. Yet, despite all that support, it manages to achieve less than in the old days of amateur athletics.
Cardiff has a decent reputation for producing runners, ever since the formation of the first running club in Wales, Roath Harriers, at the Royal Oak pub in 1882. Sprinter David Jacobs (1888-1976), miler Jim Alford (1913-2004), hurdler Colin Jackson, paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson and sprinters Christian Malcolm, Matt Elias and Jamie Baulch have been the cream of the crop. Most came through at Roath Harriers or at Birchgrove Harriers, set up in 1951 to use the new Maindy Stadium. Roath and Birchgrove amalgamated in 1968 to form Cardiff Amateur Athletic Club (CAAC) and in 1989 CAAC moved to a new Council-built facility at Leckwith while Maindy Stadium became a cycle track. Leckwith Stadium lasted just 18 years before being pulled down to make way for Cardiff City’s new stadium. A replacement went up on the other side of the road as part of the deal which gave away public assets to bail out City’s untenable finances (optimistically called Cardiff International Sports Stadium, the 2500-seat ground is currently rented out to Cardiff & Vale College). CAAC and WA occupy offices in the stadium cheek by jowl; in effect the two organisations are interchangeable. Feather-bedded by subsidy, wrapped in cotton wool by British patronage, unchallenged by toadying media, athletics in Wales will remain insignificant until we join that obscene Olympic orgy.
The Welsh Badminton Union dates back to 1928 and is based in Sophia Gardens at the Sport Wales National Centre (the third name the facility has had since opening in 1971). Wales is a full independent member of the Badminton World Federation, taking part in all the team and individual world championships. Kelly Morgan from Tonteg and Richard Vaughan from Caerffili have both reached the world’s top 10 in the past, no mean achievement in a sport dominated by Asia.
No, no; not American baseball, the game deeply ingrained in US culture but never really established beyond countries where the US military made its presence felt, like Cuba, Japan and South Korea. The Yanks’ iconic sport is merely one version of many bat-and-ball games that evolved in the 19th century. Finland, Russia and Ireland have their own unique variations – and so does Wales!
The sport established a firm foothold in only three places: Cardiff, Newport and Liverpool, all ports which absorbed a huge influx of Irish immigrants. It was the cross-breeding of Gaelic rounders with cricket that gave birth to Welsh baseball. In Cardiff the natives were not as attached to class-bound, hierarchical cricket as in more genteel areas, so baseball was able to take root in a big way, particularly in the churches and social clubs of archetypal working-class areas Grangetown and Splott. By 1892 there were enough teams playing regular games on the open fields on the outskirts of town for leagues to be set up. The Welsh Baseball Union was founded in 1912 in Cardiff and the Welsh Ladies Baseball Union in 1922.
Differing from American baseball in that bowling is underarm rather than overarm, the bat is flat rather than rounded, there are eleven a side rather than nine, and a run is scored at each base rather than at home base only, the sport failed to expand outside its core docks towns. This was mainly because the American game was introduced, for a while fairly successfully but ultimately in vain, to the English midlands and London, halting the spread of the indigenous game, and because cricket proved unassailable as the prime summer sport. The game’s governing body, the International Baseball Board, founded in 1927 when unified rules were agreed, therefore has just two members: Wales and England. The season’s highlight is the annual men’s international, first played in 1906 at the Harlequins Ground in Roath. Only interrupted by world wars, there have been 87 internationals, Wales winning 65 to England’s 20 with two draws because of rain. Wales is currently on a run of 14 consecutive wins, making baseball the only team sport in which Wales is the world champion (well, if the US can call their internal competition the ‘World Series’…). Sadly, for the first time since WW2, the fixture was called off in 2015 because England were unable to raise a team.
Now Newport has just one club left and Liverpool two. The sport has shrunk back to its Cardiff heartland. Over the years baseball has uncovered some of the city’s most celebrated characters: the exploits of Fred Hayes (1917-2002), Paddy Hennessey, Ted Peterson (1916-2005) and Terry ‘Slogger’ Slocombe are lodged in Cardiff folklore. The halcyon days between the 1940s and 1970s, when big crowds would watch major clubs like Grange Albion, Splott University Settlement, Penylan and Fairoak, and when the clash with England could pull in up to 20,000, may be long gone, but against overwhelming odds baseball hangs on in Cardiff. The women’s league is growing continually and the clubs have flourishing youth sections as Cardiffians pass the secrets of the game down the generations. The baseball clubs themselves have become Cardiff institutions, integral to the city’s distinctiveness and culture. The two longest-surviving, Grange Albion and St Albans, were formed in 1907. Many have club-houses which are some of the city’s best places for social drinking, and most run football and rugby teams as well. The list of baseball players who were also excellent footballers is a who’s-who of Cardiff City, and rugby legends like Mark Ring, David Bishop and Terry Holmes in union and Jim Sullivan in league honed their hand-eye co-ordination skills on the diamonds of Cardiff. Meanwhile, the only authentic, unalloyed, unadulterated Cardiff accent to be heard on all of Welsh TV is that of Grange Albion legend and unrivalled baseball authority Mark Jones doing his excellent English-language commentary on S4C’s live Welsh Premier League football programme Sgorio.
This is the beauty of Welsh baseball; it is not a closed world, it is not about money, it is not a branch of the leisure industry, it is not spoon-fed from on high to passive TV audiences. It is ideally suited to a quintessential Celtic type: raw-boned, hyper-active, grinning boys and girls who love their games. It is a Cardiff speciality, going against the grain of global uniformity and distinguishing the city from everywhere else. It is also a seriously demanding game where the rock hard ball can be hurled at speeds of over 70mph yet be sent soaring into the outfield by one-handed slogs, while the fast and furious action makes it a great spectacle. Baseball is cherished in what is left of independent-minded, non-conforming Cardiff. And if, on a summer Saturday afternoon, you’re ever passing near the Harlequins Ground, Riverside Park, Roath Rec, Rumney Rec, Sevenoaks Park, Tremorfa Park or The Marl (where baseball figures adorn the railings), do stop a while and catch a game. Before it’s too late.
Let basketball serve as an awful warning of what happens to Welsh sports that surrender their autonomy for the sake of GB’s Olympic ambitions. The Basketball Association of Wales (BAW) dates back to 1952. It ticked over for decades, joining the International Basketball Association (FIBA) in 1956 and establishing a very minor, but nevertheless tangible, Welsh presence in the world game. Then, as soon as London was awarded the 2012 Olympics it was ordained that ‘Team GB’ had to compete in everything. None of the UK countries had ever remotely managed to meet Olympic qualification standard in basketball and GB’s solitary previous appearance was a one-off as hosts in London 1948, so the GB question had never hitherto arisen. The BAW and its Scottish equivalent instantly tossed away their international status to help England, I mean GB massage its one-big-happy-family public image for a world audience.
London 2012 came and went, with both the men’s and women’s teams doing badly. The BAW soon discovered that a posh new Sophia Gardens address and a funky new name, Basketball Wales (BW), came at the cost of its very purpose. England and Scotland decided to make the GB arrangement permanent; BW disagreed but nobody listened – Wales being an irrelevant 5% of GB. FIBA ratified it, and that was that. Wales was unceremoniously ejected from the world game and the route to top level basketball was effectively closed to Welsh players indefinitely. What an interesting new sporting tactic: avoid defeat by committing suicide! In Sport Wales corridors this is known as the “Olympic legacy”. Mind you, nobody in Wales even noticed – basketball being an artificial, Yankee mega-bore, designed by US TV stations to sell advertising in the interminable ‘time outs’, in which two teams of 7 ft freaks take it in turns to score until it ends up something ludicrous like 128-127 depending on who won the toss. Slam dunk.
There are few sports with a structure as chaotic as the ancient game of bowls. You’d think it would be straightforward: elderly folk in spotless whites rolling ovoids at a target across a lawn, with someone losing their dentures in the ditch the very worst that could happen – but not a bit of it. There is a tangle of competing governing bodies, different codes and rival championships that even insiders struggle to comprehend. The ‘flat green’ code is the version that has spread across the world and Wales has full independent membership of both the outdoor and the indoor governing bodies, World Bowls and the World Indoor Bowls Council. In fact World Bowls was actually formed in Cardiff (as the International Bowls Board), at the Park Hotel in 1905.
The structure of the sport within Wales is equally Byzantine, and still divided on gender lines, but the plethora of overlapping regulatory bodies never seems to damage the game’s rude health, and over the years Wales has produced five individual world champions: Maldwyn Evans (1937-2009) and Janet Ackland in the four-yearly outdoor championships, and Terry Sullivan, John Price and Robert Weale in the annual, TV-friendly, indoor championships. If ever a sport was designed to suit the proneness of the Welsh lower-middle-classes to form a committee at the drop of a hat, then this is it. Everyone can have an officious job title when, in addition to the original Welsh Bowling Association (WBA), there’s also the WWBA, the WIBA, the WLIBA and the WCGBA!
In Welsh bowls social networking is half the point – a consequence of the game being first introduced in Cardiff, where the adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” should be on the city’s coat of arms. The oldest bowls club in Wales is the Cardiff Bowling Club in Sophia Gardens, founded in 1878 under the patronage of the Butes (the 7th Marquis, from his family seat on the Isle of Bute, is President of the club to this day – making bowls the dynasty’s last remaining connection to the city they dominated for 150 years). Head gardener Andrew Pettigrew (1833-1903) laid down the green and the club quickly became a magnet for Cardiff’s back-scratching politicians and businessmen. It was here in 1904 that the WBA was formed at a meeting with the Pontypŵl and Mackintosh clubs. The Mackintosh, Cardiff’s 2nd oldest club founded in 1891, maintains a green in the middle of Roath to this day. Cardiff Bowling Club concentrated on indoor bowls after building a new facility in 1984 and since then the Penylan club, opened by Lord Tredegar (1830-1913) in 1909, has become the city’s leading outdoor bowls club, regularly supplying the Welsh international team with expert coaxers of those biased woods.
Boxing resonates deeply in Wales. As in all countries where the population is overwhelmingly working-class, boxing has served as a rare opportunity to escape from poverty. And, because it is not a team sport, individuals can determine their own identity, meaning Welsh boxers have been free to define themselves as Welsh rather than British. In the rough, tough iron towns of the Glamorgan mountains, the anthracite-hard coal-mining valleys and the fists-first docks and railway yards of Cardiff, Wales had the ideal circumstances to produce boxers when the sport began to be organised in the late 19th century. Welsh boxers went on to conquer the world, not only by winning titles and belts but also through their compelling personalities and life stories.
The first great to emerge was featherweight Jim Driscoll (1880-1925) in the booths and back-rooms of Tiger Bay. Flyweight Percy Jones (1892-1922) of Porth was the first Welsh world champion in 1914, closely followed by Pontypridd’s Freddie Welsh (1886-1927) who won the world lightweight title later in the same year. Then another flyweight from the Rhondda, Jimmy Wilde (1892-1969) of Tylorstown, became the first Welsh boxer to achieve superstar status by retaining the world flyweight title from 1916 to 1923. The ‘Mighty Atom’ is still rated by many as the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time and his incredible exploits clinched boxing’s popularity across Wales. When Tommy Farr (1914-1986) of Tonypandy took on Joe Louis (1914-1981) for the heavyweight championship of the world in 1937 most of the country was huddled around the wireless at three o’clock in the morning listening to the live commentary from the Yankee Stadium in New York. The most high-profile fight any Welshman has ever taken part in was won by Louis on points after 15 dramatic, blood-splattered rounds. Boxing had carved itself into the Welsh sense of self, tapping into ancient warrior memories and reformulating them into a Welsh trademark: perpetual underdog up against overwhelming odds but, terrier-like, coming back for more – a characteristic still at large today, from John Humphrys’ interviewing techniques to the Super Furry Animals’ musical experiments.
