Wales 3 Belgium 1

I had a really bizarre dream the other night. I dreamt that Wales had got to the semi-finals of the European championships! How ridiculous! And how very unlike me – I’m not normally delusional. Probably just the dusty corners of my subconscious getting an overdue defragmentation…

~~~

I’m football crazy, football mad. Always have been. In many ways it has been the love of my life, and over and over again the motive force, turning point and determining factor leading me down various paths to converge at this highly unlikely scenario: me sitting in a Splott hovel writing about the incredible success that is Welsh football.

It began with my maternal grandfather. My beloved Poppa, with his toothbrush ‘tache stained bright nicotine yellow by the puffing pipe lodged in his mouth, had been a devoted Cardiff City follower since their Southern League days. As a young man he was in the vast Wembley crowd in 1927 when City famously beat Arsenal 1-0 to win the English Cup. He stayed loyal, gnawing on his briar in the Canton Stand throughout the club’s steep decline in the 1930s, and was such a committed Bluebird he named his indestructible dog Buller after fellow Roath boy Arthur ‘Buller’ Lever (1920-2004), City’s doughty, larger-than-life full-back in the immediate post-War era. My mother, not in the least bit interested in football, was so inculcated with his City anecdotes she could rattle off the names of the 1927 side parrot-fashion like a semi-devotional recitation, a skill passed on to me that I can still dust down if required at drunken dinner parties: Farquharson, Nelson, Watson, Keenor, Sloan, Hardy, Curtis, Irving, Ferguson, Davies, McLachlan…  

My father, hailing from what was then a largely rugby-free Pembrokeshire, was also a football man. While at Cardiff University he met my mother, settled in Cardiff permanently and soon became a Ninian Park regular too. Over-protective and controlling, he eventually gave in to my pleas and let me to go to my first match in 1965, parking me atop the low wall of the Enclosure while he stood with the men on the terrace behind bemoaning Terry Harkin’s distribution. From my pitch-level viewpoint the glistening green turf, the smell of embrocation, the crunching tackles, the raw sinews, the split-second skills and the non-stop action had me immediately hooked. My first, and last, ambition was hatched there and then: I was going to play for Cardiff City and Wales.

Attending a rugby-only school where the mere mention of the round-ball game was considered tantamount to treason, I was effectively barred from pursuing that dream. I might have been quite good, if my five fairly successful years playing in tough amateur leagues in London after I left home are any guide. But too many serious injuries eventually forced me to hang up my boots – and anyhow it was far too late by then to be a proper footballer. I was one among thousands of Welshmen across generations who never had the chance to fulfil their potential; a victim of the rigidly conservative Welsh establishment that saw football as an intrinsically threatening, internationalist, anti-British challenge to Wales’ status as a thoroughly Anglicised possession.

Entirely uncoached, I had to pick up everything I knew about playing football by watching the actual professionals from the white Enclosure wall. And I was directly influenced by my two favourite City players in those formative 1960s years, both wingers running up and down the touchline just yards away from me: the transcendentally skilled Greg Farrell and Barrie Jones, the very embodiments of football as the working class ballet. Skinny and lightweight like them, I imitated and perfected all their tricks as a teenager up the playing fields, from Greg’s nutmegs to Barrie’s side-steps. Years later, in a rough-house game on muddy Wandsworth Common, I summoned up and put into practice those lessons for the one and only time. Somehow everything magically cohered. I couldn’t put a foot wrong and I singlehandedly ripped our opponents apart from the wing, setting up four goals. When Hal Robson-Kanu scored his extraordinary goal against Belgium something similar happened. What Hal did ad-hoc can’t be coached; he was replicating the ‘Cruyff Turn’ he must have seen on TV countless times before improvising it to dizzy new levels with such devastating aplomb that three Belgian defenders ran off in the wrong direction like Keystone Cops. This is what we can do; this is our genius: we can rise to challenges, we can learn lessons, we can find inspiration, we can change the world.

