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.