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’.   


  • British Pathe (1962). ‘England beat Wales’. Newsreel available online at  
  • Chisari, F. (2004). ‘‘Shouting Houswives!’: the 1966 World Cup and British television’. Sport in History, 24 (1), 94-108. 
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Why fans still matter: quick thoughts on the European Super League

Some of the reactions to the planned European Super League give the impression that money and profit are something new in football. Yet money, and arguments over money, are central to football’s history.

There were loud and emotional complaints that football was all about cash as early as the 1880s. The Victorian elite complained that the working classes were taking over the game, with players only interested in pay and fans only interested in winning. For them, the soul of their game was being destroyed.

For a century or so, the Football League operated a closed shop not dissimilar to the European Super League. It had no promotion or relegation until 1987 and instead elected new members. Since the election of a new member required expulsion of an existing club, this rarely happened in practice. Members looked after each other, to the cost of the wider game.

The owners of these clubs were usually local businessmen but they were often accused of only being interested in what football could do for them. Such accusations were not always fair but the idea that local ownership ensures clubs not being used to enrich owners is wrong.

The goal of keeping a lionshare of broadcast revenues is also in line with the recent history of English football. Although it did retain promotion/relegation, the central goal of the creation of the Premier League in 1992 was to ensure the top clubs got most of the money. It was never about fairness or equity.

Thus, in many ways, the creation of a European Super League is in line with the game’s history. This is not to deny that there have been changes in football, not least in the scale of money involved. Nor is it to deny how the Super League idea is a product of how the finances of football are changing. The Super League is a product of the falling importance in match-day revenues for the biggest clubs and the creation of fanbases that are international.  Sponsorship deals and shirt sales are now about global television audiences, not the people who go to games.

These global audiences are not hostile to the idea of a Super League. Fans who watch English clubs outside the UK seem to want to see their team play the biggest other teams. Their support is real but it is not based on any sense of history or on belonging to the local and national communities that the clubs exist in.

They are thus not interested in watching, say, Manchester United play Burnley. For them, Burnley is not a place or part of a shared national and football heritage. It is not a cub they think of as being like their own. It is a small team with little meaning because no one they know supports Burnley and no one they have really heard of plays for Burnley.  

But the European Super League is making a very significant mistake concentrating only on the market that such fans represent. The global audience for the Premier League is tuning in to not just watch a game of football but a spectacle. And central to that spectacle are the fans in the stadium.

Some of them will be supporters who have flown in for a rare chance to watch their club. Some will make a noise but others will be uncertain how to behave. They are there to observe more than to participate. They clearly care but they care in a different way to the bulk of the crowd, the season ticket holders who are there every week.

Many of these fans will be from that city or region. Those who are not, will still often have long family associations with the club. The club is not just part of their individual identity but their community and family identity too. Their emotional investment in the team is considerable. It runs far beyond football and is clearly visible at a match. Their chants and songs draw upon a shared sense of history and reference points. Their pain and joy are both real and deeply felt. Their love and anger feeds the spectacle and everything football represents.

These fans are of more than financial value to the clubs they follow. As the shut stadia of Covid has shown, games without fans present are often dull. This is not just about bums on seats. It’s about how the crowd behaves. Football needs the fans’ excitement. It needs their pain and joy, their songs and chants, their colour and sound. Fans in the stadium turn an exciting match on the pitch into something that seems to be about life itself. They turn a 0-0 into something still worth watching and being part of.

It is very clear that the vast majority of the match-attending fans do not want a Super League. They do care about their club playing Burnley and about the wider community their clubs are part of.  Ignoring what they want is not just a betrayal of the lifetimes of emotional investment these fans have given. It will also endanger the very spectacle that the clubs are seeking to sell.

Parts of the Victorian elite thought football was destroyed by professionlism and large partisan crowds. Their game was not destroyed but it was reinvented. What was created in the late 19th century was a football culture dependent on money but not driven by it. It was a culture fed by loyalty, community, and family. What mattered was your team, not who they were playing. This culture still persists today. Its passion draws people from outside in. It is why millions outside the UK love the Premier League.

The European Super League will not destroy football but, unless the match-going fans buy into it, the football on offer, the product on offer, will be much poorer.

Jack Leslie: The man who should have been England’s first black international footballer

By Martin Johnes (Swansea University) and Alex Jackson (National Football Museum)

In 1978 Viv Anderson became the first black player to represent England at football. But 53 years earlier, another black player had been selected for England. Jack Leslie of Plymouth Argyle, however, never joined up with the squad. The FA claimed at the time that he had never been picked and that the press reports of his inclusion were a mistake. Leslie himself claimed years later that he had been dropped because of the colour of his skin.

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Born in 1901, Jack Leslie was the son of a gas fitters’ labourer, who was from Jamaica, and a tailoress from Islington. He grew up in Canning Town in London and went onto become a very successful inside left with Plymouth Argyle from 1921 to 1935, scoring 137 goals in 401 appearances in the third and second divisions. In 1930 The Football Herald claimed he was ‘known throughout England for his skill and complexion’, while in 1932 the Daily Mail called him a ‘coloured genius’.

