Cardiff City’s 1938 voodoo doll

In April 1938, Cardiff City, playing well at home but with only two away wins all season, were looking like blowing promotion from the Third Division South yet again. All the usual excuses were trotted out but then one fan found the answer. He sent a doll to the local paper, claiming it was the “bogey” that had been harming City’s away form. The sports reporter did his duty and took the doll along to the club. The manager, seeing his chance to exorcise some of the blame from his shoulders, got all the players to line up and, as suggested by the evil doll’s captor, stuck pins in it before the local press photographer. However it was all to little avail as City still failed to win any of their remaining away games that season.

Football’s changed (but it still rains)

It was apt that it was raining at Swansea v Spurs yesterday. It meant not just an added zip to the ball but an atmosphere more reminiscent of the Vetch than the Liberty Stadium. The pitch was muddy, the singing was loud and the play was hurtling.

For me at least, the Liberty can often be rather lacking in something.  Perhaps it’s the sitting down. Perhaps it’s the dispersal of the noisier fans around the East stand.  Perhaps it’s because I’m in the upper tier, where the view of the game is excellent but the players are too far away to see the grimaces on their faces or hear the thud as they kick the ball. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been games and moments when the Liberty has rocked, and yesterday was one of them, but a typical league game there just doesn’t hold the atmosphere of the North Bank at the Vetch.

The North Bank was special. You were close enough to play to feel on top of the players, to feel that you were part of the action rather than watching it. The crowd’s repertoire may have been cruder and even quieter than the Liberty in full voice but it was funnier and less predictable. Songs and chants seem to be invented on the spot. You also got to stand up and move around. When the Swans surged forward, the crowd moved towards the pitch in anticipation.  When the ball flew over the bar, it stepped back in frustration.

Some of this was simply so you could see properly, and it was all less comfortable than sitting in a seat with perfect sight lines, but it’s easier to shout and sing when you’re standing.  You just don’t feel as self-conscious. It was more fun too, even when it was cold and the rain was blowing in your face.  Maybe it’s a trick of the memory but it did seem to rain a lot at the Vetch.

The change isn’t just the stadium. The Liberty has hosted a Swansea team that plays beautiful passing football, a style that has taken them to the Premier League. In my time there, the Vetch was a lower division ground and that meant the football was usually rough, tough and crude. That shaped the atmosphere.

The change is in me too. I’m older and less excitable.  I now have a family and a more consuming job so football isn’t the focus of the week that it was when I was younger and less tied down.  Sometimes my mind wanders during a game to other things in my life.  Sometimes going to a match causes domestics. Perhaps now I’m older I’d be less impressed by the Vetch.

Others certainly prefer the change. Crowds have grown steadily since the move to the Liberty, and that isn’t just down to the rise through the divisions. Early responses to a project recording fans’ memories for the club’s centenary in 2012 show that while people have an affection for the Vetch many prefer the comfort and experience of the Liberty.  It’s easy to be nostalgic for the Vetch’s atmosphere; it’s much harder to be nostalgic for its toilets, its aggression, its occasional racism.

The bigger and more diverse crowds at the Liberty are a clear indication that more has been gained than has been lost but a few more nights of end-to-end muddy football in the swirling rain wouldn’t go amiss.  And even in a modern new stadium the rain still blows into the stands. Yesterday there were stewards with rolls of tissue paper to dry the seats. You wouldn’t have got that at the Vetch.

We shall see crowds from all directions making their way to Ninian Park to hoot and brawl like a lot of wild savage

‘We are drawing very close to the football season, when old and young get infected with a disease known as football fever. We shall see crowds from all directions making their way to Ninian Park to hoot and brawl like a lot of wild savages. As a sport football is very fine, but to think of the thousands that go simply to watch 22 men kick a ball about makes one wonder how these football enthusiasts get any sense of responsibility. What is our future generation going to be like? Not only is football the danger. As soon as a match is finished a great number of football supporters make headway for a public house to disgrace themselves and the country the live in. I trust the day will come when professional football and public houses will be a thing of the past. PRO, BONO, PUBLICO, Cardiff.’

Letter to the South Wales Echo, 20 August 1925.

Sport in the Heritage of Wales

A short piece I wrote for Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service

Sport is a central part of the history and heritage of Wales. It has played an important role in the lives of individuals, communities and the nation.  Indeed, in a country lacking the more conventional markers and apparatus of nationhood, it could be argued that sport is one of the reasons why a strong sense of Welshness has survived in the modern era.

For many individuals sport was an important part of the routine of their lives.  It offered a physical and emotional escape from the drudgery and harsh realities of work and urban life.  Whether through watching rugby at the local stadium, playing football in a park, racing pigeons from an allotment or even just talking over the latest betting odds, sport offered people excitement, companionship and physical and intellectual stimulation. It also accorded people a sense of self-worth and importance, whether through their reputation as performers or through their ability to pass judgement on the performances of others.  Such rewards and pleasures could make life more tolerable and more meaningful.  They embedded sport in people’s routines and made it more than something people just did.

The importance individuals accorded sport combined to make sport a significant part of community life too.  Sporting grounds and facilities were important parts of local landscapes, places where people came together, turning collections of individuals into communities.  Locals assembled there, often in their thousands or even tens of thousands.  Even pub and park games could attract large crowds, as people came in search of free entertainment and to watch their friends and families represent their neighbourhoods.  Being part of those crowds enabled people to assert their local and civic pride.  Moreover, the larger sports grounds helped define the towns in which they stood.  They hosted clubs named after those towns and were known far beyond the immediate communities.  They were as much a civic space and physical symbol of those communities as any town hall, church or pub.

The strength and diversity of these communities contributed to Wales and Welshness having a plethora of different meanings.  Yet, however, Wales was defined, it would be difficult to deny sport’s place in the inventing, maintaining and projecting of the idea of a Welsh national identity in and outside of Wales’s blurred borders, even if the Wales that sport has projected has varied according to time, place and context.  Although the Welsh language, music and Nonconformity have also played their part, few other cultural forms are as well equipped as sport to express national identity.  Its emotions, national colours, emblems, songs and contests all make it a perfect vehicle through which collective ideas of nationhood can be expressed.  Rugby and football internationals in particular have mobilizedWales’s collective identities and passions.  They gloss over the different meanings that the people of  Wales attach to their nationality, enabling them to assert their Welshness in the face of internal division and the political, social and cultural shadow of England.  This put national sporting grounds at the heart of the nation.

Sport needs places to be played and its sites, ranging from national stadiums to pub bowling alleys, are part of the historic environment.  Many may not be unique or architecturally impressive but they mattered to the people who used and lived around them. Some have helped define the nation itself. All are part of our collective heritage.

My favourite literary passage on football

To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling the Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art; it turned you into a critic happy in your judgement of fine points, ready in a second to estimate the worth of a well-judged pass, a run down the touchline, a lightening shot, a clearance by your back or goalkeeper; it turned you into a partisan, holding your breath when the ball came sailing into your own goalmouth, ecstatic when your forwards raced away towards the opposite goal, elated, down cast, bitter, triumphant by turns at the fortunes of your side, watching a ball shaped Iliads and Odysseys for you; and, what is more, it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through aturnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art. Moreover it offered you more than a shilling’s worth of material for talk during the rest of the week. A man who had missed the last home match of ‘t’United’ had to enter social life on tiptoe in Bruddersford.

J. B. Priestley, The Good Companions, 1929