Anglo-Welsh football relations: a history

This article was first published in Tom Gibbons & Dominic Malcolm (eds), Sport and English National Identity in a ‘Disunited Kingdom’ (Routledge, 2017)

All national identities owe something to relations with an ‘other’.  As Linda Colley (1994: 6) put it, ‘men and women decide who they are by reference to who and what they are not’. In small nations like Wales, lacking the apparatus of statehood and complicated by internal divisions, a permeable border and conquest by a much larger neighbour, this is particularly true. Indeed, it is impossible to understand Wales without reference to England.  The dynamics of Wales’ culture, politics and especially its economy have all been shaped by the perceptions and realities of its relationship with its neighbour. As this chapter explores, football, from the nineteenth century to the present day, has been no different.  Football has been a powerful expression of Welsh identity and this has often been expressed in terms of difference to England.  Yet, like the majority of wider Welsh opinion, that sense of difference has existed within a British framework and completion separation from England has rarely been a goal for the Welsh football communities, even when they felt ignored or hard done by England. 

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries 

By the time modern football developed in the mid-Victorian period, cultural assimilation between Wales and England was far advanced.  In the rural west, the Welsh language remained the dominant mode of communication but, in the industrialising south and north-east, a cosmopolitan culture was evolving where the experience of work and an emerging class consciousness were uniting immigrants from England and rural Wales. Compulsory education and the associated decline of the Welsh language furthered Welsh integration into a popular Britishness. Indeed, in both rural and industrial areas, the Welsh tended to regard England and the English as more sophisticated and more modern than their own identity and culture. Some individual families stopped speaking Welsh at home in order to raise their children in English, the language of social progress.  By 1911, just 8 percent of the Welsh population were unable to speak English (Jenkins et al, 2000).   

Football’s origins in Wales show how closely related the two nations were. The modern game first developed in Wales in the north-east, where it owed something to the influence of old boys from Shrewsbury School.  Football’s early history here was shaped by the regularity and frequency of personal, economic and cultural cross-border ties, highlighting how the significance of Welsh national identity was based more on symbolism than lived differences and boundaries.  Indeed, by 1890, 37 of the 125 men with Welsh caps had not been born in the country. Yet the game also became a symbol of nationality itself.  Despite, and to some extent in reaction to, assimilation with the British state and culture, Welsh nationality experienced a resurgence at the end of the nineteenth century. This was underpinned by the wealth and confidence that industrialisation created and promoted by a middle class that saw itself as different to the English, not just because of history and the Welsh language but also because of the contemporary relevance of Nonconformity and a Liberal Party that recognised that the United Kingdom was a multinational state.  Of course, not everyone in Wales spoke Welsh, went to chapel or voted Liberal but sport offered a more inclusive vehicle for Welsh nationhood. A speaker at a Football Association of Wales (FAW) dinner even argued in 1879 that football ‘united together in a closer bond the different counties and towns of Wales’ and maintained that the association ‘bound Welshmen to Welshmen’ (Wrexham Advertiser, 22 February 1879).  The FAW, founded in 1876, was one of a host of new national institutions whose establishment meant that the reawakening of Welsh nationhood in the late nineteenth century was more than just an idea afloat on a sea of cultural and economic ties with England; through its national institutions, Wales became a tangible nation (Johnes & Garland, 2004; Jones, 1992).   

For all the national pride in Wales that the period witnessed, the nation that it represented was a complex, fragmented and perhaps contradictory entity.  The national reawakening may have been symbolised and embodied by the establishment of a national team, competition and association for football but the cultural and economic networks of north-east Wales meant people from just over the English border were incorporated into football’s new national institutions, while representatives of south Wales were absent.  In the south, different patterns of migration and the influence of public schools where a handling game was favoured, meant that it was rugby that initially became the region’s mass sport and outlet for a popular Welsh patriotism (Smith & Williams, 1980).  When a North versus South football match took place in 1884, the most southerly players involved were from Welshpool and Oswestry, which is actually in England. It was not until 1901 that a player from the South Wales League was picked for the Welsh national football team.  