Even since Wales became post-industrial and the conveyor belt of hungry hard men from pits and steelworks ground to a halt, the enduring affinity with boxing has ensured a steady supply of world champions: Howard Winstone (1939-2000) from Merthyr at featherweight in 1968; Cardiffian Steve Robinson from Ely, another featherweight, successfully defending his title seven times between 1993 and 1995; Bargoed’s Robbie Regan at bantamweight in 1996; Barry Jones, another Ely boy, at super-featherweight in 1997; Enzo Maccarinelli from Swansea, holder of the cruiserweight title 2003-2008; Gavin Rees of Newbridge at light-welterweight in 2007; Nathan Cleverly of Blackwood at light-heavyweight 2011-2013; most recent world champion featherweight Lee Selby of Barry; and, with a record that has eclipsed even Jimmy Wilde’s, Joe Calzaghe from Newbridge, undefeated world super middleweight champion from 1997 until his retirement in 2009, successfully defending his title an amazing 21 times – second only to Joe Louis’ all-time record of 25 title defences. In a boxing world where there are now 17 weight categories and five different governing bodies all awarding their own titles, Calzaghe is one of the very few who was an undisputed champ, having won all titles available at one time or another. Never defeated as a professional fighter, his 46 wins in 46 bouts included 32 knock-outs. Cardiff was the scene of 17 of those triumphs, from his first fight at the old Arms Park at the bottom of the bill on the night Lennox Lewis KO’d Frank Bruno in 1993 to his 2007 showdown with Mikkel Kessler of Denmark at the Millennium Stadium which saw him become the only undisputed champion of the super-middleweight category since its introduction in 1984. It’s fitting that so many of Joe’s triumphs took place in Cardiff because the city has been a boxing Mecca since the days of Peerless Jim.
The Central Boys Club, in Penarth Road from 1919 and then at the top of Bute Street from 1939 to 1994, was a wonderful breeding-ground, and opportunities to box were plentiful in the many pubs with a boxing ring. The Central Youth Club, as it became known from 1965 when girls were admitted, was replaced by an office block which lasted just a decade before it too was demolished in 2006; only one pub boxing ring survives in the city at the Royal Oak in Roath. Among the other notable boxers to come from these mean streets mention must be made of Jack Petersen (1911-1990) from Canton, Joe Erskine (1934-1990) from Butetown, Eddie Avoth from Ely, Pat Thomas from Butetown and Nicky Piper from Ely. Cardiff will always produce boxers; many boxing venues have been lost (eg: the Roller Rink, Greyfriars Hall, Sophia Gardens Pavilion, Ninian Park) but there are 10 amateur boxing clubs in the city and, if my neighbourhood is anything to go by, enough pugnacious little bastards out there who could be the heroes of the future. But they would have to be very special to ever displace ‘The Merthyr Matchstick Man’ Johnny Owen (1956-1980) as the ultimate Welsh boxing icon.
Having won the Welsh, British, Commonwealth and European bantamweight belts, the skeletally skinny Owen reached for glory by taking on Mexican Lupe Pintor for the world crown in front of a passionately partisan Mexican crowd at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles on a hot September night in 1980. An increasingly incredulous world looked on as Owen outboxed the steel-muscled Pintor for round after round until the Mexican’s piledrivers started getting through to Johnny’s fragile frame as he tired. For the first time in his career he hit the canvas in the 9th round. Ref Marty Denkin, who went on to star in the Rocky films, asked him if he was alright. Shy, respectful Johnny, ever the good-natured Valleys boy, said “Yes, sir.” “The politest fighter I ever met,” Denkin would recall later. In the 12th round Pintor landed more devastating punches to floor Owen. He got up one last time to receive a right-hander 25 seconds from the end of the round which saw him crumple to the ground horrifyingly. His jaw bone had been driven up into his skull. The huge TV audience at home knew the worst instantly; and in that moment our hearts were ripped apart. There were six weeks of lamentations before he died in the California Hospital on Hope Street, never having come out of a coma, aged 24.
Only this brutal, elemental, amoral sport could engender the level of raw, collective grief which then enveloped Wales. The tragedy laid bare many profound themes in the Welsh psyche: our sense of victimhood, of bad luck, of being overpowered, of doom. There’s a statue now of Johnny Owen in the centre of Merthyr, unveiled in 2002 by his father/trainer Dick and a sobbing Lupe Pintor. It’s the only town in the world with statues of three boxers – Howard Winstone and legendary trainer Eddie Thomas (1926-1997) are the others. Resting beneath the looming, cloud-topped Brecon Beacons where as a bony little lad he would run all day, Johnny won his “fight for the right to be remembered.” He was, in the words of the inscription, Gwîr Fab o Gymru, a True Son of Wales.
I have already written at length about cricket in Wales (see http://tinyurl.com/ovkcx28), so will confine myself here to recent developments as Cardiff hosts another England v Australia test match at Sophia Gardens, I mean the SWALEC Stadium, I mean the SSE SWALEC Stadium, I mean whatever humiliatingly hideous moniker Glamorgan CCC’s corporate paymasters choose to foist on the city’s oldest public park…
The only stadium in the world purpose-built to hold another country’s sporting events, paid for by £6 million in unsecured loans from the Council and a straight gift of £3 million from the Assembly government, has been a disaster. Losing money hand over fist, the completely untenable financial proposition that was Glamorgan’s vainglorious Sophia Gardens vandalism has just been saved from bankruptcy by Cardiff Council writing off £4 million of debt. Yes, while ‘austerity’ cuts are decimating every facet of the city’s services and public realm, the chaotically inept Labour Council has bailed out a private members sports club with a huge charitable donation it can ill afford! Why?
Firstly, because Glamorgan have got the Council just where they want it: spreadeagled over a barrel of its own making. Successive administrations have let the city’s economy evolve into an enrichment scheme for the bottom-line jackals of the leisure industry, progressively more and more dependent on the low wage, low skill, low satisfaction, lowest common denominator jobs that come with it. There are hotel beds, pubs, clubs, shops and restaurants galore to fill or else the whole shaky edifice comes tumbling down. Glamorgan know this; it was the very argument they used when extracting those “loans” in the first place (15,000 England fans will keep the tills ringing!). Now they’ve only needed to flip the argument on its head (the loss of 15,000 England fans will have the tills rusting!) and the incredibly stupid people who run Cardiff obligingly ransack the people’s precious assets. It’s like paying a blackmailer after he’s told everyone your secret!
And secondly, because Glamorgan are the very embodiment of the ‘Anything but Wales’ tendency that still larges it in Cardiff. British Nationalists control cricket in Wales and British Nationalists control Cardiff Council. Had Glamorgan folded the last barrier to the formation of a Wales cricket team would have fallen and Cardiff Council would reckon any price worth paying to stop that from happening. The overriding, underpinning motivation of both institutions is to resist any manifestation of Wales and to prop up every manifestation of UK/GB/England (delete as appropriate), all in the furtherance of a deep subconscious desire: to erase Wales from the face of the Earth.
Cycling perfectly encapsulates the key issue in Welsh sport, and therefore Welsh public life: the disentangling of the crushing relationship with Britain that, by definition, wipes Wales off the map. The governing body is British Cycling (BC). Wales is not recognised by (and has never sought membership of) the world body, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). As a sop to devolutionary trends BC has regional branches Welsh Cycling (WC) and Scottish Cycling which have no powers or responsibilities except to pick a squad when the Commonwealth Games comes round every four years. The fact that there is no ‘English Cycling’ in this arrangement says it all. It’s not because poor little England is being left out; it’s simply that England has got its own cycling body already – it’s called British Cycling. At Commonwealth Games time, the handful of Scots and Welsh in the BC team are dispensed with and, with a smooth gear change, ‘Britain’ becomes ‘England’. At all other times, including the competitions that matter in cycling, the world championships and the Olympics, ‘England’ effortlessly reverts back to being ‘Britain’. It couldn’t be clearer: Wales is a possession, subject to English whim, of use only when our best are co-opted to bolster the medals tally of a ‘Britain’ that excludes us anyhow. What’s WC doing about this? Oh – nothing. But rest easy, Sport Wales is monitoring the situation.
It’s such a shame, because Wales would do well if those in charge only had the self-belief to slap in an application for membership to UCI HQ in Switzerland. Champion cyclists have been produced by Wales since the earliest days of the sport in the 19th century, when Arthur Linton (1868-1896) and Jimmy Michael (1877-1904), both from Aberaman, were among the best in the world. Cardiff in particular, especially after the opening of Maindy Stadium in 1951 brought a state-of-the-art cycle track to the city, has become a fertile breeding ground for top cyclists. Reg Braddick (1913-1999) from Roath, who had represented Wales at the 1938 Empire Games in Sydney and set up a cycle shop on Broadway in 1945 which still exists today, helped to found the Cardiff Ajax Cycling Club at Maindy and it soon became the largest in Wales with an offshoot for under-16s, Maindy Flyers Cycling Club, following in 1995. Braddick inspired Splott’s Don Skene to become the first Welshman to win a Commonwealth Games cycling medal in 1954 (Skene also opened a cycle shop, in Rumney in 1952, which has survived too). Skene in turn galvanised another Cardiffian Sally Hodge to become the first Welsh person to win a world cycling title in 1988, in the 30 kilometre event, and Hodge was instrumental in the decision of Nicole Cooke, from Wick in the Vale of Glamorgan, to take cycling seriously at Cardiff Ajax CC and go on to become the UCI’s women’s world road champion in 2003 and 2008 and Olympic gold medallist in 2008, becoming the first woman to win world and Olympic cycling titles in the same year as well as the first person from Wales to simultaneously hold world and Olympic titles in any sport. Geraint Thomas of Whitchurch then kept the wheels spinning, winning Olympic golds in the team pursuit in 2008 and 2012 before landing cycling’s ultimate prize, the Tour de France, in 2018. And Owain Doull of Cardiff, a Maindy Flyer in his youth, won team pursuit gold for GB at the 2016 Olympics, becoming the first Welsh-speaking athlete to win an Olympic gold. The refurbished Maindy track is complemented by the Wales National Velodrome, opened in Newport in 2004, where the word ‘national’ is utilised in a way it frequently is in Wales: as a smoke-screen to conceal the mundane reality of our ‘regional’ status.
Darts has come a long way since it first transcended the pubs and became a spectator sport thanks to TV coverage in the 1970s, losing its innocence in the process with rancorous splits, money wars and rival governing bodies. Welsh players have been there from the beginning, in a game unencumbered by the albatross of Olympic recognition. Wales won the first ever Darts World Cup in 1977 and Leighton Rees (1940-2003) from Pontypridd and Alan Evans (1949-1999) from Ferndale were two of the big personalities who popularised the game. That tradition continues, with Richie Burnett from Cwmparc and Mark Webster from St Asaph the most recent Welsh world champions. Ruling body the Welsh Darts Organisation is based in Merthyr – but a fancy Cardiff office can only be a matter of time.
