When we win

Two more great results for Wales in the Nations League, a doughty 0-0 draw in Ireland and a well-deserved 1-0 win in Bulgaria with virtually a reserve team, have left us in pole position for the climax of the competition next month – two home matches against Ireland and Finland. As I’m a pun-aholic there is no prospect of me resisting this next sentence: it’s going to be a fight to the finish against the Finnish. Wales’ head-to-head record against Ireland has now reached P18, W7, D5, L6, Goals F18-A18 and against Bulgaria P10, W5, D1, L4, Goals F6-A8 – we have moved into credit against both!

Following Wales’ 0-3 defeat at woebegone Wembley in the piffling warm-up ‘friendly’ that preceded the important Nations League games, moving into credit against England is going to take a while, what with the head-to-head tally against the only enemy now standing at P103, W14, D21, L68, Goals F91-A250. Oh England! Oh masterful England, we cower and quake before your grandeur! We look on your works, ye mighty, and despair! And that’s just Danny Ingerlands’ tattoos!

I’m not interested in analysing this latest defeat. I loathe most football analysis and punditry anyway – the hyperbolic, moralising tone, the clunky truisms, the pseudo-scientific gobbledydook littered with on-trend formulations like ‘press’, ‘high line’ and ‘assist’, the wilful historical ignorance…and don’t get me started on that awful grating noise emanating from Sam Whatsisface on ITV! And, because I don’t accept the English/British narrative on any topic (I look at things from the Welsh point-of-view! Ooh, there’s seditious!), I’m going to ignore this irrelevant reverse and instead focus on the much more interesting 14 Welsh wins. Their sheer infrequency imbues them with the preciousness of scarcity, while the extreme unlikelihood of the world’s poorest football nation ever beating the world’s wealthiest automatically confers gripping drama. There are few better examples of this than the very first of those miraculous 14 victories:

26/2/1881: ENGLAND 0 WALES 1 (Alexandra Meadows, Blackburn)
In Wales’ third clash with England, and eighth international overall, FAW Secretary Llewelyn Kenrick (1847-1933) gave the performance of his life in an extraordinary game at Alexandra Meadows, home ground of Blackburn Rovers between 1878 and 1881.

Rhiwabon solicitor Kenrick is a monumental figure in the history of Welsh football. Anywhere else in the world such a man would have books written about his life and his name chiselled into marble in halls of fame – but this is Wales, where the Welsh and Welsh affairs are rendered invisible and inconsequential in our own land, so of course he is more or less completely unknown. Along with Daniel Grey (1848-1900) and brothers David (1847-1876) and George Thomson (1854-1937), Kenrick was instrumental in the foundation of Wales’ oldest football club Plasmadoc in 1869 and its subsequent transformation into Druids in 1872 when the many colliery and quarry teams in the pock-marked hills around Rhiwabon and Cefn Mawr were brought under one banner. Kenrick and his comrades then founded the FAW itself in 1876, a pivotal moment in Welsh history if ever there was one: the first national sporting organisation in Wales and one of the first pan-Wales bodies in any sphere since annexation by England 340 years previously. All four men, with Kenrick captain, played in Wales’ first ever international against Scotland at Partick in 1876 when the Welsh XI featured six Druids players, still the most from a single club ever to appear for Wales. After the sudden death of David Thomson later that year – Wales’ first goalkeeper was only 29 – Kenrick, Grey and the younger Thomson then proceeded to found the Welsh Cup in 1877, and all three were in the Druids side that won the opening Welsh Cup tie against Newtown, effectively the first ever competitive match between Welsh clubs (after a 1-1 draw at the Cunnings ground in Newtown, Druids won the replay at Plasmadoc Park 4-0). The trio went on to play in the Druids side that lost 1-0 to Wrexham at Acton Park in the inaugural Welsh Cup Final in March 1878.

By 1881, aged 33, Kenrick had hung up his boots (as had Grey and Thomson) to concentrate on running the FAW and hadn’t played competitively for two years. But shortly before the 3pm kick-off a message came through that Wales’ star player, giant Jack Powell (1860-1947) of Druids, a redoubtable full-back who would go on to play for Bolton Wanderers and Newton Heath (Manchester United), had missed his train connection at Chester. Kenrick had no option but to play himself in Powell’s place. Without football boots or kit, he played in his tweed trousers, Oxford shirt and fancy footwear in weather conditions of driving snow and huge hailstones. On a pitch that was 180 metres long by 90 metres wide (200×100 yards), compared to today’s standard pitch size of 110m by 75m, with a treacherous surface of mud, standing water and icy slush, Llew Kenrick marshalled and inspired the Welsh defence superbly with his big-boned, no-nonsense physicality of old, while Wales counter-attacked dangerously especially through Ruthin Town’s talented schemer William Owen (1860-1937) and mysterious winger Thomas Lewis (c1860-c1900) – who disappeared off the face of the Earth a month later after Wales played Scotland at The Racecourse and was never heard of again (it seems likely that ‘Thomas Lewis’ was an alias).