Football was played in Victorian south Wales and the first international match to be hosted there took place in Swansea in 1894.  Such was the infancy of the game in the south at the time that one local paper printed a plan of the pitch before the game (Lile and Farmer, 1984).  It was in the Edwardian period that football really took off in the region and this owed more to the influence of relations with England than north Wales. The booming coal industry saw 220,000 people move from England into the Glamorganshire coalfield between 1871 and 1911.  Many of them were already familiar with the dribbling code, providing it both with new supporters and men looking to establish new teams. These migrants were quickly absorbed into a new Welsh community, apparently with little difficulty. A common lived experience based on class, work and community was key to that but sport was probably part of the process of cultural assimilation too since it allowed people to vocalize and demonstrate their attachment to their new home.  It was also approaches from the English Southern League that encouraged the establishment of larger clubs in the south to compete in professional competitions against English towns and cities (Johnes, 2002). 

One of those clubs, Cardiff City, founded in 1910, quickly established itself as a force in British football and by 1921 it was with the game’s elite in the Football League’s first division.  The club almost won the league in 1924 and in 1927 it did win the FA Cup.  The patriotic celebrations of such sporting successes demonstrated how class consciousness and the dominance of the English language had not blunted a popular Welsh pride and a sense of symbolic difference to England.  This was especially clear at the 1927 FA Cup final. An estimated 40,000 people travelled to London from all over Wales to support Cardiff City.  As the newspapers of the day remarked, this was not just Cardiff City against Arsenal, it was Wales against England.  Over-excited reporters on both sides of the border spoke of Celtic invasions and Welsh warriors come to take the English cup away.  Fans wore leeks (so many people bought them that Covent Garden tripled the price of the vegetable for the day), sang the national anthem and made sure that London knew the Welsh were in town (Johnes, 2002). Afterwards, even the front-page headline of a Swansea newspaper declared that the cup had come to Wales (Sporting News, 23 April 1927). 

In the 1920s, international football never quite matched the patriotic rhetoric that accompanied club football and international rugby. Not only was it overshadowed by the achievements of Cardiff City and south Wales’ other Football League teams but there was also the fact that nearly two-thirds of Welsh international players were with English or north Wales clubs.  As the press often pointed out, international soccer in south Wales was hindered by this because it was in the south that the majority of Welsh people lived and the majority of Welsh matches were held. Players who had left the region became more associated with their clubs than country. This meant that there was not the same relationship between fans and players in the Welsh national team that existed at club matches or rugby internationals. This is not to say that the players were unpopular or unknown but it was difficult to fully revel in a shared national identity with players based in England (Johnes, 2002: 177-93). Yet the players themselves still spoke of their pride in pulling on the red shirt of Wales and a comment by former Welsh captain Fred Keenor in 1934 reveals how Welsh identity was entwined with the relationship with England: ‘We Welshmen do not mind much if we have to bow the knee to Scotland or Ireland but we do take a special delight in whacking England’ (South Wales Football Echo, 22 September 1934). 

International football did reach new peaks in the 1930s, when success on the pitch brought the biggest crowds Welsh international soccer had ever enjoyed. With local clubs failing to bring success or top-quality soccer to south Wales and international Welsh rugby in dire straits, the public was eager to witness high-class matches. Attendances of over 40,000 were seen at the Ninian Park internationals, a figure comparable with rugby internationals. Yet, after the excitement had died down, the fact that the majority of the players played over the border again brought out a sense of sadness. For all the leeks on display and the Welsh songs ringing through the air, Welsh international football was a symbol of how Welshmen had to leave for England to succeed or even just find a job amidst the devastation of the interwar depression. Between the wars, nearly 400,000 people moved away from the economic ruins of Wales (Johnes, 2002: 191; Davies, 1994: 578). 