A quintessential Olympic sport run by British Fencing from London. Their Welsh outreach, Welsh Fencing, founded in 1902 and based in Lansdowne Avenue East, Canton, is permitted a few morsels of self-government and holds tournaments at Sophia Gardens. Until Wales gets IOC membership it is unlikely that fencing will grow beyond its core constituency of strange college kids with staring eyes. Touché.
As this blog has a dedicated ‘Football’ category, click the link for all you could ever want to know, and much you might not want to, about football in Wales. There is plenty on English pyramid stalwarts Cardiff City, the only capital city club in the world who do not compete in their own nation’s leagues, but nothing on the genuine Welsh football clubs of Cardiff. I will rectify that omission now, in descending order of clubs’ rankings in the Welsh pyramid as of 2014/2015.
Level 1 (Welsh Premier League)
There is no club from Cardiff in the top tier of Welsh football (try to conceive of the English Premier without a London club) and there hasn’t been since Grange Harlequins were relegated in 2006.
Level 2 (south) (Welsh League Division 1)
Founded in 1955 as a parks team for lads from the new Caerau estate in western Cardiff, the club spent its first 36 years slowly working its way up the junior then senior divisions of the Cardiff Combination League, playing firstly at Trelai Park and then at nearby Glyn Derw High School while gradually coming to dominate the Combination season after season. Boosted by sponsorship from legendary St Mary Street casino Les Croupiers, Caerau Ely were founder members of the South Wales Senior League (SWSL) in 1991, an attempt by the FAW to belatedly tackle the monumental task of creating a Welsh pyramid system (only now, 25 years later, has the system in southern Wales been made coherent with the amalgamation of the SWSL and the 1947-founded South Wales Amateur League to form the new South Wales Alliance League from 2015/16, ending the absurd anomaly of competing leagues at level 5).
By 1998 the club had risen to Welsh League Division 3 by winning the Senior League/Amateur League promotion play-off against Dinas Powys. This step up the ladder entailed another move, to the enclosed Cwrt-yr-Ala ground under the ancient embankments of Caerau Fort, in order to satisfy Welsh League ground criteria (Cwrt-yr-Ala is actually in the Vale of Glamorgan not Cardiff, being on the Vale side of the roaring A4232 trunk road that separates the two local authorities). Promotions to Division 2 in 2005 and Division 1 in 2010 put Caerau Ely within touching distance of the WPL – but, like so many clubs in the abjectly impoverished southern half of the Welsh pyramid, promotion to the WPL could not even be contemplated. Following an unprecedented setback to the remorseless upward trajectory when relegated back to Division 2 in 2012, Caerau Ely immediately bounced back to Division 1 in 2013 and then, in the season just completed, the club won the Welsh League title for the first time with a youthful, talented, all-Welsh squad, so becoming the first Cardiff club to win the 111-year-old competition since Cardiff City Reserves in 1972.
Runners-up Haverfordwest County were promoted back to the WPL after a four-year absence, Caerau Ely being ineligible purely because they lack the resources to attain the necessary FAW domestic licence which, for starters, would require major improvements at Cwrt-yr-Ala. Cwrt-yr-Ala was originally the sports ground of big docks’ employer Spillers and has been home to three separate but ultimately entwined Welsh League clubs before Caerau Ely: Lake United, AFC Cardiff and Inter Cardiff (see below).
The club has hit the glass ceiling that has already stymied Aberdare Town, Goytre United, Bryntirion Athletic (now Pen-y-Bont following merger with Bridgend Town), Cambrian & Clydach, Taffs Well, West End and Monmouth Town since the FAW introduced mandatory club-licensing in 2009. Of all the many and varied football pyramids around the world, it is only in the Welsh pyramid that promotion is voluntarily declined because it can’t be afforded. The problem is particularly acute in the southern feeder to the WPL because Cardiff City and Swansea City act as two giant leeches, each sucking the life out of every club within a 50 mile radius. They do this with the full support and encouragement of the Welsh establishment, from “the national newspaper of Wales” giving more coverage to Cardiff City’s youth team than the entire Welsh pyramid combined, via BBC Wales which ignores the Welsh pyramid completely and whose website even takes you to Cardiff City and Swansea City when you click on the ‘Welsh Football’ link, to the National Assembly itself which feeds huge sums of public money to the Anglo clubs by advertising at their grounds but always refuses to give a bean to any club in the Welsh system. Neither is there a whisper of dissent from the FAW, which doesn’t even have a policy on the issue, nor even from the perennially pauperised Welsh League clubs themselves, long since indoctrinated to know their place. Perhaps the red and blacks of Caerau Ely will learn to reject such defeatist fatalism and reach for the stars.
CARDIFF METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY
In a way, Cardiff Met were the last Cardiff club to play European football when, as one of their building-block components Inter Cardiff, they beat Gorica of Slovenia 1-0 at the old Leckwith Stadium in 1999. But this peculiar club, nowadays micro-managed like any other departmental faculty of the thrusting, ambitious University, tends to disown its fiendishly complex past – probably because it muddies the waters of the strictly academic sports science image the Uni would like to project. The Inter Cardiff connection has been surreptitiously erased from the club’s CV. Historical revisionism? This calls for Dic Mortimer!
Cardiff Met play in the well-heeled north Cardiff suburbs at the Uni’s Cyncoed Campus and are doing very well, having just finished 3rd in the Welsh League behind Caerau Ely and Haverfordwest County. Most unusually for a club in the south, they possess the FAW’s all-important domestic license – meaning they are currently the only club in the capital city eligible to play in the WPL. Might there at last be a strong, sustainable Cardiff club in the Welsh pyramid? Given their extraordinary history, which encompasses 15 different grounds, 13 different names and three mergers, I can only answer: don’t bet on it.
To begin at the beginning…In 1951 Cardiff Training College set up a football team, playing at Heath Park, which rose through the divisions of the Cardiff Combination until reaching the South Wales Amateur League in 1963. Shifting to Cyncoed Campus and changing name to Cardiff College of Education, the club progressed through the Amateur League to join the Welsh League in 1972 and by 1976 had reached Division 1. Each time Cardiff’s tertiary education system went through one of its periodic convulsions there had to be a corresponding name change: South Glamorgan Institute in 1979 (a title which coincided with a barren period and relegation back to Division 3 by 1987); Cardiff Institute of Higher Education in 1990; University of Wales Institute Cardiff (UWIC) in 1992. Consecutive promotions in 1996 and 1997 took UWIC back to Division 1, but there was no prospect of elevation to the WPL with a team of students, especially after the ground was obliterated to make way for an indoor athletics stadium in 1998 and the ‘Archers’ were shifted to an unprepossessing, rudimentary paddock in the far corner of the Campus.
At this point in the story we must go back in time. In 1960 pupils from Cardiff High collaborated with Lakeside locals to form Lake United, playing Sunday football at Cae Celyn. A year later Lake joined the Cardiff Combination and moved to the corporation pitches of Llandaf Fields. Meanwhile, Rumney Rangers were formed, playing on Rumney Rec. By 1962 they had joined Lake in the Combination, shifting base to Pontcanna Fields. Then in 1963 a village team was formed in Sully on the rocky Glamorgan coast, playing at Burnham Avenue in the Barry & District League. Sully ascended to the South Wales Amateur League in 1966, the Welsh League in 1970 and by 1974 had climbed to Division 1. Lake were also progressing upwards, to the Amateur League in 1974 and the Welsh League in 1979 – which required a move to Cwrt-yr-Ala in Caerau. After two consecutive promotions they joined Sully in Division 1 in 1981. Both were rocked by demotion to Division 2 in 1983 when enhanced Division 1 ground criteria declared Cwrt-yr-Ala and Burnham Avenue inadequate. Lake were unable to raise the relatively small amount needed to upgrade Cwrt-yr-Ala, so combined their playing resources with Rumney Rangers’ fund-raising expertise to form AFC Cardiff, a bold attempt to create a pan-Cardiff rival to Cardiff City.
AFC Cardiff pulled in the sponsorship deals and investment that allowed Cwrt-yr-Ala to meet the required standards and the club regained a Division 1 berth in 1987. Sully were still stranded in Division 2, thwarted by local residents blocking Burnham Avenue development and searching for a ground-sharing solution. In 1990 Sully found that solution: AFC’s sponsors had pulled out leaving them in a perilous financial position, while Sully chairman Max James had brokered an unprecedented sponsorship deal for a Welsh League club with Inter European Airways. The Sully seagulls swooped on AFC Cardiff, taking them over and forming yet another new club: Inter Cardiff. Inter moved into Cwrt-yr-Ala, took AFC’s place in Division 1, and when the WPL was formed in 1992 (as the League of Wales) their financial muscle and capital city status won them a place as founder members. It was time for another move: Cwrt-yr-Ala now didn’t meet WPL criteria, so Inter relocated to much less remote Cardiff Athletic Stadium at Leckwith (Inter were permitted to play their first WPL home game at Cwrt-yr-Ala, a 4-0 win over Connah’s Quay Nomads, because Leckwith was being used for athletics – although, as Caerau Ely know, that doesn’t mean the FAW have ever accepted the ground as suitable).
Comparatively wealthy, Inter Cardiff were one of the early powers of the WPL, finishing runners-up in the inaugural season. But the anticipated UEFA Cup slot for the runners-up did not materialise until season two because of protracted UEFA/FAW negotiations. In reaction, the sponsors peevishly jumped ship (the ‘Inter’ component was kept, in the manner of Inter Milan). However new finance was put in place by bringing Cardiff City owner Rick Wright on board (City were languishing in the depths of the English League and open-minded Wright was testing the WPL waters), securing a deal with brewers Brains and moving once again – to Ninian Park. Playing at the Sloper Road landmark in 1993/94, Inter again finished runners-up and thus qualified for Europe. But Wright withdrew his support in rage at the FAW’s inertia following champions Bangor City’s dodgy 9-0 over Haverfordwest County at Farrar Road after Inter had completed their fixtures. Inter were turfed out of Ninian and were on the move again, this time to Penydarren Park, 30 miles from Cardiff in Merthyr.
After a European debut against Katowice of Poland, in which Inter were soundly beaten 8-0 over the two legs, it became clear that the Merthyr experiment was not working as Inter struggled in the League in front of pitifully small attendances – the brow-beaten people of Merthyr, then as now, strangely resistant to the very idea of a Wales standing on its own two feet. The club signed up for a pricey move back to Leckwith and ended 1994/95 playing home games at Tudor Park, Maesteg. Are you keeping count?
Flat-lining in mid-table, Inter needed re-investment urgently – and yet again the club pulled a rabbit out of the hat, signing a three-year deal with CableTel which involved changing name to Inter CableTel in 1996. Selling your identity to corporations – a strategy since followed by Llansantffraid, Cefn Druids, Broughton and Connah’s Quay in the WPL alone – is the price we pay in Wales for having the worst-funded football pyramid on the planet. The club were a power again, finishing runners-up twice more in 1997 and 1999, winning the Welsh Cup for the first time in 1999 to boot, and as a result experiencing further UEFA Cup adventures against Scottish giants Celtic (Inter played in front of 40,000 in Glasgow and 10,000 at Ninian Park, losing 8-0 on aggregate) and then Gorica (losing 2-1 on aggregate). The South Wales Echo, desperate to keep any pro-WPL message from Cardiffians, largely ignored these momentous games involving a club from the city they so frequently profess to “love”.