It was always wingers for me. Poppa had told me all about Billy Meredith (1874-1958) of Chirk, the man who effectively invented the principles of wing play that apply to this day (beat the defender, get to the goal line, cross it). From Meredith a defining strand of Welsh wing-wizardry can be traced via Cliff Jones and Ryan Giggs all the way to Gareth Bale.  Football’s first superstar, and the key figure in the entrenching of both Manchester City and Manchester United as powers in the English game, Meredith won 48 Welsh caps between 1895 and 1920 when the only opposition was England, Ireland or Scotland and when his clubs regularly refused to release him for Wales. After Wales beat England at Highbury in 1920 to win the Home International Championship for only the 2nd time and give 45-year-old Billy a first victory over the old enemy in his last game for Wales, he pre-empted Gazza by 70 years, breaking down and weeping openly on the pitch with the sheer overwhelming emotion. He knew how much it meant back then; and I received Billy’s message via Poppa loud and clear. Right through to the 1980s in London I would pretentiously go around chewing a toothpick as an homage to Billy Meredith’s trademark habit. When people asked me to stop being so annoying, I could then get on my soapbox about Welsh football and thereby test broader arguments on Welsh identity in the crucible of English dismissiveness, bemusement and hostility. Billy helped put fire in my belly – and to this day I proudly remain a fearsome foe for any British Nationalist foolish enough to argue with me. If, for instance, an ignoramus within earshot pronounces the word ‘Meredith’ with the stress on the first syllable rather than the second, I move in for the kill…

Another personal landmark was the founding of the League of Wales (now Welsh Premier League) in 1992. At long last Wales had its own domestic football pyramid. I immediately recognised the vital importance of this new Welsh institution: quite simply, without it we would not now be exulting in the astounding achievements of the Wales team because there wouldn’t be one. FIFA, under pressure from African and Asian countries objecting to Wales having international status yet no national league, forced the FAW to act or else lose the right to membership. More than this, the very existence of the WPL called into question the Welshness of the English League clubs that refused to join it and this provoked the Big Two in particular to try to deflect that type of seditious thinking by making genuine efforts to develop and nurture local talent for once. From this period of unprecedented investment emerged Euro-dazzlers Joe Allen, Ben Davies, Chris Gunter, Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey (who without question can now be declared the greatest single player Cardiff City has ever produced). Since that brief flurry of concern for Welsh interests, both Cardiff and Swansea have reverted to type: wheeling and dealing in the global soccer marketplace and paying obscene salaries to over-rated mercenaries in order to claw their way up the precarious English league ladder at the expense of obligations to Wales. Cardiff’s Malaysian owners, for instance, hungry for a slice of Rupert Murdoch cake, run a purportedly Welsh club that didn’t have a single Welsh player in its squad by the end of last season. Here are the reasons why the FAW must pump the imminent Euro windfall into the destitute Welsh pyramid clubs and their threadbare academies, the poorest in all of Europe since day one: English pyramid clubs can’t ever be relied on to systematically develop players; the 1,000 Welsh pyramid clubs are ideally placed and temperamentally suited to do that job sustainably, build a Welsh-specific ‘beautiful game’ from the bottom up and knit the national to the international; and, since Wales would not exist without a domestic pyramid, the FAW owes it everything.

From boyhood I wanted to be a writer. I started to gain experience and get into the regular habit while churning out Trade Union newsletters in London in the 1980s, and one of my main reasons for leaving The Great Wen and returning to Cymru in 1992, coincidentally just as the League of Wales was kicking off, was to try to become a writer. To get my juices flowing, I started doing articles for Welsh Football magazine on the histories of the ignored, unknown and fascinating clubs in the fledgling Welsh pyramid, thereby acquiring organisational and research skills while I deepened my enthusiasm for and knowledge of our much-abused clubs and leagues. And from that humble launch pad I became the Welsh literary Titan that you know and love today, garlanded with honours, lauded by discerning critics, carried shoulder-high down the length of Splott Road by adoring crowds, my name is shite in lights on Broadway…it was all made possible thanks to footie…

Friends who were at the game in Lille have told me two interesting things. First the spontaneous and genuine warmth, camaraderie and affection from Belgian fans, overwhelmingly endorsing Wales as a European country and showing the respect and solidarity that England never has – and never will until we cut free of their toxic shackles. This couldn’t be better timed: 50,000 Welsh people will return from France more Welsh and less British than when they left. Wales will need their insights and energies in the struggles ahead. And secondly, after the ecstatic celebrations ceased and the fans were pouring out of the stadium, the euphoric phase suddenly ended and a strange beatific calm settled upon everyone. It was as if those lucky Welsh people who had witnessed history had collectively ascended, just like the team, to a higher plane of consciousness, reaching a serene, calm place of unparalleled, profound satisfaction. This must be how freedom feels.

In all the years, Wales have only played Portugal three times (W1, L2) in friendlies. Defying mathematical probability, the two have never been drawn together in the same qualification group across 16 World Cups and 14 European Championships. The first encounter was a 3-2 defeat in Lisbon in 1949, when Trevor Ford (1923-2003) scored twice; the last a 3-0 defeat in Chaves 16 years ago. Our win was at Ninian Park in 1951, Mal Griffiths (1919-1969) and Trevor Ford netting in front of 60,000 in an impressive 2-1 victory. I wasn’t born yet, but Poppa was there. I pray his spirit of Welsh resilience, joy and mischief will be with the boys in Lyon on Wednesday night.

~~

“Adam and Eve and Pinch-Me went down to the river to swim. Adam and Eve were drowned. Who was left?” 

“Um…I don’t know Poppa…umm, let me think…Pinch-Me?” 

He pretended to pinch my arm.

“Ouch!”

We laughed long and loud with infantile delight.