Yet, for all its insecurities, in both sport and wider culture, Welsh national pride was easily offended when not taken seriously by the English.  Welsh clubs and the FAW both felt poorly treated by the English football authorities and there were significant inter-war tensions over the release of players and the status of Welsh clubs in English competitions (Johnes, 2002: 190, 197-99). More seriously, there was widespread umbrage amongst Welsh speakers at the 1936 decision to move the trial of three nationalists who had burnt down part of a RAF bombing school to the Old Bailey after a Caernarfon jury had failed to reach a verdict.  Few might have agreed with the crime but offence was taken at the implication that the Welsh could not try their own (Jenkins, 1998).  Yet the political implications of this were minimal.  Plaid Cymru, formed in 1925 by a small group of Welsh-speaking intellectuals worried about the retraction of traditional Welsh culture, was more a marginal pressure group rather than a political party.  For the vast majority of the Welsh people, England was a partner, not an enemy, something that became only too evident during the Second World War.  Then there were occasional tensions over whether Wales’ role in the war effort was being given enough recognition and nationalists worried about the impact of conscription and English evacuees on Welsh-speaking communities but the dominant tone was of the British nations standing together. Wales, whether in sporting or wider circles, simply wanted recognition that it was an equal partner (Johnes, 2012: 7-34). 

After the Second World War 

The post-war settlement reaffirmed this idea.  There was little Welsh dimension to economic planning or the structures of the new Welfare State.  This annoyed some MPs who feared that Welsh interests were not properly being considered by the government in London (Johnes, 2012: 35-64).  That began a process of attempts to get Welsh national identity recognized, something which the government was generally willing to accept.  Thus a Ministry for Welsh Affairs was created in 1951, Cardiff was declared the capital city in 1955, financial support was given to Welsh-language publishing and the National Eisteddfod and even the Red Dragon was finally recognized as the official flag in 1960.  That the British government was becoming increasing sensitive to Welsh interests owed much to the furore that surrounded its decision to allow the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley to create a reservoir for Liverpool, an event which angered Welsh and English speakers alike and drew parallels with historic injustices done to Wales from the Blue Books to the Welsh Not.i  Indeed, for many, the key issue that rankled was not so much the destruction of a Welsh-speaking community but that it was done to supply England with water (Johnes, 2012: 178-244). 

Yet the old insecurities remained and they were fed by how images as diverse as the Ealing comedy Run for your Money (1949) and Ivor the Engine (1959-64, and 1976-77) reinforced an impression that the Welsh were a rather comic people.  It was no wonder then that some were keen to leave Wales or at least play down their Welshness.  One of the easiest ways of doing this was ‘speaking nice’, by avoiding the grammatical oddities of Welsh English and dropping or moderating the Welsh accent.  The popularity of elocution lessons in 1950s and 60s Wales was partly old-fashioned snobbery but it was also rooted in how many older Welsh people had a rather poor regard of their own nation, however much some of their compatriots were beginning to complain that England mistreated or ignored Wales (Johnes, 178-210).   

At this time, international football was slowly emerging as vehicle for expressing Welsh and other British national identities outside the UK.  1958 saw Wales qualify for the World Cup for the first and as yet the only time. Yet, nowhere in the UK, had it taken on any real popular significance and the minimal television coverage given to the 1950 and 1954 tournaments meant the World Cup still had something of an exotic quality to it.  European television stations shared broadcasts rather than making their own selections of matches to show and the result of this was that only one of Wales’ 1958 World Cup matches was televised and even the quarterfinal against Brazil was not broadcast, with British television instead showing Sweden v USSR.  In the press, too, there was not extensive coverage of the tournament and one player told the story that on his return to Swansea with his suitcases he was asked by the ticket conductor if he had been on holiday (Risoli, 1998: 138). The rest of the world was not always much more knowledgeable about Wales either. In 1965 a World Cup qualifier against the USSR saw the state media refer to Wales as ‘a small corner of England’ (Quoted in Stead, 2012: 191). 