It all imploded in 1999/2000. The CableTel deal expired (the club name reverted to Inter Cardiff), guiding light Max James called it a day, there was no money to even pay the notional amounts due to the part-time players and they walked out en masse. A desperate SOS was sent out for assistance just to fulfil fixtures – and it was quietly stable Welsh League Division 1 club UWIC who rode to the rescue to provide the players for Inter to complete the season and avoid relegation.
In the close season the emergency arrangement became a permanent merger under another new name: UWIC Inter Cardiff. Initially the club retained Inter’s black & white colours and Leckwith home. The hope was to fuse Inter’s WPL know-how with UWIC’s formidable player base and facilities and thereby survive in the WPL crucible. It was asking too much. UWICIC were relegated from the WPL in 2001, winning only three games. Back in the Welsh League, and gradually shedding the ‘Inter Cardiff’ suffix, UWIC returned to Cyncoed and readopted their traditional maroon colours. They dropped down to Division 3 for a period but were back in Division 1 by 2013 after consecutive promotions – equipped with their latest name following UWIC’s mutation into Cardiff Metropolitan University in 2011. The club has the Uni’s deep resources and administrative expertise, highly-qualified coaches, a ready supply of young players and a fancy 3G pitch. The aim is to replicate the success of other university clubs like UC Dublin in the League of Ireland. If the inevitable problem of huge player turnover could be surmounted, if a support base could be built, if the ground had some more shelter, if Wales qualified for Euro 2016 and the FAW pumped the windfall into the Welsh pyramid, if, if, if…
Level 3 (south) (Welsh League Division 2)
Level 4 (south) (Welsh League Division 3) *
Founded in 1899 at the Bridgend Street Mission in Lower Splott, huddled under the belching chimneys of the Dowlais Iron Works, this club has virtually defied the laws of nature just by still surviving. All of Lower Splott, including Bridgend Street itself, was demolished in the cause of ‘slum clearance’ in 1974, making Bridgend Street a real football rarity: a club named after somewhere that doesn’t exist. Off the top of my head I can only come up with Port Vale as another.
Playing at Willows School in Tremorfa, just ¼ mile from the site of their original ground at Robinson Square and subsequent long-time home at Splott Park, and with their HQ at the New Fleurs social club, the only remaining building on Lower Splott’s main artery Portmanmoor Road, Bridgend Street’s sudden recent rise through the Welsh pyramid flies in the face of logic. For over a century they bumbled along in Sunday parks football in the Cardiff & District League, not even the main club in Splott. Then, galvanised by the opportunities opening up as the FAW started to put a pyramid in place in the 1990s, the club got serious and began their rise. Regularly winning the Cardiff & District earned them promotion to the South Wales Senior League in 1994 which they won a record five times before elevation to the Welsh League Division 3 in 2011. They moved to an enclosed pitch with hard standing and a small stand at Willows School and have quickly consolidated in the League, eyeing the next promotion.
Vacuums cry out to be filled, and if ever there was a vacuum that needed filling it is the gaping hole in the WPL that a capital city football club (or two) should occupy. Could that club be Bridgend Street? In the topsy-turvy, weird and wonderful world of Welsh football, where the absolute absence of finance clears the way for random happenstance to rule the roost, stranger things have happened. C’mon the Mission!
Corries are the oldest-surviving football club in Cardiff, founded in 1898 by a group of Canton cricketers wanting to keep in touch during the winter. Anywhere else they would be a revered institution; but here they are almost entirely unknown thanks to the media’s exclusive fixation on Cardiff City rendering every other Cardiff club invisible.
This is another club with an amazing story, having had no less than 10 grounds all around Cardiff: Sophia Gardens (1898-1918), Pengam Farm (1919-1937), Western Avenue (1938-1940), Whitchurch Hospital (1940-1944), Pantbach Road, Rhiwbina (1944-1947), Maindy Stadium (1948-1950), Cae’r Syr Dafydd, Canton (1951-1970), Llandaf Fields (1971-1972), Parc Rhyd-y-Penau (1973-1974) and finally, their settled home from 1974, the Riverside Ground in Radyr, shared with Radyr Cricket Club.
After initially playing friendlies only, in line with their amateur ‘corinthian’ ethos, in 1904 they were founder members of the Rhymney Valley League, forerunner of the Welsh League. Aberdare Town and Treharris Athletic are the only other Welsh League founders still in existence – giving an indication of the astronomical club mortality rate Welsh football always seems to suffer. Apart from three prohibitively expensive years in England’s Western League between 1921 and 1924, Cardiff Corinthians’ maroon and amber colours have been ever-present in the Welsh League through all the decades. They’ve never been relegated to lower feeder leagues, and neither have they ever been champions – second place in 1979 and 1982 being their highest position.
Currently Corries are in a lean period, relegations in 2012 and 2014 dumping them in Division 3 for the first time. Their status as Cardiff’s leading Welsh pyramid club has often been threatened by flash-in-the pan, Johnny-come-latelys; but one by one they’ve all fizzled out while Cardiff Corinthians have mastered the art of stoic, low-key endurance. Still 100% amateur, unlike most of their semi-pro Welsh league rivals, their players receive nothing, not even expenses. Can such a venerable anachronism have any future in thoroughly monetised and commercialised 21st century soccer? We shall see.
I include Ely Rangers as a Cardiff club even though they play at Station Road, Gwenfô, a mile outside Cardiff’s boundaries in the Vale of Glamorgan. Like Caerau Ely they have had to leave their spiritual home for the want of an adequate stadium in the area – and, unlike Cardiff City or Glamorgan CCC for instance, they don’t devote their energies to England so don’t get given millions of pounds worth of public money and public land.
The ‘Griffins’ were founded in 1965 and for their first 18 years played at Trelai Park in the Cardiff Combination. Established as a force in local football they had to leave public parks behind when stepping up to the South Wales Amateur League in 1983. A ground-share at Station Road with now defunct Wenvoe Park, not far from Ely, was the ideal solution. Rangers, now sole occupiers, have been there ever since, gradually improving the ground on a shoestring. They reached the Welsh League in 1997 and two consecutive promotions took them up to Division 1 by 2001. After five seasons at that level they dropped down to Division 2 in 2007, the club’s first relegation since moving from the parks, before reclaiming a Division 1 place in 2009. Unluckily relegated the following season when five went down as a consequence of the WPL’s reduction from 18 to 12 clubs, Rangers have just been relegated again after five seasons in Division 2 and will start 2015/2016 back in Division 3.
With a strong committee and thriving junior sections, Rangers have no intention of sinking further – cogniscant of the sobering example of Grange Harlequins, an 80-year-old club that dared to fly too close to the sun and folded without completing their Welsh league Division 3 fixtures in 2014/15. But like Cardiff Corinthians they’re an amateur outfit with no income stream, so it will be a hell of an achievement for this respected club just to retain their standing at Welsh League level.
Promoted to the Welsh League for the first time in 2015 after winning the last ever Amateur League/Senior League promotion play-off against Senior League champions Pontlottyn, STM Sports were only formed in 2007, evolving out of Sunday league pub team The Willows, a rough and ready boozer on the St Mellons estate in east Cardiff. Yes, ‘STM’ stands for ‘St Mellons’ – words apparently unsuitable in polite company.
There are a lot of good footballers among the 25,000 population of St Mellons: you could say it’s Cardiff’s ‘sleeping giant’, never having had a Welsh League club before. And considering clubs from towns the size of Bala (population 2,000) have made it to the WPL, STM Sports have massive potential if they can shake off the Cardiff City Cringe that has afflicted so many other Cardiff clubs over the years. So far, STM have shot through the Cardiff Combination and the two divisions of the Amateur League in eight years flat. They will be an unknown quantity for their Welsh League Division 3 opponents on their 3G pitch at the University Fields, Llanrumney, in the forthcoming season.
It would be a delicious slice of synchronicity for me personally if STM Sports turned out to be the Cardiff club that breaks the logjam stacked up in Cardiff City’s shadow, because in my youth I was a willowy winger for an earlier attempt to create a St Mellons football club. I tried to play like Barrie Jones, Cardiff City’s slippery, creative winger of the era; in truth I was more like Grace Jones – a self-centered, foul-tempered show-pony. Never a first-team regular, I took the London road at age 18 and St Mellons FC never heard from me again. It’s a small world!
There are many more Cardiff clubs lower down the pyramid. Below Welsh League Division 3 the pyramid in the south divides into the leagues of the three regional FAs: Gwent, South Wales and West Wales. Each promotes one club into the Welsh League, subject to eligibility criteria. The South Wales FA’s feeder is the South Wales Alliance (SWA), which has three divisions (premier, one and two). As of 2015/16, the Cardiff clubs in the SWA are:
SWA Premier level 5 (south-central)
AFC Butetown (Canal Park)
Grange Albion (Coronation Park)
SWA Division 1 level 6 (south-central)
Canton Libs (Cardiff International Sports Stadium)
SWA Division 2 level 7 (south-central)
AFC Whitchurch (Whitchurch Hospital)
Cardiff Cosmos (University Fields)
Cardiff Draconians (Llanidloes Road)
Cardiff Hibernian (Archer Road)
Clwb Cymric (Cwrt-yr-Ala)
Llanrumney United (Riverside Park)
Below this, the various local leagues of Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan, Bridgend, Port Talbot, Rhondda, Taff-Ely-Rhymney, Merthyr and Aberdare feed into the SWA. In Cardiff that means the Cardiff & District League (4 divisions, 38 clubs) and the Cardiff Combination League (3 divisions, 28 clubs) – long overdue for amalgamation. Adding them all up, Cardiff has 81 football clubs (discounting Sunday league sides & Cardiff City).
Golf is one of the sports where Wales has independent status: players compete as Welsh in team and individual events at amateur and professional level, and are only absorbed into larger bodies in elite tournaments where the teams are selected, such as the Ryder Cup, when it is Europe against the US, or the Walker Cup and the Curtis Cup, when GB & Ireland plays the US.
The Welsh Golfing Union was founded in 1895, the Welsh Ladies Golfing Union in 1904, the two amalgamating in 2007 to form the Golf Union of Wales (GUW), the governing authority running the game in Wales. Tenby Golf Club, founded in 1888, is the oldest in Wales, while the Radyr Golf Club, founded in 1902, is the oldest in Cardiff. Perhaps the most historic golf club is the Glamorganshire in Penarth, where in 1898 member Dr Frank Stableford (1870-1959) devised the Stableford scoring system which is still used world-wide today. Wales’ most revered courses are the two with royal patronage: Royal St David’s at Harlech, laid out in 1894 as a Welsh response to the most famed courses in Scotland (St Andrews) and England (Royal St George’s), and Royal Porthcawl, founded in 1892 by a consortium of Cardiff coal and shipping tycoons, a tough links on the Glamorgan coast where a young Tiger Woods came unstuck as an amateur in the 1995 Walker Cup. Neither course has been deemed fit to stage the Open Championship, which has only ever been held in Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, but a brand-new Welsh course, Celtic Manor at Newport, pulled off the coup of bringing the Ryder Cup to Wales when the biennial extravaganza came to Europe in 2010.