At the time, he was one of only two black players who were regulars in the Football League, the other being Eddie Parris who played for Bradford Park Avenue, Bournemouth, Luton and Northampton. Parris won a single cap for Wales. His international cap came at a time when Wales were desperate for players. He did not have a good game and was never selected again.

Dusky Leslie SPorts Budget 13 March 1925

How much racism Parris and Leslie faced in the game is unclear. Both were regularly described in the press as ‘coloured’ but not by their local newspapers and research has not uncovered any reports of crowd abuse towards them. But newspapers might easily have wanted to ignore anything uncomfortable and, in a society where there were deeply-held feelings of white superiority, it is unlikely that the two never faced racism from crowds. Indeed, as the above 1925 cartoon suggests, questions of race seemed to make white society uncomfortable and it was easier to ignore it or turn it into a joke than to discuss its meanings.

Both players were, however, popular with their own fans. This owed much to their skills and goals but was perhaps rooted in the fact that their colour made them different. In many ways, they were probably curiosities and they were sometimes referred to as notable personalities in the game.

In 1978, when Anderson was selected for England, a Daily Mail reporter interviewed Leslie. By then, he was working as a bootman for West Ham. Leslie told the reporter how the Plymouth manager had called him into his office, put his arm on his shoulder and said ‘I’ve got great news for you. You’ve been picked for England’. Leslie recalled this knocked him ‘sideways’. He went on:

Everybody in the club knew about it. The town was full of it. All them days ago it was quite a thing for a little club like Plymouth to have a man called up for England. I was proud – but then I was proud just to be a paid footballer.

Then all of a sudden everyone stopped talking about it. Sort of went dead quiet. Didn’t look me in the eye. Then the papers came out a day or so later and Billy Walker of Aston Villa was in the team, not me. I didn’t ask outright. I could see by their faces it was awkward.

But I did hear, roundabout like, that the FA had come to have another look at me. Not at me football but at me face. They asked, and found they’d made a ricket. Found out about me daddy, and that was it.

There was a bit of an uproar in the papers. Folks in the town were very upset. No one ever told me official like but that had to be the reason, me mum was English but me daddy was black as the Ace of Spades. There wasn’t any other reason for taking my cap away.

Leslie’s selection was indeed announced in the press but as a reserve rather than as a first-team player. After the press announcement, the story did disappear and Leslie never joined up with the team. Leslie does not feature in the team recorded in the FA’s selection committee minutes, although these were drawn up later and could have been altered.

England teams were picked by a selection committee of fourteen administrators who voted on the team, showing little consistency but much experimentation and confusion and a desire to ensure teams were not overly dominated by professionals. Earlier in 1925 selectors had also come under some pressure from the press to look at talent in the third division. In 1930, the Athletic News noted that in the eleven seasons after the Great War 145 players were chosen by England and that 66 were yet to win a second cap. 

leslie chosen
Leslie listed in the England team. Nottingham Journal 6 October 1925.

The selectors were thus picking large numbers of players who they appeared to know little about and it is not impossible that Leslie was chosen without any knowledge of his colour.  Leslie was playing in the third division (south) and would not have been very well known. One paper regarded his selection as a ‘surprise’, while another called the whole team ‘experimental’.

There does not seem to be any evidence of an uproar in the press when Leslie did not join up with the team but the Daily Herald did seek further information about what had happened. It was informed by the FA that Leslie had never been selected. Yet the Press Association told the paper that its announcement of his selection had come from the Football Association.

The Plymouth press had initially welcomed his selection but then dropped the story.  One local reporter did, however, write:

My readers may be expecting from me a comment upon the Argyle Club’s announcement that Jack Leslie was not chosen as reserve forward for England. Unfortunately my pen is under a ban in this matter: but I may say that a mistake was made in London and transmitted to me. Anyway, Leslie was at that time playing quite well enough to be chosen.

Clearly some people at the time felt something untoward had occurred. Yet it is notable that nowhere in the discussion was his colour mentioned. The selection of a black man had not been not the cause of celebration or even comment. If it was then thought that he had been deselected because of his colour, as Leslie believed, then this was not a matter for public discussion either.

In later years, he was occasionally touted as a potential international but was nothing happened. In 1933, one national newspaper said of Leslie, ‘Had he been white he would have been a certain English international.’ It made no further comment. Racial discrimination was perhaps simply a matter of fact.

This article derives from a forthcoming study Martin Johnes has written on Eddie Parris and race in interwar British football. Martin also has forthcoming articles on race in post-1945 British boxing.  Credit is due to Phil Vasili, the pioneering historian of black footballers. Further details of Leslie’s career can be found in Ryan Danes’ Plymouth Argyle: The Complete Record (2014).

Plymouth Argyle 1926. Leslie is second from the left.

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Football and the First World War in South Wales

It is unimaginable that people could look on at a game of football and forget themselves in the ecstasy of a winning goal at the moment when their comrades, maybe brothers, are making gallant and stupendous efforts at the front, even sacrificing their lives for the life of the nation.