It was the 1966 World Cup that saw the profile of international football within the UK grow. The tournament was extensively televised in the United Kingdom and attracted very large audiences (Chisari, 2004).  Unlike in Scotland (Mason, 2006: 92), there is no evidence of any hostile reception to England’s campaign and victory. An editorial in the Western Mail (1 August 1966), the self-imagined national newspaper of Wales, proclaimed England’s ‘superb victory’ as an achievement which ‘the whole of Britain can feel proud of’ and which ‘belongs to British football as a whole’.  The final attached a record British audience of 30.5m, some of whom were in Wales.  In the Rhondda, a local newspaper remarked that ‘Practically everything stopped’ for the final (Rhondda Fach Observer, Leader & Fress Press, 5 August 1966).  In Trermerchion in Denbighshire, attendance at the flower show and gymkhana were reported to be down to a trickle because of rain and the final (Liverpool Daily Post, 7 August 1966). Yet the final did not sweep all before it.  In Ferryside, in rural Carmarthenshire, the local carnival and sports day attracted hundreds, despite clashing with the final (Carmarthen Journal, 5 August 1966).  It also came two weeks after Gwynfor Evans became the first Welsh nationalist MP, an event that had unsettled parts of the establishment, and there were those in Wales who were keen to point out that reactions to the World Cup were a form of nationalism too. A columnist in the Welsh-language magazine Barn (August, 1966) noted that if the type of nationalism of the World Cup was accepted there could be a world of peaceful co-operation where nations lived inside their boundaries but still developed. 

The experience of international football within the UK certainly showed that sporting patriotism did not have to be aggressive or detrimental. Matches between Wales and England in the 1950s and 1960s remained imbued with a friendly rather than hostile rivalry, however much newsreel coverage might speak of the Welsh wanting to beat the ‘old enemy’ (for example, British Pathe, 1962).  Qualification rules were also changing and further illustrated a lack of hostility towards England. The FAW decided to allow players to qualify through their parents and in 1971 Trevor Hockey from Yorkshire made his debut for Wales, the first Englishman to play for the land of his father (Stead, 2012: 205). 

Yet football was again providing evidence that England did not always respect Welsh national identity.  In 1971, the FAW had to resort to lobbying the Minister of Sport to ensure English clubs released Welsh players for internationals. In 1971, Merthyr-born reporter Ken Jones even wrote in the Daily Mirror (25 October 1971) that maybe it was time to give up fighting for the release of Welsh players and join the two national teams.  A year later, an English MP went as far as asking the Minister for Sport to lobby for the formation of a British team to replace the faltering English side. The Minister had the good sense to reply: ‘I am not sure that Scottish or Welsh football supporters would rejoice to see their national teams losing their identity in order to rescue England from its difficulties’ (House of Commons Debate, 17 May 1972, Hansard, vol. 837 cc. 500-2). 

By then, football fan culture was changing too, as generational shifts gave it a more aggressive and crude edge.  The shared regional identities that had seen fans of local and regional rivals have soft spots for each other began to fade (Mellor 1999). In their place, emerged regional rivalries, where fans of such teams began to sing and chant about hating each other.  Indeed, these rivalries became defining features of many clubs’ fandoms and sometimes this spilled over into violence. By 1969, Cardiff fans on their way back from a derby with Swansea were wrecking trains. By the 1970s they were fighting each other.  The late 1960s onwards also saw a more forceful Welsh identity emerge in reaction to the decline of traditional Welsh culture and the apparent indifference of the British state. This more confident, youthful and forceful sense of Welshness was embodied by the non-violent direction action protests of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society). But their anger at the lack of legal status bestowed on the Welsh language was soon overshadowed by a more virulent anti-Englishness that was rooted in the growing immigration from England into rural Wales.  At first, such people were a curiosity but as their numbers swelled they became seen as a threat to traditional Welsh culture, a culture now very obviously in danger as every census and chapel closure decried.  Personal relations tended to be harmonious but as a group English immigrants were unpopular and blamed for everything from rising house prices to having the wrong kind of curtains.  Part of this was a classic rural-urban divide but the impact of migration on the language gave the issue a more emotional resonance and led to talk of the English carrying out cultural genocide.  Some retaliated with violence and between 1979 and 1992 there were 197 arson attacks on estate agents and properties belonging to English incomers (Johnes, 2012, ch. 13; Humphries, 2008).  