The project of the world’s 2nd richest Welshman, Newport-born, Canada-based microchip billionaire Terry Matthews, Celtic Manor features three courses straddling the rolling green hills of the Usk valley, including ‘The Twenty Ten’ the first course ever purpose-built for the Ryder Cup’s unique matchplay format. Within Celtic Manor’s 1,400 acres is the HQ of the GUW. The adjoining hotel, a menacing hulk looming over the M4 in the bombastic style beloved of Stalinist dictators and Saudi despots, is a monument to the unerring bad taste of the super-rich.
Welsh golfers have a good record in team tournaments even though only one Welshman has ever won a major – Ian Woosnam at the US Masters in 1991. Woosnam, Dai Rees (1913-1983), Dave Thomas (1934-2013), Brian Huggett, Philip Price and Jamie Donaldson have all done well in the Ryder Cup, the annual men’s World Cup has been won twice (in 1987 by Woosnam and David Llewellyn and 2005 by Stephen Dodd and Bradley Dredge), and performances are also improving in the women’s World Cup – Becky Brewerton and Becky Morgan came 3rd in 2006. The development of young golfers has been fortified by the inauguration in 2006 of the ‘Dragon Tour’, Wales’ first pro-golf tour, and efforts are being made to open up the sport to women and young people to overturn golf’s image of gin-sozzled reactionary misogynists in loud pullovers fussing about unsuitable footwear at the 19th hole. Welsh golf’s exciting future acts as a rebuke to those timid and conservative sports that cower behind England’s petticoats.
Another Olympic-dependent sport in which the world governing body, Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique, only recognises GB (a pattern emerges: if France was instrumental in a sport’s foundation, Wales is shut out – the centralising French state never willing to give Breton nationalists any encouragement). Welsh Gymnastics, founded as the Welsh Amateur Gymnastics Association in 1902 and based at Sophia Gardens, is entirely subsumed into British Gymnastics.
Perhaps because of the endless stoppages and free hits when the umpire spots an obstruction, hockey has never attained broad appeal as a spectator sport; it’s a players’ game for straightforward, jolly types who picked up the habit at school or in the forces. The game had originated in English public schools in the 19th century and, perceived as prestigious and character-building, was taken up enthusiastically in the British Army and the grammar schools. It arrived in Wales via the Cardiff Celts club in 1896, playing at the Arms Park with the blessing of the 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900). The Welsh Hockey Association (WHA) was set up and the Welsh Womens’ Hockey Association (WWHA) quickly followed in 1897. Wales had international status right from the beginnings of hockey’s development and joined the International Hockey Federation (FIH) soon after the world governing body was formed in 1924.
As the sport organised itself more professionally after WW2, its lack of a fan-base meant increased dependency on the Olympic tournament for any exposure. The hockey world cup for men started in 1971, for women in 1974, and Wales has been competing in both ever since with negligible impact: the best performance so far being when the women’s team qualified for the 1983 finals tournament. This is because all the emphasis is put on the Olympics. Hockey Wales (HW), the recently adopted name of the Welsh Hockey Union, formed in 1996 when the WHA and the WWHA put aside gender differences and amalgamated, is in thrall to the four-yearly requirements of GB. As ever, of course, ‘GB’ in practice means ‘England’, so this is a particularly dumb, self-denying approach by HW. In both the men’s and women’s game far too few international matches are arranged, and those that are pass largely unnoticed in Cardiff where they take place on the synthetic pitch at Sophia Gardens. Meanwhile Whitchurch Hockey Club, the largest in Wales, is allowed to enter its male team in the English league (more sponsorship) to the detriment of all the other hockey clubs across Wales.
Other sports would kill for Welsh hockey’s status, but so far it has been entirely wasted. Chief power-broker at HW, and a member of the FIH executive, is retired player Anne Ellis from Gowerton, who has settled into the comfortable sinecure that is a career in Welsh sports administration; utter the right platitudes, gloss over Welsh needs, tug forelock in the presence of, golly gosh, Brit mightiness – then you too can dip your snout in the trough. The declared first priority of HW is “to work…in support of the Great Britain Olympic Teams via Great Britain Hockey Ltd.” Not, you will note, to do well as Wales in the world and European championships. That piddling aspiration doesn’t warrant a mention. Until HW bully off and take their Neanderthal attitudes with them Welsh hockey’s going nowhere.
This import from North America came to Cardiff in 1986 when the Wales National Ice Rink was built and the Cardiff Devils club was formed. Construction entailed the demolition of many Victorian buildings on Bute Terrace and Tredegar Street and wiped Homfrey Street, Ruperra Street and Rodney Street off the Cardiff map. The 2,800 capacity rink lasted a mere 20 years before it too was pulled down in 2006 to make way for John Lewis. The Devils and the women’s club, the Cardiff Comets formed in 1994, were moved to a temporary 2,000 capacity blue tent at the International Sports Village (ISV) development on the peninsular between the rivers Taff and Ely. Paid for by the Council, the flat-pack rink with its lousy sight-lines and shoddy facilities was not what the punters were used to after 20 years of luxury. Nearly 10 years later its replacement, the 3,000 capacity Ice Arena Wales, is almost completed, adding another component to the ISV’s ludicrous, and randomly arrived at, ‘winter sports’ theme. Call me naive, but wouldn’t places like, say, the Alpine countries have the advantage over southern Wales when it comes to building an enduring winter sports economy?
Ice hockey fans are essentially internalised Americans. They don’t ask for much from their ‘family-friendly’ entertainment: just plenty of semi-naked pompom girls, violent fights, burgers and toilet facilities. Since the sport is entirely uneconomic (an ever-rotating pool of mercenary Canadians and east Europeans make up the bulk of players in the UK’s Elite League), they also demand that the city’s Council Tax payers subsidise it. As the Council closes everything that doesn’t supply an income stream, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why this repetitive, unnatural and artificially implanted game should be so pampered in Cardiff, especially as the vast costs of equipment and training on ice rule it out for all but the wealthy, and no Wales men’s team has been formed to compete internationally. Scotland has a team, there is a Welsh women’s team but Welsh men can only play for England. Ice hockey in Cardiff is thus paid by the Council to actively undermine its very own ‘proud capital’ strap-line.
The Devils have staggered from one financial crisis to the next, regularly changing owners in an unseemly scramble for sponsorship and always squealing for more public funds. The entirely speculative, perpetually changing and forever uncompleted ISV project is at last delivering a purpose-built rink: is there anyone who believes it, or the Devils for that matter, will still be standing in 20 years? I don’t; because, despite the best efforts of the South Wales Echo to whip up enthusiasm for ice hockey, the fizzing puck is on the wane.
In the same style as organisations like BBC Wales and the Welsh Labour Party, the Welsh Judo Association (WJA), founded in 1995, is merely a sub-branch of the British parent body. There is no Welsh international judo team and, other than in the Commonwealth Games, all Welsh judokas must grapple internationally as ‘British’. How passive-aggressive! Therefore, as night follows day, Sport Wales rolls out the red mat for the WJA, providing a swanky suite in Sophia Gardens and a bottomless pit of funding.
Uniquely among world sports, lacrosse was invented by Native Americans (the Iroquois of the north-east). It was codified in Canada as early as 1867 but never established itself outside North America for over a century. As a result the Olympic ‘movement’ largely left lacrosse alone, to the long-term benefit of Welsh lacrosse. Wales is one of the 29 full members of the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL), established in 2008 when the quite different men’s (10-a-side) and women’s (12-a-side) games combined their governing bodies, founded in 1974 and 1972 respectively. Since there is no GB/UK/England team for Welsh lacrosse to play second fiddle to, the sport has an exciting future here. The women’s team won the European championships in 2003 and regularly mounts a serious challenge for the four-yearly world title; the men’s team has competed in the last five world championships and is making progress too. Because lacrosse is unequivocally Welsh you will not be surprised to learn that it operates out of a room in Penarth rather than luxury offices at the Sport Wales National Centre in Sophia Gardens and receives less than a pittance in financial support. After all, it’s been a cast-iron rule of Welsh governance for centuries: identify as British and you’re rewarded; identify as Welsh and you’re penalised.
Netball is the biggest women’s sport in Wales in terms of participation, with clubs, leagues, youth programmes and development officers across the country. Cardiff alone has 15 senior clubs. Why is this all-action, seven-a-side sport, which evolved from basketball in the 1890s, doing so well in Wales, especially considering it receives virtually no publicity? It’s simple really: in netball Wales has international status and is in complete control of its own affairs. The Welsh Netball Association, with its HQ in Cardiff at Cathedral Road, was founded in 1945 and Wales was a founder member of the International Federation of Netball Associations (IFNA) in 1960. IFNA organises the netball world cup, held every 4 years since 1963, as well as the world youth championships, held every 4 years since 1988 and hosted by Cardiff in 2000. There are now over 50 member countries and, in a sport dominated by Australia and New Zealand, the Welsh team regularly breaks into the top 10 and promises to do even better in the future. Wales’ most capped player, renowned shot stopper in 112 internationals Helen Weston from Cwmbrân, has set the benchmark for young players breaking into the sport. You see, in netball there is no British ball-and-chain stopping Welsh girls reaching for the highest hoop.
After over a century of being wooed, is Wales ready to take the 13-man version of rugby to its heart? Wales Rugby League (WRL) got full sovereign status in 2005 after years of being controlled by England’s Rugby Football League (RFL) since beginning life as their ‘Welsh Commission’ in 1926. The WRL is determined not to make the oft-repeated mistake of imposing the sport from above without attending to the grass roots, so Welsh leagues have been organised with over 30 semi-pro clubs, including three in Cardiff. The only two professional clubs compete in the 3rd tier of England’s system: South Wales Scorpions in Mountain Ash, their 3rd home in five years, and North Wales Crusaders in Wrexham, the offspring of the failed Celtic Crusaders team set up in Bridgend in 2005 and defunct by 2011. A concerted attempt is being made to embed the sport in Wales and give it time to grow organically – it will not be easy if past experience is any guide.
After the great rugby schism of 1895, when the Northern Union (NU) broke away over the issue of payments and created rugby league, the NU assumed solidly working-class Wales would embrace the new professional game as keenly as Yorkshire and Lancashire. The NU assumed wrongly. Yes, Welsh miners and steelworkers could not afford to play without being compensated for lost earnings; but it was not a pressing problem, since they were being paid, whether in ‘boot money’, brown envelopes, backhanders or favours. Coal was at its zenith and the Welsh economy was awash with ready money to stuff into players’ pockets. Union had a 15 year head start on league, and it was going to take more than cash carrots to wean the Welsh away from it. The WRU avoided schism and when Wales beat the All Blacks in 1905 the 15-man game became synonymous with Welsh identity in a way that league could not hope to match. This didn’t stop the NU trying again though – they needed their game to spread to give it international standing. It was developing in Australia and New Zealand, but nowhere else. A Welsh NU was formed in 1907 and clubs grafted onto Aberdare, Barry, Ebbw Vale, Merthyr, Mid-Rhondda and Treherbert. But by 1912 all had folded and the NU retreated back to its core constituency.
In 1922 the NU became the RFL and organised another attempt to convert Wales. Economic depression was hitting hard; it was an opportunity for the RFL to expose the hypocrisy and class-divisions inherent in union’s ‘shamateurism’. They handled it all wrong, by trying to lure individual union clubs to league, and were again rebuffed. But what did happen was that players in unemployment-racked Wales started to be tempted by the wages league could pay. League scouts made offers poor Welsh boys could not refuse.