Letter to South Wales Daily News, 3 September 1914

In August 1914, war broke out in Europe, driving Britain into a patriotic frenzy. WVery quickly, all rugby matches in England and Wales were suspended to help the nation to concentrate on the push for victory.  There was no similar official suspension in junior and amateur soccer but, with so many players joining up, many competitions were abandoned anyway. By December 1914, 1,217 players affiliated to the South Wales and Monmouthshire FA had enlisted and nearly a hundred clubs had disbanded.  At the end of the season, there were just seventy affiliated clubs still active, 325 fewer than the previous year

The press looked to professional soccer’s authorities to follow rugby’s moral lead but, fearing financial losses and expecting it all to be over by Christmas, the FA and Football League decided to play on.  The FAW followed suit with its president claiming that to interfere with football would be nothing short of ‘panic legislation’.  He argued that soccer fulfilled a large place in the organized life of the nation and that its discontinuation would only produce undesirable results.  Although many professional players had already enlisted, and some of the smaller professional teams disbanded, those clubs that did play on faced a battle of their own.

The government and the War Office may have supported the continuation of professional soccer but elements of the public and press saw things rather differently. The first two months of war saw letters and editorials in south Wales and national newspapers denouncing the playing of soccer during a time of crisis.  It was felt that since footballers were fit young men looked up to by much of the public, they should be setting an example by enlisting.  Some critics believed that playing and watching the game were not necessarily wrong if the players and spectators were too young or too old to enlist.  They accepted that sport had a role in relieving public tension and anxiety. However, the more extreme antagonists felt that the whole concept of spectatorism was wrong in a time of war and the sight of thousands of young and able men enjoying themselves at matches during wartime sickened them.

5 Sep 1914

Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 5 September 1914.

19 September 1914

Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 19 September 1914.

The south Wales press printed lists and pictures of famous, and not so famous, rugby players who had joined up, thus indirectly criticising professional soccer.  The decision of Swansea Town’s directors to contest the military’s decision to requisition the Vetch Field was subtly criticised after one member of the board suggested that the War Office could have the ground if it took over the club’s liabilities.  The implication that the club and the game were putting their own finances before the nation’s needs was made clear by the press article then moving on to look at new recruits from the town’s rugby fraternity.

In an effort to make a stand against the continuation of soccer, the South Wales Argus announced that it would not report any football news for the duration of the war. The South Wales Daily News also chose not to print match reports in the first few weeks of the 1914-15 season but, as attendances showed that the public were still interested in professional soccer, the paper slowly increased the coverage it gave to the game.

Other papers also reversed their stance and made it clear that sport was acceptable during the war.

9 january 1915

Sporting News reports on Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, 9 Jan. 1915

Despite the allegations that professional soccer was unpatriotic, the game was helping the war effort.  Grounds were made available to the military for drill or training at any time other than Saturday afternoons, most clubs gave their players rifle practice, and some even paid them in advance for the 1914-15 season to allow them to enlist.  On occasion, soldiers were let into matches half-price in an effort to show that the game was doing its bit, while spectators regularly found themselves the target of enlistment campaigns. The 7,000 spectators at a Welsh League match between Swansea Town and Llanelly in 1914, a third of whom were eligible for service according to a self-righteous reporter, were addressed by six different speakers, including the mayor and club chairman, on the virtues of enlistment.

Recruitment advertisement from Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers FA Cup match programme 1915 (Swans100 archive)

The immediate impact of such appeals was limited in south Wales.  The Times used the fact that only six recruits came forward after appeals at a Cardiff City match as an example of the selfishness of the game and its followers.  However, as the club pointed out, hundreds of its supporters had enlisted, while the majority of the rest were involved in the coal and rail industries, integral parts of the war effort.

Nationally, soccer gave the state easy access to large numbers of potential recruits from working-class communities and thus became an important vehicle in the recruitment campaign. The wartime hostility towards soccer in England was not widespread and actually represented the resentment of exponents of amateurism at the usurpation of the game by professionalism and the working classes.

In south Wales, antipathy towards soccer was even less common and given disproportionately large publicity by a patriotic press.

Restrictions on rail travel and a ban on mid-week games played havoc with fixture lists and soccer found it harder and harder, in both financial and practical terms, to continue.  In November 1914, the FA estimated that, on average, attendances had fallen by approximately fifty per cent.  Cardiff City’s average in the Southern League dropped from approximately 11,700 to around 9,300. Other clubs, like Mardy AFC of the Southern League, already operating on tight budgets, suffered critical declines in their gates and closed before 1914 was out. The soccer authorities’ restrictions on players’ wages caused further tensions within clubs.  Cardiff City players threatened to go on strike in 1915 over the issue of their benefits.

By the end of the 1914-15 season, it was clear that the war was going to be a long affair and the FA decided to suspend league and cup programmes.  Falling attendances and practical problems had achieved what the anti-soccer agitators could not. A new makeshift league involving Cardiff City, Newport County and teams from south-west England lasted just a season because of low gates and rail restrictions.  Cardiff City’s average attendance during the season was a meagre 1,700.