The antagonism towards the English in rural Wales was beginning to be mirrored by a smaller degree of antagonism towards England (rather than the English) in urban areas.  The winding down of traditional heavy industry in Wales had been going on since the 1950s but not until the 1970s did it become a source of widespread resentment as alternative employment began to dry up.  By the 1980s that resentment was clearly beginning to adopt something of a national angle, especially since it was easy to see the Tories as a government imposed on Wales by the choices of an English electorate. As graffiti in Caerphilly declared after the 1987 general election: ‘we voted Labour, we got Thatcher’ (Davies, 1999: 4). On 22 July 1980, The Times reported a growing ‘bloody English’ attitude towards London-based decision makers amongst Welsh steelworkers who felt that Wales had been singled out for redundancies.  It claimed their ‘bitterness and anger’ was ‘nurturing a new brand of awakened identity’.  A sense of being Welsh also developed in the National Union of Mineworkers during its 1984-5 strike and Welsh iconography, from dragons to Welsh ladies, was common on the union’s banners and posters.  Moreover, even if the rest of Wales did little about it beyond putting loose change in collecting buckets, many compatriots did watch on aghast as the government strove to apparently not just beat but destroy the miners.  England now seemed to offer not the economic safety net it had in the past but a threat to the future of Welsh communities (Johnes, 2012). 

In sport this more pronounced national identity became entangled with the aggressive fan culture that had produced football hooliganism. One hooligan memoir claimed that ‘It’s a well known fact among older people round here that in the 70s and especially the 80s, if you walked around here in any English football top you would have been harassed in the streets and even attacked’ (Marsh, 2009).  But it was the loud and routine booing of the God Save the Queen, the national anthem of both the English and the British, that was most the obvious sign of a more concerted 1970s nationalism.  It had traditionally been played after Hen Wlad fy Nhadau at Welsh home internationals but the booing became embarrassing. In 1975 the Welsh Rugby Union dropped it when it was not the visitors’ requested anthem and football followed suit in 1977.  Both football and rugby also struggled to get Hen Wlad fy Nhadau recognised by other countries as the Welsh national anthem. The French began playing it for Welsh rugby visits in 1971 but the English were less accommodating. In 1974 the RFU refused to play it at Twickenham and the FA turned down the FAW’s 1975 and 1977 official requests for the Welsh anthem to be played at Wembley.  In 1977, the FA claimed its playing might embarrass the Royal Family and instead offered to make it part of a pre-match medley, to which the FAW Secretary replied, ‘If the Welsh anthem cannot be given full recognition and played immediately prior to the playing of the national anthem then please don’t play at all’. In protest at the FA, the Welsh players stayed lined up after God Save the Queen, waiting for their own anthem which they knew was not coming  (Johnes, 2008; Stead 2012: 217-9, 227; The Times, 30 April, 24 May 1977). 

The kind of anti-Englishness that such obstinacy could engender also found its way into the club game from the 1970s onwards.  This was clear in the songs sung at Swansea’s Vetch Field and Cardiff’s Ninian Park.  Some were simply antagonistic (such as ‘England’s full of shit’), while others directly aligned a passion for a club and Wales with a dislike of England (‘We are the England haters – Swansea!’ or ‘We’ll never be mastered by no English bastard, Wales, Wales, Wales’).  Some Welsh fans worried that such songs were racist. Yet others disagreed because of their historical understanding of England as the dominant nation within the UK (Johnes, 2008b). As one fan put it in a 2000 online debate: 

Racism??? Don’t make me laugh!! The English are hardly an oppressed ethnic minority are they!! on the contrary they’ve spent the last 500 years raping, pillaging and suppressing their way around the globe and once they’d finished their wham bam thank you maam routine it was off home leaving the unfortunate country usually bankrupt…Wales is a perfect example. ( guestbook entry, 10 February 2000). 

The definition of Welshness as something oppositional to England was sometimes very keenly felt by fans. A hooligan memoir has claimed ‘This hatred is so endemic’ that it inevitably comes out when Welsh teams play English ones (Marsh, 2008).  It could also be rooted in personal experience, as one supporter living in England pointed out in an online discussion: 

I have worked in London for 10 years now and have had to endure sheep-sh***ing, leek-crunching, coal-chomping, sister-worrying, in-breeding, close-harmony singing, rugby-playing, chip-eating, lavabread munching, “does Wales have a football team then?”, “Not even good at rugby anymore are you?” etc. etc. jokes and generalisations on a constant basis. …  For those of you who have not had the pleasure of living in this bastion of ill-founded sporting smugness and arrogance let me be your education and your guide. You can never read, watch or listen to anything before, during or after an England footy game even if it is against a Maltese fifth division B team without constant references to 1966, Bobby Moore, blah blah f***ing blah! … [I]t is with great satisfaction then that to misquote that famous poem, every away game “There is a corner of an English football ground that for 90 minutes is forever Wales” and I take great pleasure in singing “England’s full of s**t”, “Argentina”, “You can stick your chariot up your a**e”, “We hate England, and we..” and anything else that springs to mind cos if their pathetic mute fans had anything like our passion then they’d be singing it back to us!! ( guestbook entry, 10 February 2000). 