It began as a trickle and was soon an avalanche. 400 Welsh players ‘went north’ between the wars, including 70 internationals. They did so despite the WRU’s malevolent response, dishing out lifetime bans to anyone who even played a friendly match under league rules, effectively exiling them from Wales. The loss to Welsh rugby union was grievous through the 1920s and no player was missed more than league’s first great Welsh capture, Cardiff’s own Jim Sullivan (1903-1977). The precociously talented full-back from Splott, a Cardiff RFC regular by age 16, signed for Wigan in 1921 and went on to rewrite record books in 35 years at the club as player and coach, helping turn it into a rugby league superpower. Another Cardiffian to slip out of union’s grasp and become a league legend at this time was Gus Risman (1911-1994), a powerful threequarter from Butetown who signed for Salford in 1929 and transformed them into invincibles in the 1930s, as well as being instrumental in popularising the game in France where Salford’s missionary trips gave league its first bridgehead in continental Europe.
Wales was producing players in abundance for league but the lack of a domestic structure meant union’s prevalence was undisturbed. A Welsh international side was occasionally assembled, and did well at times when the best players were available, but the lacklustre and sporadic events were nothing compared to the visceral impact of union’s Arms Park theatre and the only international matches that mattered were between GB, Australia and New Zealand.
The RFL made another attempt to stimulate a Welsh competition between 1949 and 1955, including a Cardiff side based at the Penarth Road stadium that lasted only a year, before that too was abandoned due to lack of interest and finance. The drainage of players from union to league continued, with the most notable being the 3rd of Cardiff’s ‘holy trinity’ of rugby league icons, Billy Boston from Tiger Bay, who signed for Wigan in 1953. The relocation of huge numbers of Welshmen and their families to northern England underlined the central position of sport in Welsh affairs. Today it is recognised as the biggest sporting migration ever and the earliest manifestation of today’s global sporting meat-market where athletes criss-cross the planet selling their prowess.
Through the 1960s and 1970s league didn’t stand a chance in Wales: union had Gareth, Barry, JPR et al; league had Eddie ‘Up and Under’ Waring (1910-1986) in a cloth cap at Featherstone Rovers on Saturday afternoon telly. Cardiff City then introduced rugby league to Ninian Park between 1981 and 1984 – a crazy scheme which not only got City relegated to English football’s 4th tier for the first time, it also further sullied league’s image in Wales. But everything changed in 1995, when union finally turned pro and brought the long years of trench warfare between the two codes to a permanent truce.
The ending of discrimination against league led to increased numbers playing it at amateur level. The seasonal shift of top-level league to summer in the northern hemisphere, with Sky Sports pumping in the money, meant league no longer had to fight the losing battle against soccer and rugby union in the winter and the haemorrhaging of players from Wales came to a complete halt; from henceforth a move from league to union was as likely as vice-versa. The world governing body, the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF), now had the resources to go for global expansion and properly promote the world cup, a competition endlessly tinkered with since it began in 1954. After being an invisible part of GB to begin with, Wales had been allowed to enter for the first time in 1975, but England were hammered by Australia in the final so the RFL summarily ended Welsh autonomy as there were a few Welsh players around who would strengthen their team and, after all, from an English perspective, ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ were synonyms. But 1995 changed all that subservience too: the RLIF granted Wales second-tier membership status and GB was no more in world cups. In 2008, GB was put to rest on a permanent basis and Wales, Ireland and Scotland elevated to full membership of the RLIF. RFL chairman Richard Lewis summed up the obvious in words that should be hanging in the Sport Wales entrance foyer at Sophia Gardens: “It is illogical that we play as Great Britain…we will play as England. That will allow Ireland, Scotland and Wales to develop.” 47 countries now play the sport and its defining qualities of pace and power are sure to see it continue to grow. For Wales, at last in charge of its own rugby league destiny, this is a rare opportunity to join in the intercourse of nations. It has been a rocky relationship, but Wales and rugby league might just be ready to settle down together.
For the general story of rugby union in Wales see http://tinyurl.com/nj5bx43. Here I concentrate on the game’s story in Cardiff.
Although rugby was first played in Wales at St David’s College, Lampeter, the WRU was founded in Neath, and both Llanelli and Newport have claims to be more devoted rugby towns, Cardiff is inarguably the spiritual home of Welsh rugby. It’s not just the Arms Park (see below), it’s also that in Cardiff RFC the city has one of the paramount rugby clubs on the planet. Formed in 1876 from an amalgamation of the Glamorgan, Tredegarville and Wanderers clubs, the club played its first ever fixture that year against Newport at Wentloog Marshes. In 1877, after a few games at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff became a Bute tenant at the Arms Park and, through all the changes, have remained there ever since. Father of the club was Bill Phillips (1855-1918), born in the Greyhound pub on Bridge Street (established 1777, demolished 1981). He represented Cardiff when the WRU was formed, was Wales’ delegate when the International Rugby Board (IRB) was set up in 1886, and played in Wales’ first ever international against England at Blackheath in London in 1881. Even more influential in the early years was Frank Hancock (1859-1943), who came to Cardiff from Somerset to help establish his family’s brewery in 1883. His tactical innovations, like using seven backs instead of six, made rugby much more of a spectacle and contributed to its rapid growth in Cardiff.
Cardiff RFC’s first star was Gwyn Nicholls (1874-1939), whose family had come to the prosperous town from Gloucestershire when he was a baby to live in Constellation Street by the Cattle Market where his father was an inspector. Nicholls embraced Welsh identity and won 24 caps during the ‘First Golden Era’ while his entire club career between 1894 and 1909 was with Cardiff. The tall, powerful centre was an intrinsic part of the club’s rise to fame. After hanging up his boots he ran a laundry business in The Parade, Llandaff North, and in 1949 he was commemorated by the Gwyn Nicholls Memorial Gates, still in Westgate Street to this day, albeit moved from their original position opposite Quay Street. A contemporary of Nicholls was Percy Bush (1879-1955), a teacher at Wood Street School close to the Arms Park. Probably the greatest Cardiff-born player to this day, Bush turned the fly-half position into a Welsh obsession with his sidesteps, swerves and repertoire of tricks. In the same period Rhys Gabe (1880-1967) of Llanelli was another great who wore the blue and black. Joining in 1902 when he took up a teaching appointment at Howard Gardens School, the classy, bone-hard, straight-running centre stayed eight seasons at the Arms Park and became a club legend.
The numbers watching Cardiff RFC kept rising, boosted by the Welsh win over the all-conquering All Blacks in 1905, and the Arms Park kept expanding to accommodate them. Cardiff was the powerhouse club of Wales, defeating touring sides Australia and South Africa, inducing players from other clubs to join them and thus providing more players for the Welsh international side than any other. Between the wars, Welsh rugby had many barren years as economic woes led to depopulation in the Valleys and an exodus of players to rugby league, but Cardiff RFC had a cunning solution. In 1922 they joined forces with Cardiff Cricket Club to form Cardiff Athletic Club and purchased the Arms Park from the Butes, who were starting to dispose of property in Cardiff as the coal boom ended.
With security of tenure at last, Cardiff could continue attracting the cream to their cause, most notably mercurial Cliff Jones (1914-1990) from the Rhondda fly-half factory and Wilf Wooller (1912-1997), a rare north Walian in Cardiff colours whose career as a powerful centre was ruined by four years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Both were vital to Wales’ 2nd win over the All Blacks at the Arms Park in 1935. By the 1950s Cardiff RFC were considered the world’s strongest rugby club, and were drawing world record attendances for club rugby to the Arms Park. They would come from all over Glamorgan to see the latest brilliant set of backs the club had assembled, starring Bleddyn Williams (1923-2009) from Taff’s Well, the perfect centre, able to rip through a defence with a sudden change of direction or cut it open with a grubber kick, and veteran scrum-half Haydn Tanner (1917-2009), a Swansea and Wales hero from before the war, famed for his dive-pass, having a glorious Indian summer at the Arms Park. In 1953 the club had its greatest day when they beat the All Blacks 8-3. A new partnership behind the scrum took fans to rugby heaven: darting, diminutive, quick-thinking Cliff Morgan (1930-2013), the archetypal Welsh outside-half and lovely Rhondda boy, who when working for the BBC years later in 1973 would deliver the ultimate commentary when describing that Gareth Edwards try; and his protector and feeder, rugged Rex Willis (1924-2000) from Ystrad. Just a month later they were part of another victory over the All Blacks, this time for Wales. In both games the winning try had come from back-row forward Sid Judd (1928-1959), and both tries were scored in exactly the same place under the posts at the Westgate Street end. For many years afterwards this was known as ‘Sid’s Spot’. The Adamsdown-born teacher and summer baseball player was struck ill in 1955 and died of leukaemia aged only 30, to the distress of the city.
As the years rolled by the club became a Cardiff institution, renowned for team spirit, bonhomie, good times and fervent Welsh singing, whether in Westgate Street or on their many tours around the world. If anything it got even better in the 1960s when they signed up the greatest half-back pairing of all, Gareth Edwards and Barry John, as well as twinkle-toed winger Gerald Davies. Edwards had come via Cardiff College of Education (now Cardiff Met), John from Llanelli and Davies from Carmarthen. Cardiffians were being spoilt; Wales entered its ‘Second Golden Era’ and over 15 amazing years won 11 Five Nations Championships (eight outright), three Grand Slams and five Triple Crowns. Had there been a world cup in those days (the first was in 1987), Wales would surely have been crowned world champions.
A series of seismic shifts then began to change everything for Cardiff RFC and Welsh rugby. The modernisation of the Arms Park began, after the WRU obtained the freehold they coveted in 1968. The ground was renamed the National Stadium and a small new stadium for Cardiff RFC, retaining the Arms Park name, was built on the old cricket ground to the north. Cardiff moved there in 1970. The club was still a major force in domestic rugby into the 1980s, fielding excellent players like youth-products Terry Holmes and Mark Ring, lock Bob Norster from Abertillery, and outside-half Gareth Davies from Tumble. But the magic was fading. The IRB, threatened by breakaways in the southern hemisphere, belatedly introduced professionalism in 1995. The amateur ethos died, causing particular harm in Wales which had been helped by the level playing field of amateurism. Now it was going to be all about market forces and money, putting little Wales at a huge disadvantage compared to bigger, richer countries.
Cardiff seemed to handle the transition well initially, reaching the inaugural final of the European Cup, losing 18-21 to Toulouse at the National Stadium. With pie-millionaire and property developer Peter Thomas in control and Gareth Davies as the club’s first chief executive there were high profile signings, none more than the luring of wizard fly-half Jonathan Davies from Trimsaram back to union after years in rugby league. Jonathan Humphreys, Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins were other big-name Welsh internationals to pull on the hooped shirt, but Cardiff could not be immune from the general malaise afflicting Welsh rugby. Terrible thrashings for the national side and repeated failures in Europe by the clubs were but the prelude for the implosion of 1998.
The WRU, up to its neck in the Millennium Stadium development and pumping support into the clubs, wanted all Welsh clubs to sign an agreement whereby the WRU held a ‘golden share’ of 51% voting rights. Cardiff and Swansea were having none of it. They wanted to arrange their own TV and commercial deals and, in an echo of the situation in Welsh cricket and football, insisted that their needs should have precedence over those of Wales. Instinctive Unionists like Peter Thomas and Gareth Davies wanted cross-border competition with English clubs because that was where they presumed the money was. They made the disastrous decision to quit the Welsh system rather than submit to the WRU’s authority and for a season played friendlies against English clubs with free dates in their calendar. It was embarrassing to see Cardiff RFC, a club that owed everything to its Welshness, up against the reserve teams of English clubs. Their great Welsh clubmen of the past would have been spinning in their graves.