24 July 1915

Sporting News, 24 July 1915

1916 saw the introduction of conscription and the call up of most of the eligible professional players who had not enlisted voluntarily.  Junior leagues did continue throughout the war, offering light relief from the hardships of the home and overseas fronts, but professional clubs spent the rest of the war playing the occasional friendly with teams of amateurs and guest professionals. Without the regular income of popular matches, the expense of paying rent and ground maintenance proved difficult.  Cardiff City, Merthyr Town and Swansea Town survived the war but few other clubs were so fortunate.  Yet the real loss was the 35,000 to 40,000 Welshmen killed in the war, among them a host of amateur, professional and international players.

For those who returned, the war was a watershed in their personal lives.  Fred Keenor of Cardiff City served alongside other professional players in the 17th Middlesex (Footballers’) Battalion and a leg wound threatened to end his footballing career before it had really started.  In later years, he mostly refused to speak of his experiences on the Western Front.  As his son put it, ‘Dad blotted it out. He had lost too many friends. He often said that he was one of the lucky ones who came back’. On being demobbed, the ‘land fit for heroes’ was no more immediately apparent to Keenor than it was to most other returning soldiers.  He found work in a gasworks and on a milk round before rejoining Cardiff City when professional football resumed in 1919 amidst much excitement.

Adapated from Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39 (University of Wales Press, 2002).

A Supporters’ History of the South Wales Derby

1912In 1912, Swansea Town played its first ever professional match, a Southern League game against Cardiff City. Although 12,000 people attended the 1-1 draw, it was a match that drew very little attention in the wider world. Professional football was still in its infancy and new clubs were being set up across the UK.  There was no guarantee that any of them would last. 

But last they did and, after the Great War, football’s popularity in south Wales soared.  Cardiff and Swansea both joined the Football League and Cardiff quickly rose to its first division, becoming one of the most famous clubs in Britain.  Its elevation meant derbies were not common but 1929 saw Cardiff slip out of the first division, bringing the first Football League match between the two clubs. Special trains and buses were put on to the game from across south Wales. Such was the interest that Merthyr Town even rearranged a match to avoid a clash.

The game mattered to Swansea more. In 1925, the Swansea chairman had suggested that a league match between the two clubs might help decide the ‘vexed question’ of the capital of Wales.  Although it was not until 1955 that Cardiff was officially declared the capital, Swansea still felt in the shadow of its larger neighbour, especially since Cardiff was a city and Swansea was not.  Moreover, there was some feeling that Cardiff’s claim to capital status was unfair because the city was more anglicized than Swansea. Football matches between the two clubs thus offered the Swans the opportunity to prove their equality with their larger neighbour.

Cardiff’s lesser interest in the derby was illustrated by a 1925 fifth-round Welsh Cup match between the two.  Feeling the league and its imminent FA Cup final more important, Cardiff City appeared to deliberately play badly, indulging in, according to one Swansea newspaper, ‘childish methods’ and ‘pompous swank’.  Despite winning 4-0, Swansea Town had missed out on an opportunity to secure a meaningful victory over its rival and its supporters felt insulted.

The proximity of the two clubs did, however, mean attendances at the derby were very high. In 1949, there were 60,855 at NinianPark for a Division 2 match between the two teams, a record for the derby that will probably never be broken. Fans remember the derbies of the 1940s and 50s as having a friendly atmosphere. There was certainly banter between the unsegregated supporters but nothing worse.  Indeed, both sets of fans were happy to see the other do well, bound by a common south Walian identity.

Some supporters, particularly those who lived somewhere between Cardiff and Swansea, were also willing to pay to see whichever of the two clubs had the most attractive fixtures or was playing the best football. In 1952, the Swansea Town manager asked the league if home games could be scheduled when first-division Cardiff City were playing away. He feared Swans fans would prefer watching the better standard of football forty miles away.

A hint of a more bitter rivalry emerged in 1960, when Cardiff, angry at the scheduling of the match, fielded a reserve side for a Welsh Cup fixture between the two teams. This brought a 350 guinea fine and a rebuke from the Football Association of Wales, who told the capital’s club to show the competition more respect. Swansea’s directors were also insulted by their Cardiff counterparts refusing to join them in the boardroom. It was a bad tempered match that saw three players sent off.

Football crowds were in decline by this time. Standing on a cold terrace was less appealing than watching television, doing DIY or taking the family out for a spin, all pursuits enabled by the new post-war working-class affluence. Many family men thus stopped going to matches.  Crowds grew younger and began to take on the characteristics of the modern youth culture that emerged in the 1950s. With their confidence and opportunities boosted by rising wages and near full employment, boys and men in their teens and early twenties travelled to away matches in large numbers, adopted fashions that made them stand out, drank more than earlier generations and acted more aggressively. The result was that fighting, swearing and obscene chanting all became relatively common at football matches in the 1960s and the sport gave young men a fun outlet for proving their masculinity.

Alongside these changes, patterns of regional support declined. This was a reaction to the rise of the televised game and more affordable travel, which both contributed to the biggest clubs drawing more and more supporters from outside their traditional catchment areas. For younger supporters who stayed with their local teams, there appears to have been resentment about people following other teams and regional rivalries began to replace regional identities.