Welshness, in and outside the football ground, may have been  becoming politicized but there were clear limits to what was happening. In 1979, the nationalist threat to the union in Scotland and Wales led to referendums on devolution but just a fifth of the Welsh turnout voted for the measure on offer and over forty percent of the electorate did not bother voting at all. The resentment of the 1980s economic dislocation changed some people’s minds however. In 1997, a second referendum on devolution produced a very narrow Yes majority. Only a quarter of the Welsh electorate had actually voted for devolution but that was still more than twice the number that had voted for it in 1979.  Research by political scientists suggested that the significant shift had come amongst Labour voters who saw themselves as Welsh but did not speak Welsh (Taylor & Thomson, 1999).  This was the same group who had been worst affected by the decline of traditional industry under Thatcherism.  The disregard of a London government for the social impact of its economic policies had furthered the politicization of Welshness. What had emerged in the 1980s and 90s, and what grew rapidly in the early 21st century, was not a Welsh identity based on any support for separation but one in which the very concept of Wales had a political legitimacy. It became the accepted wisdom amongst the majority that decisions about Wales should be taken in Wales (Johnes, 2012; Scully and Wyn Jones, 2015). 

Just as this shift did not signal any desire to leave the union or any real hostility towards England, Wales’ biggest clubs remained committed to playing in the English league structure. A League of Wales (now known as the Welsh Premier League) was formed in 1992 by the FAW, who was concerned that Wales’ position as a full member of FIFA was under threat from other national associations who resented a non-nation state not only having its own national team but also a permanent place on the organization that decided the game’s rules.  Eight of Wales’s leading semi-professional initially refused to join the new competition, and two of those teams continue to remain outside it more than twenty years later. In a recognition of the realities of the professional game’s economics, no real effort was made to persuade the country’s Football League teams to take part. Wales’ leading clubs thus remained in the English pyramid and their fans were perfectly happy with that. Indeed, we should be weary of reading too much into the chants of these fans. For some they were rooted in understandings of history and politics, but for most they were football-only gesture, a ritualized piece of fun that was not to be taken literally (Johnes, 2008b). As one supporter of such songs put it, ‘I am not in any way advocating the idea of fostering Anglophobic over-indulgence … but do GET A GRIP! Are we all going to sing anti-English chants, then go on the rampage burning every cross of St George we can find following the final whistle? No!’ ( guestbook, 8 February 2000). Thus, like the anti-Welsh taunts sung at Welsh fans, anti-English songs were not intended as literal expressions of identity and sentiment.  They were (and remain) banal rather than political expressions of identity and even the most aggressive anti-English assertions of fans have to be taken with a pinch of salt. They owe more to banter and play than the politics of identity (Johnes, 2008b). Wales-England differences are real and felt but they rarely translate into lived discrimination.   Even in rural Welsh-speaking communities, most English incomers report being accepted as individuals, although they were aware of a sense of difference between themselves and locals (Day, Drakakis-Smith & Davis, 2008). 