Resolution arrived in 1999. The opening of the Millennium Stadium, the upsurge in the national team’s fortunes under ‘Great Redeemer’ New Zealander Graham Henry, the surge of revenue from the staging of the 1999 world cup in Cardiff and the setting up of the Welsh/Scottish League (which would expand to include Ireland and Italy and become today’s Pro 12 League) brought optimism back to Welsh rugby. Cardiff and Swansea returned to the fold, tails between their legs, their reputations tarnished.
In 2003 the WRU brought in the regional system. Cardiff was allowed to be a stand-alone region split into Cardiff Blues and Cardiff RFC, who were left to compete in the downgraded Welsh Premiership and Welsh Cup and act as a feeder to the Blues. Cardiff was thus not as badly affected as most clubs in Wales who either had to lose their traditional identities or accept a permanent ceiling on their ambitions. Along with a haphazard fixture list with its jumble of stop-start competitions, this caused a haemorrhaging of interest in rugby’s Valleys strongholds. But interest in the Welsh national team never wavers, and Cardiff rocked with all the old passions in 2005 when Wales won a first Grand Slam for 27 years, and a first Championship since it became Six Nations. Further Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012 and another Championship in 2013, all starring tricky winger Shane Williams from Ammanford scoring spectacular tries, also sent the city into a frenzy of drunken celebrations.
But it seems that permanent revolution is now the norm in Welsh club rugby, after all those years of happy-go-lucky stability. The Blues left the Arms Park in 2009 and became tenants of Cardiff City at their new stadium in Leckwith, despite the opposition of most fans. Gates plummeted and in 2012 the board had to eat humble pie, withdraw from the agreement with Cardiff City and return the Blues to the Arms Park. Whatever the future holds, the only certainty is that the extraordinary soap opera that is rugby union in Cardiff will run and run.
CARDIFF ARMS PARK
The most famous address in Wales has taken the name of Cardiff around the world; the ‘fields of praise’ at the epicentre of the city for 200 years:
1766: By marrying into the local landowning dynasty the Herberts, the 1st Marquis of Bute (1744-1814) acquired most of Cardiff.
1803: The Marquis didn’t like staying in the uncomfortable Castle on the rare occasions he came to Cardiff, so he bought the Cardiff Arms Hotel opposite along with its rear gardens leading down to the river Taff. The imposing building, the first that travellers to Cardiff see when approaching from the west, had been built in 1792 on the site of the ancient Tŷ Coch inn.
1850: The South Wales Railway from Chepstow to Swansea opened with a station in Cardiff on land reclaimed from the river. The meandering Taff had been diverted into a straightened new ‘cut’ shifting it to the west to allow the station to be built. An unforeseen side-effect was to greatly increase the area of Bute land behind the Cardiff Arms Hotel. This was named Great Park. Much was mud and stagnant pools where the old river bed had been and it quickly became used as a rubbish dump.
1865: The Council and the Railway Company finally filled in Cardiff’s “open sore,” allowing Westgate Street to be laid out and the terraces of Temperance Town to be built to the south. The remaining 18 acres of damp meadowlands were set aside for recreation and civic events by the 3rd Marquis (1847-1900) and renamed Little Park.
1867: Cardiff Cricket Club established a permanent home in the north of the park and constructed a small wooden pavilion.
1875: Access to the park was restricted to bonafide sports organisations following vandalism and “acts of mischief.”
1876: Cardiff RFC was formed and moved in to the southern part of the park.
1878: The Cardiff Arms Hotel was demolished to allow for road widening of what is now Castle Street – today the Angel Hotel occupies most of the site. The park began to be called Cardiff Arms Park in memory of the old landmark.
1882: The first grandstand, seating 1,000, was erected on the south side backing onto Park Street.
1884: Cardiff Arms Park hosted its first international fixture. Wales beat Ireland by a drop-goal and two tries to nil in front of 5,000, most gathered behind ropes around the pitch. The players changed in the Angel.
1885: The growing popularity of rugby brought improved facilities for spectators and a new South Stand seating 7,000.
1888: Cardiff Lawn Tennis Club took up residence to the north west of the cricket ground.
1889: Glamorgan Cricket Club obtained a tenancy of the cricket ground.
1899: The rugby ground now had a capacity of 36,800 after wings were added to the South Stand and banks of terracing built on the other three sides.
1900: The WRU got involved for the first time, entering into an agreement with Cardiff RFC to fund stadium improvements.
1904: Glamorgan built a lavish new two-storey pavilion in the south-west corner of the cricket ground, which included modern changing rooms for both cricket and rugby.
1905: Wales defeated New Zealand to clinch the Welsh passion for rugby. In response to the haka, the estimated 40,000 crowd broke into Hen Wlad fy Nhadau – the first time that a national anthem is sung at a sporting event.
1912: The familiar oval shape was now in place as capacity rose to 43,000 with a new double-decker South Stand and enlarged terraces.
1922: Cardiff CC and Cardiff RFC formed Cardiff Athletic Club to purchase the Arms Park (except for the tennis courts adjoining the top of Westgate Street) from the 4th Marquis of Bute (1881-1947) for £30,000. Under the terms of the sale the land is to be preserved for recreational purposes in perpetuity. A complex limited company was set up, involving a spin-off greyhound racing company and the WRU, and ensuring Machiavellian wranglings for decades to come.
1923: The Tennis Club moved to the Castle Grounds (but the Bute-owned courts remained) and Glamorgan CCC installed seating on the north-east of the cricket ground.
1928: Regular greyhound racing began on a track laid around the rugby pitch.
1934: A new double-decker stand was erected on the north side of the rugby ground, entailing the demolition of the cricket pavilion. The North Stand would become a Cardiff symbol, seeming to tower over the town. From its precipitous upper reaches the spine-tingling communal singing for which the Arms Park became renowned would invariably start. The Bute family were pissed off: the stand ruined the view from their Castle apartments. In retaliation they built flats on the tennis courts along Westgate Street to block their view of the North Stand, so shrinking the boundaries of the cricket ground. Meanwhile the back of the South Stand was being established as Cardiff’s all-purpose meeting place and unofficial notice board.
1941: During a heavy bombing raid a landmine severely damaged the North Stand. Repairs would not be completed until 1949, meaning wartime internationals had to be played elsewhere.
1948: Glamorgan commenced improvements to the cricket ground, lifting capacity to 15,000 with seating at the Castle End and along the west side.
1954: The last international match was played at St Helen’s, Swansea, where Wales’ very first international at home had taken place in 1882. From now on only the Arms Park will be used by the WRU and the city will host two internationals per season in the Five Nations instead of just the one when duties were shared with Swansea. (In the 19th century Rodney Parade, Newport, and Stradey Park, Llanelli, had also staged Wales matches). The Arms Park had arrived as Welsh rugby’s spiritual home.
1956: Overall capacity of the rugby ground increased to 60,000 with the addition of a new tier to the South Stand, jointly financed by Cardiff Athletic Club and the WRU.
1958: The Commonwealth Games were held in Cardiff, the Arms Park being used for the athletics events and the opening and closing ceremonies. The compacted turf took a pounding from which it never really recovered. The rugby pitch increasingly came to resemble the muddy bog it had been a century before, prompting the WRU to plan major changes.
1968: At last the WRU obtained the freehold of the rugby stadium, using brinkmanship and backhanders to get their way. The horse trading entailed Glamorgan CCC and the cricket and hockey sections of the Athletic Club moving to Sophia Gardens (the bowling section kept their green at the northern end of the cricket ground while greyhound racing lasted until 1977). Work started on developing what will be called the National Stadium plus a 15,000 capacity stadium for Cardiff RFC on the cricket ground which would retain the Arms Park name.
1970: The National Stadium and the new club ground, slotted behind the new cantilever-roofed North Stand, officially opened. It would take another 14 years to complete the National Stadium to its 53,000 capacity.
1987: David Bowie played the National Stadium, the first of many major music concerts to be staged as the WRU’s commercial department became ever more important.
1989: The WRU and the FAW ended a century of pretending the other didn’t exist as the first international football match is held at the National Stadium, Wales drawing 0-0 with West Germany.
1993: Boxing arrived, and a TV audience estimated at 2 billion, plus 25,000 in the ground, watched the world heavyweight title fight between Frank Bruno and Lennox Lewis.
1997: Demolition of the National Stadium began only 13 years after it was completed. The WRU had won the right to stage the rugby world cup and needed a bigger capacity and a more flexible venue.
1999: The Millennium Stadium, a 74,500 capacity scarlet bear pit complete with a retractable roof, opened in time for the rugby world cup, the last major world sporting event of the 20th century. Construction required the realignment of the playing area which was turned on its axis to run north/south rather than east/west. Cardiff RFC’s adjacent ground to the north meant the stadium had to be completed with a break in its bowl structure, known as ‘Glanmor’s Gap’ after Glanmor Griffiths, then chairman and later president of the WRU. New access points from Westgate Street, Wood Street and the Taff Embankment involved the demolition of many surrounding buildings including the Empire Pool. Inevitably the final cost of £126 million overshot the budget, despite a £46 million grant from the National Lottery’s Millennium Commission which lumbered the ground with its sterile name. The building, with its four gigantic corner struts, aggressively dominates Cardiff in a way its predecessors never did and soon became the city’s public image.
2001: The WRU abandoned the concept of a national stadium for Wales and, desperate to reduce its debt, threw the place open to all-comers: the English FA use it for the FA Cup final and all their league play-offs and minor cup competitions for six years while Wembley is being rebuilt; the red carpet is rolled out for rugby league, motocross, speedway, rallying and monster trucks; from Tina Turner to Robbie Williams, Tsunami Relief to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Songs of Praise to Doctor Who – pay up and it’s yours. Predictably this approach has diminishing returns: overkill cheapens the magic, newer, bigger stadia get in on the act, ‘wow’ turns to ‘so what?’
Today: Cardiff Blues’ three years as tenants of Cardiff City at Leckwith proved a predictable disaster, so the franchise rejoined Cardiff RFC at the Arms Park in 2012 and the speculative developers licking their lips at the prospect of getting their claws on the slice of prime city centre real estate retreated – for now. Cardiff Athletic Club controls the remaining Arms Park and it’s no secret they’d like to drive a double-decker bus through the Marquis of Bute’s fussy old codicils when the economic climate is right. Whatever happens, most of ‘Taff’s Acre’ is safe: the WRU’s Millennium Stadium, Cardiff’s beating heart, can surely never be transplanted.
Since humans first came to this coast they have worked the rivers and seas. In pre-recorded history they fished in hollowed-out tree trunks, planks bound by rope and coracles caulked with tar. After the age of sail began in the 3rd century, skiffs, ketches and wooden ships were used to brave the sand-bars, rocks, currents and stupendous tides of the Severn, carrying traders, smugglers, pilgrims, travellers or pirates. For 1,500 years the town quay was the fulcrum of the small settlement on the Taff; some sort of boat as essential then as wheels are today. Then industrialisation brought Cardiff a world-wide reputation as a place inextricably linked to water. Barges gliding down the Glamorganshire canal, paddle steamers ploughing across to Somerset, bigger and bigger cargo ships taking Welsh coal over the oceans, trows and sloops piloting vessels out to sea, tramp steamers, naval ships, trawlers, hulks, through to the giant container ships and oil tankers of today – if it floats, it has floated in Cardiff. That has all changed.