The relationship between the two sets of fans thus changed and many began wanting their local rivals to lose. By 1969, this had spilled over into the first crowd trouble at the south Wales derby. In a two-leg Welsh Cup final, Cardiff fans vandalised a train on their return home and then, at the second leg at Ninian Park, they attacked two coaches carrying Swansea fans, smashing windows and denting the sides.

There was no league derby between the two sides between 1965 and 1980 and that held back the derby from becoming too embroiled in the growing football hooligan culture.  But the 1980 derby inevitably saw trouble and two weeks later fans clashed again after a bizarre decision to hold an FA Cup replay between Swansea and Crystal Palace at Ninian Park. There was considerable fighting on the terraces between Swansea supporters and Cardiff fans who had either turned up to see the match or perhaps just to enjoy a scuffle. The low point came outside the ground when a Swansea fan was stabbed to death in a fight with Palace supporters.

It was the 1980s that really saw the tensions intensify. Football hooliganism was peaking everywhere in Britain and south Wales was no different. Cardiff fans, however, had a new reason to dislike their neighbours down the M4.  In 1981, Swansea were promoted to the first division and their manager was John Toshack, a former Cardiff City cult hero. This created not just jealousy but a feeling that the natural order of things had been turned upside down. In a derby in Swansea’s promotion season, their fans threw bricks at cars and houses. At the 1982 Welsh Cup final, it was golf balls that were exchanged between the two fans and a policeman was hospitalized by a dart.

As both clubs fell on hard times, the extent of the rivalry became something of a badge of honour. Some fans looked at it as something that put their teams on the map. They might not be able to compete with the big boys on the pitch but south Wales had a derby to rival anywhere. It was gaining its own legends and language too. Swansea fans became ‘Gypos’, in reference to the perceived poverty of Wales’s second city. Cardiff fans were greeted by breast-stroking players and supporters who sang ‘swimaway, swimaway’, a reference to a group of teenage Cardiff fans being chased into the sea at a 1988 derby.


The climax of trouble came at the 1993 ‘Battle of Ninian Park’. Swansea fans ripped up seats and hurled them at rival fans, which prompted a pitch invasion. Mounted police and dogs had to clear the pitch and control the situation. The game was delayed by forty minutes, eight fans were hospitalized and nine were arrested.

It was a turning point. CardiffCity chairman Rick Wright announced ‘If we allow these savages to enter our stadia and take their money, we cannot hold anyone else responsible for the scenes of carnage they create. It is all too easy for Cardiff to blame Swansea, for Swansea to blame Cardiff, for Cardiff and Swansea to blame the police. But the responsibility lies with the clubs.’

The result of the new determination to do something was the banning of away fans from the fixture. But the damage had been done and the next time the two clubs met in 1994, just 3,711 turned up to the Vetch. For many supporters, the derby had become something to avoid rather than get excited about.

Although hooliganism was a problem at most clubs, and Welsh fans were certainly playing up to the expectations of the time, there were some unique factors to the south Wales derby. In Swansea, there was some feeling that the BBC was too Cardiff-centric and that the club’s rise up through the divisions had not been given adequate coverage. Accusations of a Welsh media bias towards the capital grew and extended from the BBC to HTV Wales and the Western Mail. The size, extent and placing of coverage were all carefully scrutinized and Swansea fans could be quick to take offence at both real and imagined inequalities.

The regeneration of Cardiff Bay in the 1990s, funded by millions of pounds of central government money, threw another source of resentment into the mix. There was little surprise when the National Assembly was located in the capital but there was bitterness over how Swansea had been given the impression that it could win a farce of a competition over where to locate the new home of Welsh democracy.

Things did get better. Hooliganism went out of fashion. Policing and stewarding became better organised and managed. Both clubs got new all-seater stadiums that were closely monitored by CCTV. It was easier to identify troublemakers but people were also simply less likely to cause problems if they were sitting down.  When away fans returned to the fixture in 1997, they were herded in and out of the ground in police-escorted convoys. There was little opportunity to get anywhere near a rival fan, although that did not stop some vandalism of their rivals’ stadium or a few minor skirmishes with police.

Of course, not all fans have shared in the hatred. There were many on both sides who saw it as a bit childish or who were quite happy to see a fellow Welsh team doing well. Many Swansea fans have certainly welcomed Cardiff’s promotion to Premier League because it was an opportunity to have a derby again. There is even at least one person who has season tickets for both clubs.

Saturday’s derby will be a long way removed from the first match between the two clubs in 1912. The audience will be global and the atmosphere far more hostile.  No doubt there will be some songs sung and gestures made that would shock the supporter of a hundred years ago and will confuse the modern foreign audiences watching.  But, however much local pride is at stake, one thing hasn’t changed. You do not get more points for beating your neighbour than you do for beating any other team in the division. In that sense at least, even if in no other, it’s just another game.

Two voices of reason from football’s past

A letter from a Cardiff City fan to the South Wales Echo (3 Dec. 1927) that the club’s present ownership would do well to think about.

