“We’ve had the rough, now let’s enjoy the smooth”
Scott Johnson is the author of The Blues Are Up, about Cardiff City’s promotion campaign from a fan’s perspective, published by Y Lolfa, £6.95
As a Welsh football fan, you expect plenty of rough before you enjoy any smooth, living in the shadow of rugby. While a paltry number of supporters turn up for football internationals, rugby internationals regularly sell out the Millennium Stadium at eye-watering prices.
But this season has been different.
With four Welsh club sides winning silverware, there is cheer among fans of Swansea City, Cardiff City, Newport County and Wrexham. Are the scales finally tipping in favour of football?
Carling Cup winners Swansea City are flying the Welsh flag in the Europa League and are established in the Premier League. Since entering administration in 2002, they narrowly avoided slipping out of the Football League.
They left the Vetch Field and moved to the Liberty Stadium in 2005, establishing an entertaining and effective passing game that they have cultivated ever since. Lauded on and off the field, they have supporter representation on the board and a healthy bank balance.
They set the standard for Cardiff City, who also came perilously close to financial oblivion.
After many near-misses, they have returned to the top flight for the first time in 51 years after clinching the Championship title last year. Heavily subsidised by owner Vincent Tan, the Bluebirds spent in excess of £10m to achieve promotion.
Money doesn’t guarantee success but the Bluebirds topped the table from November onwards, spreading goals throughout the side while remaining resolute in defence.
A pre-season rebrand which saw them adopt a red kit to appeal to the Asian market enabled the lavish spending spree but remains divisive.
Managed by fan-favourite Malky Mackay, the club have spent close to £30m.
Newport County are also back in the Football League after a 25-year absence.
During that time, they have been out of business, dragged through the courts and forced to play in Gloucestershire. Reformed by 400 supporters and now boasting a EuroMillions-winning chairman in Les Scadding they’re set to make an impression in League Two.
Securing promotion in the play-offs, they beat Wrexham, who are thriving under the ownership of the Wrexham Supporters Trust.
They won a legal battle to oust former chairman Alex Hamilton, who was determined to sell the ground they have occupied since 1872, as they tumbled down the leagues.
They have missed out on promotion in three consecutive seasons, but won the FA Trophy against Grimsby Town in March.
All four have risen from the depths and their fans deserve good fortune. The national side has also risen in the FIFA rankings from 81st to 46th this year and the world’s most sought-after player is Welsh.
Gareth Bale, the holder of the PFA Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year awards, could be football’s first £100m player, while Aaron Ramsey and Jonathan Williams are prominent in a talented crop of young players.
The national side are perennial failures but, whisper it, Wales are starting to look like contenders.
The fans are notoriously fickle but they have turned up in their droves on occasion.
Qualification for a major tournament would be massive for game and country.
I know how obnoxious and distasteful footballers have become, but I think if you pumped the same money into rugby, the airs and graces would disappear.
I’ve given rugby a crack of the whip but I’ve never got on with it and I know I’m in the minority. I’ve always been envious of the international day experience, but I think that it is more about the before and after than the game itself.
The continued success of the Welsh national rugby team, a phenomenal achievement, has also masked the decline at regional level. The best players are heading overseas and it seems inevitable that it will catch up with the national game. international side.
It’s true that both Cardiff and Swansea are short of Welsh players, but a top-flight South Wales derby can only further boost Welsh football’s growing profile and may inspire the next generation to choose a round ball instead of an oval one.
The times, they are a-changin’.
“We’re punching above our weight”
Dan Allsobrook is one of the editors of gwladrugby.com, a rugby fans’ website and blog, and he says that the love of rugby in our very veins is what lifts us up as a nation
Rugby is regarded as our national sport by many people in and outside of Wales, in spite of the fact that there are more football players and fans in the country than those who play or follow rugby. But all over the world, Wales is seen as being synonymous with rugby union. Why is this?
These days both sports are professional, with a strong commercial imperative. They have a product to sell, and that means getting bums on seats and selling merchandise. Success on the pitch brings popularity and revenue for both games, but this wasn’t always the case.
Until the mid-1990s, rugby was still an amateur game. There were always stories about car-park takings finding their way into the boots of star players on a Saturday afternoon, but the official
line was that rugby union players could not make money from playing, or even talking or writing about their sport. This meant that rugby players had to make their living in a day job, often at the local pit or steel works, sometimes the local school or doctor’s surgery. As a consequence, rugby’s international stars were accessible.
They rubbed shoulders with their fans in workplaces, pubs, village streets and chapels. They remained “one of us”.
How has rugby union managed to maintain its popularity and status in Wales when there has always been so much more money in football? Because Welsh rugby has punched above its weight. It truly is the mouse that roared.
We’ve always had fewer registered clubs and players than the other major rugby nations, and we’re smaller in terms of overall population. In spite of that, we’ve sustained several long periods of success and dominance, notably in the ’70s, when we captured four Triple Crowns and three Grand Slams.
During the ’70s, more than any other time before or since, the Welsh rugby team were woven into the fabric of our society, and they have remained there to this day. JPR, Gerald, Barry, Phil, Grav… the list goes on. These men were and still are folk heroes who stand taller than politicians, business leaders, singers, actors and other figures in Welsh life.
The ’70s was a time when Welsh football wasn’t doing too badly either.
For a proud, small nation like Wales, the feeling that you were the equal, if not the better of your neighbours, was very strong.
It was the Bread of Heaven that fed us.
There was nothing better than going in to work, or school, on a Monday morning, having beaten England at the weekend. It
turned clouds into blue skies.
And we were able to do it every year.
In the past decade, Welsh rugby has experienced another golden era, with three Grand Slams and a Rugby World Cup semi-final appearance to our credit. This year’s triumphant British Lions were Welsh to the core.
We’ve been able to thumb our noses at the people on the other side of the Severn Bridge since 2003. With the current crop of players still in their prime, it looks as if we’ll be able to continue doing so for years to come.
This is a fantastic feeling for those of us who remember the dark days of the ’80s and ’90s, when we were routinely slaughtered by those in the white shirts with the red roses on them.
In spite of a brief resurgence in the fortunes of the national football team when Mark Hughes was manager at the start of this century, the round ball game has had to wait decades for the dawn of a new era of success.
Swansea City’s promotion to the English Premier League in 2011 was the beginning, and it looks like it will continue now that Cardiff have joined them.
This new success is definitely no flash in the pan, and it’s backed by serious money and dedicated fans.
We already know that our recent rugby success is no one-hit-wonder.
This time rugby is on a level playing field with football, a professional game reaping the rewards of success. Many people are concerned that there isn’t room for two successful sports in a country as small as Wales.
They feel that the resurgence of the round ball will be to the detriment of the oval ball. I’m not so sure.
To the Welsh, it doesn’t matter what sport it is, if we’re winning, then that means we’re punching above our weight, and we love that feeling; it makes us proud.