Cardiff is no longer a maritime city, the sea has been cast out by the Barrage and most Cardiffians’ boating experience doesn’t go beyond a row round Roath Park Lake. What was once universal is now a rich man’s pastime, notorious for ostentation and elitism. Competitive sailing, whether by dinghy, yacht, motorboat or powerboat, is run in the UK by the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), a veritable pillar of the British establishment which, naturally, doesn’t recognise Wales. Horsewoman and fanatical Olympian Princess Anne is RYA president, and she would have to be swinging from a gibbet for there to be any change.
The 500-acre freshwater lake created by the Barrage has pontoon moorings for visitors at the Inner Harbour and is home to two yacht clubs at two separate marinas. They don’t like each other much. Cardiff Yacht Club, founded in 1900, considers Cardiff Bay Yacht Club, founded as the Penarth Motor Boat & Sailing Club in 1932, to be vulgar landlubbers; whilst they themselves are mocked as barnacled has-beens by their rivals on the Ely. They’ve actually got a lot in common: prohibitive membership fees if you can get past the vetting process; jealously-guarded marinas off-limits behind security gates; utter devotion to the Europe’s-Most-Exciting-Waterfront bullshit; and all the seafaring authenticity of Cap’n Birdseye.
The Harbour Authority wants to make the Bay a water sports playground. It has spent £13 million of public money on a white-water rafting course for canoeing and kayaking, opened in 2010 on the site of the old Ely Tidal Harbour, runs a range of not too expensive courses for water sport novices, and has accommodated the Cardiff Sailing Centre at Cargo Road after it was forced to move from Llanishen when Western Power drained the reservoir. It’s a far cry from the days when you could say hullo to a genuine sailor on every street corner, and Cardiff is never going to be Cowes, but at least that age-old boating tradition hasn’t quite sunk to bottom of Davy Jones’s locker.
Despite being handicapped by rancorous internecine warfare and the ban on tobacco sponsorship, snooker’s transformation into a world sport is assured, given the deep roots it is putting down in China, the biggest catchment area of all. This is the latest in a long line of happy accidents to assist the growth of the game. Invented in an officers’ mess in the India of the Raj in 1875, for many years it was no more than an amusing after-dinner pastime for gentlemen in large country houses. Billiards was the main cue sport until egomaniac Joe Davis (1901-1978), intent on creating a personal fiefdom where he could dominate, organised the first snooker world championships in 1927, and then proceeded to win it every year until he retired in 1947. In that time snooker took hold in the pubs and clubs of industrial Wales. Competitive yet sociable, highly skilful yet not interfering with drinking and smoking, it was the perfect pastime for working class men who didn’t fancy getting mauled on the rugby field or crocked on the soccer pitch.
By the time snooker organised itself properly with the foundation of the World Professional Billiards & Snooker Association in 1968, Wales was a snooker hot-bed and a natural for full independent membership. At this point snooker had fallen out of fashion, seen as the very definition of a ‘misspent youth’ played by whey-faced ne’er-do-wells in disreputable dives. But the coming of colour television changed everything. With its vivid colours, revealing close-ups, satisfying geometry and psychological battles, snooker turned out to be the perfect TV sport. When the world championships were first televised in full in 1978, Welsh players were central figures in the slow-burning drama and have remained so ever since. Six-time world champion Ray ‘Dracula’ Reardon from Tredegar, Terry Griffiths from Llanelli who won the 1979 title at his first attempt and Mark Williams from Cwm with two titles this century have all won the ultimate prize. Additionally, Wales has won two out of the 14 world cups, a team event which ceased in 1996 before revival as a four-yearly event in 2011 as snooker went global.
One of the snooker season’s main ranking tournaments, the Welsh Open, first contested in 1977 as the Welsh Professional Championship, brings all the top players to Wales each year (it is staged in Cardiff at the Motorpoint Arena after many years in Newport), and the pre-qualifiers for many other tournaments are held in Wales too, at Pontins in Prestatyn. And for us inept amateurs social clubs all over Wales keep a table. There are few more relaxing ways to pass an idle afternoon than in the murky depths of a snooker hall, deciding whether to go for the brown or the pink.
Governing body Wales Squash & Racketball, another Sport Wales tenant at Sophia Gardens, is fully recognised by the World Squash Federation. Nearby in Ryder Street is Wales’ oldest squash club, Cardiff Squash Rackets Club, founded in 1937. Veteran Alex Gough from Newport, a regular near the top of the men’s world rankings, has set the standard young Welsh players seek to emulate.
Except at an amateur level, there is no such thing as Welsh swimming. The sport as a spectator event only really exists as part of the Olympics and the biennial World Swimming Championships, and in both events Wales can only compete as part of ‘GB’. FINA, the global swimming authority, recognise 194 nations and their rules make it possible for Wales to become the 195th, since they state that inclusion is open to countries which have devolved responsibility for sport – precisely the situation in Wales. But Welsh swimmers shouldn’t hold their breath without snorkels handy: Sport Wales is completely content with the status quo. It is perfectly acceptable to deny generations of Welsh swimmers the chance to compete at the highest levels and rely on the faint hope that a tiny handful will occasionally have the honour of representing somewhere called ‘GB’, because, because, um, because Sport Wales chair Laura McAllister isn’t paid £50,000 a year for her three-day week to cause any ripples. Appointed in 2010 when the Sports Council of Wales got a touchy-feely rebranding, the politics professor knows best what’s good for us: invisibility.
Amateur swimming is run by the Welsh Amateur Swimming Association from its HQ at the new Welsh National Pool opened in Swansea in 2003 as a replacement for the Empire Pool in Cardiff. Completed in 1958 for the Empire (Commonwealth) Games, the Empire Pool was the first 50m pool in Wales and lasted for a whole 40 years before being pulled down to make way for a white elephant now called Stadium Plaza. In that time there was hardly a Cardiffian who didn’t use it; a regular swim became part of the city’s collective habit. As it took a decade for the replacement Cardiff International Pool (CIP) to be opened in 2008, that habit has been broken and might be hard to rekindle, given that it’s located at the inconvenient and off-putting International Sports Village.
The building, panelled in shades of aquamarine, was paid for by PFI so it doesn’t actually belong to the city. With its small capacity and tacky leisure pools it is scant compensation for the loss of other swimming options in Cardiff over the years. Guildford Crescent Baths, opened 1896, closed 1984, was a marvellous, albeit verruca-vexed, swimming nursery where the Ibis Hotel now stands. Sophia Gardens Pool, opened 1973, closed 2008, attracted swimmers from all over the capital to its city centre site. Roath Park Lake, opened 1894, closed to swimming in 1961 due to pollution, was where the annual Taff Swim was held from 1930 after the river was deemed unfit. Llandaf Fields open-air pool, opened 1922, closed 1992, was a magical summer playground filled in by the Council to cut costs. Splott Pool, opened as a lido in 1922, covered in 1976, demolished 2014, again to save money. The Glamorganshire Canal, the Dock Feeder and Blackweir were other waters where ‘wild’ swimming was an everyday part of life for generations of Cardiff children. Little wonder then that Cardiff has produced a shoal of champion swimmers: Paulo Radmilovic (1886-1968), Irene Steer (1889-1977), Valerie Davies (1912-2001), and Martyn Woodruffe. Had Wales its own Olympic team there’s no telling how many more would have dived in, but the Welsh will only take to the water in numbers when we are no longer excluded from senior swimming. Until then we are stuck down the shallow end, paddling in the warm piss.
Invented in the 19th century by upper-class English military men with too much time on their hands in the outposts of Empire, table tennis has been totally dominated by east Asian countries, especially China, for the last 50 years. The Table Tennis Association of Wales (now Table Tennis Wales, TTW) was formed in 1921 and was one of the nine founder members of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) in 1926. Practically the only highlight of those 90 years of membership occurred at the very first world championships in the same year when Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Gubbins (1903-1961) of Newport won silver in the women’s singles. In the 1930s Cardiff-born Roy Evans (1909-1998) and his wife Nancy Evans (1903-1998) were among the world’s better players, but they soon got sucked into the pompous world of sports administration that entices so many Welsh people – perhaps as subconscious displacement activity to cloak the absence of Wales from the world stage (Roy Evans actually became president of the ITTF and was instrumental in the ‘ping-pong diplomacy that broke political deadlock between China and the US in the 1970s). It has never got better than that, and there are no indications that TTW ever expects it to. Another complacent, coasting tenant of Sport Wales in Sophia Gardens, TTW does precisely nothing with Wales’ independent membership of the ITTF. It is content with merely organising amateur and junior ping-pong, never qualifying for the world team championships, never producing qualifiers for the world individual championships, and never getting a player selected for the GB Olympics team either, despite the usual self-destructive dedication to the premise that the Olympics are paramount.
To understand Welsh tennis it is necessary to pay a brief visit to Waleshire, an unimportant county of England with the same standing as the 38 English County Associations and ruled from Wimbledon by the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club (LTA). The ITF, the world governing body since 1913, makes membership contingent on Olympic status. Counties don’t count. So, until the day we get an Assembly government with new balls please, ‘Welsh tennis’ will remain an amusing oxymoron, like ‘Swiss navy’.
Unsurprisingly, such a provincial appendage has not produced a single person with the motivation to succeed at tennis. Only three, Bridgend’s Gerald Battrick (1947-1999), Mike Davies of Swansea (who, after retiring as a player in the 1960s, became a key figure in the transformation of tennis into big business) and Sarah Loosemore of Dinas Powys, just about make it as footnotes in the tennis archives. That’s the way Tennis Wales, the LTA’s branch office in Cardiff, likes it. Their Mission Statement says it all in the pitiful poverty of its highest aspiration, which is to “produce world-ranked junior players.” Of course there must be the usual crumbs tossed in the general direction of Welsh identity, so the HQ of Tennis Wales is called The Welsh National Tennis Centre – a familiar Welsh malaise: we get all the Pomp but none of the Circumstance. Opened in 1995 on the East Moors, where once the Dowlais Works dominated south Cardiff, the Centre has brought coaching, junior leagues and quality indoor courts to Cardiff, but shows no sign of producing a player of note. The problem is not solely the swallowing up by GB; it’s also the enduring identity of tennis as a pastime for the upper-middle classes – a socio-economic layer in short supply in Wales.
The game arrived here with the aristocratic Kemeys-Tynte family, playing real tennis on their private court by St John’s church in the 17th century, and the modern version was established in 1888 when the exclusive Cardiff Lawn Tennis Club was formed under the patronage of the 3rd Marquis of Bute in the Arms Park. In 1923 the Butes moved the club to its present location in the Castle Grounds. Today it is the largest in Wales, with 11 floodlit courts and flourishing men’s and women’s teams playing plink-plonk shire-standard tennis in various leagues. It’s all very Betjemanesque: haughty Young Conservatives from Lisvane called Lettice and Toby braying over their Pimms; when what Wales needs is naughty young desperados from Trowbridge called Letitia and Tyrone banging backhands under the Draig Goch.