“The true position with the City at the moment has nothing to do with the players but concerns the management, and I’m afraid that unless they consider a little more of the wishes of the supporters they will kill the bird that lays the golden egg.  If the directors would mingle with the crowd, instead of being perched like tin gods in their reserved stands, they would find that what I say is true.”

A letter to the South Wales Echo (23 Feb. 1922) that the owners of all clubs would do well to think about.

“If the City is to maintain the good feeling of its supporters, it would be wise to give all classes an opportunity to see the match, because, after all, the working man is the backbone and stay of the club. It is a pity that the directors should confuse and misconstrue sport for greed, and remember the story of the magical goose.  If the directors cater only for the rich they will find that class deserting them in times of trouble.”

The first major trophy?

There is currently some criticism of the fact that both the media and Swansea fans are calling the League Cup Swansea’s first major trophy. This is being taken as an insult to the Welsh Cup, a trophy Swansea first won in 1913. However, as this extract from my book Soccer & Society: South Wales 1900-39 argues, between the wars the Welsh Cup was simply not regarded as an important competition by the football community in south Wales.


Despite its national consciousness and patriotic celebrations, inter-war soccer in south Wales was essentially bound to the wider English club scene and it paid little regard to all-Wales competitions such as the Welsh Cup and League.  Before 1914, the emerging soccer fraternity in the south had seen the Welsh Cup as an important route to establishing its credentials but, after the war, with local teams now playing in the higher standard and more prestigious Football League, the competition lost its appeal.  Cardiff City et al. rarely fielded their first teams in the cup and even the date of the final was often fitted around southern clubs’ league fixtures.  Matches were generally not well attended and the local press rarely made any effort to hype the games.  The venue of the 1920 Welsh Cup final was moved from Cardiff to Wrexham because it was felt that the latter town’s team would not attract a large crowd in the south where crowds were used to watching the higher standard Southern League soccer.  For the clubs from the south, becoming champions of Wales held no appeal compared with the possibility of success on the English stage that the Football League and FA Cup offered; prestige was about recognition from outside Wales, not from the politically, culturally and economically distant north.

In contrast, clubs from the north were eager to use the Welsh Cup to proclaim their equality and there was a sense of regret about the south’s apathetic attitude.  This attitude may have been different had north Wales possessed enough clubs of a sufficient standard to challenge consistently for the trophy.  However, between 1920 and 1939, the trophy was only won five times by teams from the north.  In the hope of raising the competition’s status, the FAW invited English clubs to enter in the 1930s.  Yet that failed to raise interest in the south.  The English teams that entered were mostly small clubs from the counties that bordered north and mid Wales and meant little to the inhabitants of south Wales.  The only result was embarrassment for the FAW as the trophy left Wales on seven occasions during the 1930s.  The FAW appealed for stronger efforts to bring the cup back to Wales but the calls fell on deaf ears amongst south Wales clubs whose eyes were focused on the more prestigious English competitions.

I Am The Secret Footballer review

I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting the Lid on the Beautiful Game (2012)

This is both a gripping and a deeply frustrating book.

In terms of its aim of lifting the lid on the hidden world of football it’s very good and better probably than every Premier League autobiography. It’s far most honest and open than is the case with almost everything else written from within football. There’s much here on the shenanigans, the money, the mindset of players, their relationships with people outside football and about the playing of the game itself. Every fan will learn something from it.

But, in terms of trying to understand the secret footballer himself, the book is deeply frustrating. It’s not so much the fact that he’s anonymous but that so much of the detail is left out.

He talks a lot about money and about figures but at the same time is vague enough that you don’t really understand whether he’s very rich from his investments or broke from his tax bill (or both). Understanding the trajectory and nature of his career is impossible because he, understandably, doesn’t give too much away in order to protect his anonymity. This means understanding quite where he’s coming from is very difficult, as is understanding why he suffers from depression.

Indeed, building up some sympathy for the writer is almost impossible. He comes over as rather arrogant but I guess that’s inevitable with any highly-paid, high-profile elite athlete. He seems to see himself as both an insider and an outsider within football culture but how that affects his relationship with his teammates is never as explicit as it might have been. His wife is virtually absent from the book, despite the talk about the impact of home life on performances. You get the sense that while he might not want fans to know who he is, his identity within the game isn’t a secret. For all the discussion of his wages and his depression, he’s holding back.

This is shame because there was the potential here for the best book ever written about football. The writer is clearly intelligent, reflective and insightful. He could have written a very open autobiography that told us about his personality, his life, his career and the game itself. That was never going to happen though because he’s still playing and wants to stay in the game.

What he’s given us is very good but it leaves the reader with as many questions as answers. He’s just had to leave too much out in order to protect his identity and, presumably, his reputation within the game.

Why a football TeamGB is a threat to the independence of the ‘home nations’

To have an official national football team, a country has to be a member of FIFA, football’s world governing body. Membership of FIFA is not permanent. A vote by three-quarters of members can expel any FIFA member.

Article 10.1 of the FIFA statutes states:

Any Association which is responsible for organising and supervising football in its country may become a Member of FIFA. In this context, the expression “country” shall refer to an independent state recognised by the international community.