Moreover, those who sang these songs at club and international games were probably not representative of all football fans in Wales, let alone the wider Welsh population. Instead, there appears to be in Wales widespread interest and even sometimes sympathy for English football. There is no clear evidence but it is not unreasonable to suggest that until the rise of Swansea City into the English Premier League, that competition’s big English clubs drew upon more support in both north and south Wales than any Welsh club or even, at times, the national team. Although there was a brief period at the start of the 21st century when Welsh internationals were attracting gates of more than 70,000, for most of the last thirty years attendances at Wales games have been far more modest.  In 1991, as few as 3,656 turned up for a friendly against Iceland at the national stadium.  A lack of success and a lack of high-profile players have meant that some football fans in Wales were quite simply not that interested in the national team. In contrast, the obsessions of the London media made it difficult for Welsh fans to ignore the English national side.  Since maybe the 1970s, the regular followers of the Welsh national team and Welsh clubs probably generally wanted England to lose but the Welsh population runs far wider than these groups and there is not a universal ‘Anyone But England’ feeling in Wales during major football tournaments.  Quite apart from Welsh people happy to support a fellow British team in a major match, especially if they support an English club, there are people in Wales who are not Welsh. Throughout the twentieth century, a significant proportion of the Welsh population has been born in England. By 2011, the figure had reached 636,266 people, a fifth of the entire population. In that year’s census, 390,000 people in Wales recorded their national identity as ‘English’ or ‘English and British’.  If more than one in ten people in Wales label themselves ‘English’ then it is hardly surprising that St George’s flags can be seen during in Wales during major football tournaments. 

Such cross border movements are also important to the strength of Britishness within Wales. Yet for the majority of the Welsh, a British identity is as much about pragmatism as emotion. the majority of fans seem to either support an English team or want to see their Welsh club play in the English league system.  This is not to suggest that Welsh identity is weak or any way secondary but rather than it exists within and alongside a British context. This is also evident in 21st-century opinion polls that ask about national identity and, rightly, give people the opportunity of choosing more than one. Typically, only around a fifth of people select the ‘Welsh not British’ answer, whereas half tend to go for ‘More Welsh than British’ or ‘Equally Welsh and British’. Polls also suggest that support for Welsh independence is only around ten percent, which implies that maybe half of Welsh people who do regard themselves as British also do not want to leave the United Kingdom. This reminds us of the importance of context to identity. Which identity is to the fore and what identity means depends very much on the context. Football again is a powerful illustrator of this and there is very little active support in Wales for a UK team that could compete in the Olympics.  Feeling British is one thing but supporting a British national football team would be something altogether different.  


In the second decade of the 21st century, a better Wales team was slowly emerging and in 2016 it not only qualified for the finals of a major tournament for the first time since 1958 but also reached the semi-finals.  A patriotic media, always a key component in promoting and defining Welsh identity after the war, celebrated that team’s achievements and the event created what seemed to be a genuine feel-good factor across the nation, including amongst those who had shown little interest in the game before.  Key to that were a clever marketing strategy by the FAW, which embraced the Welsh language, national history and messages of social unity, and the fact that the squad seemed a genuine reflection of the nation it represented: it contained players of white, black and Asian heritage, Welsh learners and first-language speakers and nine English-born members. However, Euro 2016 also saw a recurrence of what had annoyed many people in Wales about previous major football tournaments: a seeming assumption in what was supposed to be a British media that it was how England did that mattered most. Just as it is too easy for news reports to forget to highlight the fact that issues like health and education are devolved, it is easy for people on the BBC and in the press to skip into the language of ‘we’ when discussing England.  People’s annoyance at this was then compounded by advertising campaigns when UK companies promoted the England team in Welsh media and even inside Welsh shops.  

Complaining about this might seem a little trivial, another example of a chip on the Welsh shoulder, but Welsh attitudes towards England have always intertwined with issues of class and power.  When resentment of England did rise in the twentieth century, it was because of feelings that Wales and the Welsh were not being accorded equal treatment, status and respect. The growth of a politicized sense of Welshness in the last fifty years has been directly rooted in perceptions of the English treatment of Wales.  Yet the reality was that much of England was not hostile but rather oblivious to the existence of Wales. That was what made sport so important to Anglo-Welsh relations.  It afforded the Welsh both an opportunity to remind England that Britain was a multinational state and to show that Wales was an equal partner in that entity.  That might mean obscene chanting about England rather than beating them on their pitch.  It rarely meant wanting Welsh football to be divorced from the English pyramid structure.  Just as in politics, a minority of the Welsh people may have wanted to break free from England but the majority were simply interested in receiving that most Welsh of sayings, ‘fair play’.   


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Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

2 thoughts on “Anglo-Welsh football relations: a history”

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