With the score still 0-0 Kenrick dislocated his knee, left the field of play, had the joint agonisingly knocked back into place on the touchline and returned to the fray! Next, in the 54th minute, the cut-and-thrust contest took a sensational turn when industrious, spunky winger John Vaughan (1856-1935) of Druids gave Wales a shock lead. In the act of throwing out the ball England goalie John Hawtrey (1850-1925) of Old Etonians was legitimately impeded by Ruthin’s Uriah Goodwin (1859-1924). The diminutive dribbler, known as ‘Little Uriah’, was winning his first Welsh cap and only playing because regular inside forward William Roberts (1859-c1920) of Berwyn Rangers was injured. Though he never won a second Welsh cap, this lightweight labourer at the Cambrian Mineral Water works managed to unsettle haughty Hawtrey enough to create the goal. Hawtrey was the personification of English upper-class privilege, having been actually born in Eton College where his father was the school’s vicar, so there is something deliciously symbolic about his comeuppance at the bony shoulder of Little Uriah. Dare I add that such courage and clarity of purpose when confronted by the menace of an arrogant, blundering Old Etonian might suggest a solution for besieged Wales today?

Hawtrey made a hash of his clearance, Owen seized on the loose ball and squared it to Vaughan, and the Rhiwabon-born brickworks’ labourer gleefully stroked the ball past the floundering hooray Henry. It was 1-0 to Wales! Hawtrey, incidentally, was the brother of leading comedy actor and theatre manager Charles Hawtrey (1858-1923) – a name later adopted by ultra-camp Charles Hawtrey aka George Hartree (1914-1988) of the Carry On films (he added, to subliminally emphasise the interconnectivity of High Tories and Screaming Queens).

Wales were required to mount an all-hands-to-the-pump heroic rearguard action for 40 minutes to withstand the inevitable ferocious English onslaught. Llew Kenrick was at the heart of the defiant resistance as shots peppered the Welsh goal from all angles. At one point his front teeth were shattered in a jarring collision with an English forward: Kenrick just spat them out and carried on.

Somehow or other Wales held on tenaciously for a momentous victory – not just a first win over England, but the first Welsh win against any opponent. Stunned by the result, the 3,000+ crowd of Lancashire cotton mill workers let the England players know of their displeasure in no uncertain terms. I’m tempted to now throw in some mocking jibe involving the phrase “trouble ‘t mill” were it not for my uncertain grasp of the precise geographical boundaries of stereotypical northern English dialects, so I won’t bother. FA head honcho Charles Alcock (1842-1907) wasn’t best pleased either – three of the XI were never selected again, another four were capped only once more and Alexandra Meadows never hosted another England match (however the town of Blackburn did, but that’s another story). After Rovers moved to nearby Leamington Street later in 1881 the ground reverted to its original cricketing use and, virtually unchanged, remains the HQ of East Lancashire Cricket Club to this day.

The Welsh team had to leave Blackburn immediately to catch the train home. Battered and bruised and bloodied, Kenrick and his men celebrated in the dining car, where they feasted on fowls and ham. They would have known that they had made history.

For goalscorer ‘Jackie’ Vaughan this was one of many highlights in a superb football career during the game’s embryonic years. Another would come a year later in 1882 when Wales beat England again, 5-3 at The Racecourse, with Vaughan again slamming in the clinching goal in the last minute (Wales had to wait until 1936 to get two consecutive victories over England again – and it has never happened in the 84 years and counting since then). These two vital goals were the ‘only’ ones Vaughan scored in the total of 11 Welsh caps he won between 1879 and 1884, the equivalent of over 50 in modern terms. He also had a stellar career in the domestic game with Druids between 1876 and 1890 – 15 years interrupted by a year with Oswestry in 1878 when Druids lost the use of Plasmadoc Park and had to tread water for a season until moving to Wynnstay Park in 1879, and two years with Bolton Wanderers from 1883 to 1885 when he was among a number of Druids men poached by the Lancashire club as they built towards becoming one of the 12 founder members of the English League in 1888. In 1884, while on Bolton’s books at their old Pikes Lane home, he and Jack Powell were the first Wanderers’ players to win international caps. Vaughan won the Welsh Cup four times with Druids, scoring critical goals in three of the finals and playing a pivotal role in the other. He drilled in the equaliser in the 1880 final against Ruthin at The Racecourse, won 2-1; he headed the first goal in a 2-0 win over Newtown in the 1881 final at the same venue; in the 1882 final at Wrecsam he laid on two of the goals and caused havoc from the left wing as Druids thrashed uppity Northwich Victoria 5-0 to become the first club to win the Cup three times in a row; and he bagged a brace in a 4-0 win over Newtown in the 1886 final at The Racecourse, silencing the anti-Druids hostility of the partisan Wrexhamite crowd (plus ça change…).

John Vaughan, seated centre; Llewelyn Kenrick, top left; William Owen, bottom left

Jackie Vaughan worked in one of the many terracotta brickworks opened in the 19th century following the discovery of high quality Etruria Marl clay in the Rhiwabon/Cefn Mawr area. With over 30 brickworks in Rhiwabon alone, the village became so famed for its bright red bricks it was termed ‘terracottapolis’. It is the red of Rhiwabon terracotta that adorns the Pier Head Building in Cardiff Bay, the fiery symbol of today’s fragile infant democracy. I am somehow comforted that the clay of strong Rhiwabon men like Vaughan and Kenrick stands sentry as Wales faces its precarious future.

Picture: GM Davies