England, Scotland , Northern Ireland and Wales do not meet this criteria but do have their special position as seperate members enshrined in their own article (10.5).

FIFA also recignizes that nationhood may not be straightforward and article 10.6 states ‘An Association in a region which has not yet gained independence may, with the authorisation of the Association in the country on which it is dependent, also apply for admission to FIFA.’  Note the ‘yet’, an assumption that independence will come.

Thus the position is that the British associations having separate membership is an acknowledged contradiction to FIFA’s membership rules but one that is explicitly protected in its own statutes.

So, do the 2012 Olympics threaten that? It can’t be pretended that the Olympics are nothing to do with FIFA.  Olympic matches are regarded by FIFA as official internationals (because this means it can charge a financial levy). Can the UK say it is four nations in one FIFA competition but one in another? Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, has said yes. He has repeated his belief that Olympic participation does not undermine the UK position. But Blatter is also a man prone to change his mind, something evident by his conversion to goal-line technology after a long entrenched hostility.

Moreover, in 2008 Blatter said:

If you start to put together a combined team for the Olympic Games, the question will automatically come up that there are four different associations so how can they play in one team. If this is the case then why the hell do they have four associations and four votes and their own vice-presidency? This will put into question all the privileges that the British associations have been given by the Congress in 1946.

Blatter is 76 years old and will not be around forever. His successor will probably want to make big changes at FIFA, to lessen the taint of scandal and corruption that hangs over its highest levels.

FIFA is also a democracy. A president may offer guidance but ultimately it’s down to what individual members think. As Blatter himself has said in a different context: ‘FIFA must not be reduced to the smallest common denominator: its President … FIFA is ultimately nothing but the expression of the will of its more than 208 Member Associations’.

The fiasco of the recent England World Cup bid illustrates that British football is not exactly held in wide regard amongst those members. Admiring the Premier League is one thing. Understanding why the British get special treatment is another.

BBC Wales have recently pointed to the trend being for more countries in FIFA not less, while Stuart Pearce has claimed that no one is calling for the return of a single Yugoslavian team. That last argument is silly because Yugoslavia no longer exists, but the UK does. The trend for more FIFA members has been because the number of independent nations has grown in the last 30 years. Of course, if Scotland votes for independence then the whole parameters of this issue will change. But the key issue is not the politics of statehood but of football.

There is historical evidence that the UK’s special position has been questioned before. For example:

  • In 1972 the Uruguay FA withdrew a proposal to end the home nations’ independence after the 4 UK associations agreed to pay FIFA a levy from the home championship (as all other nations have to from their internationals). That year the Secretary of the SFA noted ‘there was no doubt that the South American Confederation wished to remove the independence of the Four British Associations’.
  • In 1992 British delegates at the International Football Association Board were told by FIFA delegates that if they voted against the introduction of the backpass rule it would jeopardise their separate status. The FAW’s sense that its position was under threat was already so strong that it created the League of Wales in 1992 to ensure it could not just be seen as a region of English football.

The FAW were particularly shocked at the threats that surrounded the backpass rule because they had always believed they had European support for their position. Four British nations after all cemented the European domination of the world game but the break up of the old Communist bloc significantly increased the number of European members. Suddenly, Europe had less need of British votes at FIFA.

The European domination of world football is clear in the places allocated for the 2010 World Cup:

Number of countries seeking qualification Number of places allocated
Europe 53 13
Africa 53 6
Asia 43 4
Central & N America 35 3
Oceania 11 1
South America 10 5

Morever, Africa only got 6 places instead of its normal 5 because South Africa qualified automatically as hosts.

The executive of FIFA appears to think this is not an issue in which democracy should prevail. Blatter said in 2011: ‘All of the Fifa member countries have equal voting rights, but when it comes to the World Cup, which is the only income of Fifa, our executive committee agrees that those confederations that have the best football should have more representatives.’

Television money and sponsor reasons aside, the key moral argument in support of the status quo is that this is about the quality of football and FIFA rankings do support the notion that the bulk of the best teams are in Europe. But it is difficult for the rest of the world to accept European domination for reasons of  ‘quality’. There is more than a whiff of an old-fashioned western sense of superiority here, a sense that the rest of the world resents. Even in Australasia there is resentment that their continent isn’t even guaranteed at least one place.

It’s within this context of resentment about the nature of power within FIFA that the British nations’ special position can come under the spotlight. This is likely because the British privileges extend beyond just having four members.

The FIFA executive is made up of a president, 8 vice presidents and 15 members. Of these vice presidents Britain gets one, Europe gets another two and the rest of the world get five between them. The distribution of members is also skewed towards Europe.

The only justification for the UK having the same number of vice presidents as the whole of Africa is history. When football was reorganized after the Second World War, FIFA was desperate to bring in the UK nations, the inventors of the game, to legitimize its own position and buttress the organization’s financial future. The cost was giving the British a disproportionate influence.

That extends beyond the FIFA executive. The International Football Association Board is the body that sets the actual rules of the game of football. There are eight votes on this board: FIFA have 4 and the UK associations have one each. In other words, the British associations have as much say in the rules of football as the rest of the world put together.

A stranglehold on the game’s rules and a permanent vice-presidency on an executive that does not distribute the spoils of football’s centrepiece fairly mean that the British position is of interest to the rest of the world. It has a direct impact on the governance of world football and a symbolic importance. Paul Darby, a historian of African football, has noted:

The individual membership of each of the British associations, which affords them full voting rights at FIFA Congress, has been a particular source of discontent with the African football confederation. Indeed, on many occasions the membership status of the British authorities has been heavily criticised as evidence of global inequality within world football and has been cited as constituting just one manifestation of European bias and privilege within the game’s institutional and administrative structures.

Just because there isn’t currently a campaign to get rid of the UK’s four teams does not mean there won’t be in the future. And when it happens, people will point to the precedent of the 2012 Olympics.  If TeamGB competes again, as some pundits, players and the manager hope, the danger of the issue coming back will be all the greater.

There is little sentiment for tradition and history in football and it is only tradition and history that allows the four UK nations to have their own national teams.  Moreover, as long as the British nations have a disproportionate say in the power of world football then there will be those that resent the fact that the UK has four teams.

Why Wales should not take part in a Team GB at this year’s Olympics

In today’s Western Mail, Andrew RT Davies, the Welsh Conservative leader, makes a case for the inclusion of Welsh players in a Team GB football side at this year’s Olympics.  He’s wrong.

His argument is based on the following points:

1. It’s a one off and for Ryan Giggs this is his last opportunity to play in a major tournament.

If it’s individual Welsh players’ chances of competing in tournaments that matter then why stop at the Olympics? After all, Bale and co will have a better chance of making it to Brazil 2014 as part of a UK team. The argument that individuals matter more than their nation cannot be taken up or cast aside according to circumstances.  The wishes of, or sentiment for, any individual player should never take precedence over the interests of his club or national team.

2. ‘Recent statements from the FIFA president have indicated that one-off participation would not jeopardise our independent status as a national association’

This is the key issue.  Unfortunately there are older statements from the FIFA president where he essentially says completely the opposite (see Bethan Jenkins’ reply article on the same page). If Blatter’s changed his mind once he can change it again.

Moreover, as a politician, Davies should really know that the leadership and direction of democratic institutions can change.  His argument is rather like saying that because David Cameron says something now, no other future prime minister will ever say or do the opposite.  Even if it’s 50 years before a future FIFA leader raises a precedent from 2012 to question the special status of the UK nations, a Team GB would prove to be a mistake. We have to remember that to many in the football world the position of non-independent nations having independent status purely because the game was invented here seems illogical. There are already plenty of precedents to the issue being questioned and discussed. Why take the risk and give ammunition to opponents?

 3. A Team GB will not undermine a sense of Welsh nationhood.

He’s right here, but this argument is irrelevant.  The case against a football Team GB is nothing to do with whether Wales is British or not. It is about whether Wales is able to retain its independence in the football world, not in any other world.

4.  Our footballing talent stands to gain much from ‘exposing themselves to high level international competition’.

Presumably this means in developing their experience rather than their exposure to potential employers. Perhaps Bale and co will develop their talents through the experience, but there are many, many more Welsh players who will lose out on international experience if Wales cease to have their own international side.

5. ‘Giving young Welsh people the opportunity to watch their Welsh heroes playing for Team GB will have obvious benefits for increasing sports participation.’

Will it really? Is there any evidence for this at all? Are there really young kids around who would take up football just because Bale is playing for Team GB? If these guys are heroes already, then the kids must already be watching them for Wales, Spurs etc.  Why would kids be watching the football Olympics at all, if they didn’t like football already?

6. The involvement of Welsh players ‘will place our nation in the global shop window with obvious economic benefits’.

Again, is there evidence for this? If there are economic benefits to Welsh players in a Team GB, they aren’t even remotely obvious to me. Will watchers even know Bale, Ramsey and whoever is on the bench are Welsh?  Will there be some industrialist watching who thinks, “What a great player. I must open a factory near where he comes from”?

7. Not taking part will damage Wales economically and culturally.

Presumably the economic argument is the imagined opportunities discussed in point 6. The cultural damage Davies foresees seems to be that we will be isolated from ‘our British neighbours’.  Quite how not taking part in a short football tournament (some of which is held in Wales anyway) amounts to cultural damage is not clear. Did the UK’s non participation in any of any of the recent Olympic tournaments hurt Wales culturally? Did anyone here even care? Why does the fact that the Olympics are in the UK mean this issue suddenly matters?

In conclusion, a football Team GB is a potential threat to the independent status of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in football.  Yes, it is not a definite threat but it is a risk.

Sometimes we need to takes risks in life when there are obvious rewards for doing so. In this case there are no overall rewards for doing so, whereas the potential fallout would change Welsh sporting history forever.

People who look at the history of FIFA know that. The FAW and SFA know that. Any Welsh player who wants to pull on that GB shirt, and any fan or politician encouraging him to do so, needs to know that.  If you believe Wales should have its own football team, you have to be opposed to Welsh players in football’s Team GB.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University. His books include A History of Sport in Wales (2005) and Wales since 1939 (2012).