Football has a longer history and bigger support in a rugby-infatuated region than most people give it credit for. Grahame Lloyd reports
Welsh rugby fans might not like it – some probably won’t believe it – but Wales are currently the best-supported team in European football. Even though they lie 108th in the FIFA rankings, an average attendance of 63,000 for the last three internationals at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff has put the Welsh ahead of Italy, Germany, Spain and co-Euro 2000 hosts Holland. Cheap tickets – £10 for adults and a fiver for children – and a magnificent setting have combined to satisfy the huge appetite for football and given the lie to the longstanding but often overstated claim that the national sport of Wales is rugby.
Despite the decline of heavy industry, from where it drew its strength, the oval-ball game still retains its near-religious status in south Wales, but more people watch and play football throughout the country. The League of Wales is flourishing after a difficult birth in 1992 and the three Nationwide teams are holding their own, despite Cardiff’s failure to consolidate their elevation to the Second Division last season.
This modest revival comes after a very long decline punctuated with occasional triumph. Eighty years ago, Wales boasted no less than six clubs in the League. Cardiff were fast-tracked into the Second Division in 1920, while Swansea Town (now City), Merthyr Town and Newport County had to be content with a place in the Third Division South. Aberdare Athletic were admitted a year later, when Wrexham joined the newly formed Third Division North.
For an all too brief spell, football in south Wales enjoyed a boom. As the four other clubs did battle in the lower divisions, Cardiff roared through the Twenties. After missing out on the First Division title in 1924 by 0.024 of a goal – still the smallest margin – they twice got to Wembley and will forever be known as the only club to take the FA Cup out of England, by beating Arsenal 1-0 in 1927.
But even City could not remain immune to the slump which then engulfed south Wales. Aberdare were relegated from the League in 1927, Merthyr followed three years later, while Newport lost their membership for a season before returning in 1932. In 1934, Cardiff finished bottom of the whole League.
The final whistle was blown on Merthyr when one of the most fertile breeding grounds in Welsh football suffered a double blow. The club couldn’t match the wages paid by English teams and widespread unemployment meant local men couldn’t afford to watch. Three-quarters of the town were out of work and when Merthyr applied for re-election in 1930, money – or rather the chronic lack of it – proved crucial. Visiting teams would leave Penydarren Park with less than a £1 in gate receipts, so they elected Thames from London’s east end in place of the Martyrs (to no avail – they lasted only two seasons).
While the collapse in the early Thirties was driven by economics, later failures were less easily explained away. After the war, Cardiff eventually returned to the First Division under the guidance of industrialist Herbert Merrett and manager Cyril Spiers before becoming a classic lower division yo-yo club. Since almost reaching the top flight again in 1971 – when they famously beat Real Madrid 1-0 in the Cup-Winners Cup quarter-finals – the Bluebirds have chronically underachieved for a capital city.
Arch-rivals Swansea City have done precisely the opposite. They made history by moving from the Fourth to the First Division under John Toshack between 1978 and 1981 before almost fatally overreaching themselves. The East Stand overshadowing the nearby terraced houses remains a reminder of the ambition which took them briefly to top – and then nearly out of existence five years later. Only the persistence of then chairman Doug Sharpe kept the Swans afloat after they were officially wound up.
As Swansea were hitting the heights, Newport County’s manager Len Ashurst was helping the Ironsides climb their own Everest. They too reached the quarter-finals of the Cup-Winners Cup in 1981, then almost won promotion to the Second Division under Colin Addison two years later, but by the end of the Eighties Newport’s 67-year spell in the Football League was over. A series of financial crises brought on by board level mismanagement culminated in the club’s demise. Somerton Park – their home since 1912 – is now a housing estate and the new Newport County, along with Merthyr, play in the Premier Division of the Dr Marten’s League in a council-owned stadium.
Even though they no longer strut the European stage, Newport’s current status is still significant and, to a slight extent, controversial. As part of a successful bid to retain their international identity, the FAW set up the League of Wales in 1992 with two feeder leagues in the north and south.
But Newport, Merthyr, Colwyn Bay and Caernarfon preferred to remain in the English pyramid and while Caernarfon returned to the fold, the gang of three remained defiant. After being forced to become exiles for two seasons, they eventually won a High Court battle for the right to play in Wales. While their absence clearly weakens the league, it has nevertheless seen a steady 3.5 per cent rise in attendances, strengthening the campaign for parity with its Scottish counterparts via a mention on the pools and Final Score.
South Wales football, if not booming, is certainly pretty buoyant. Support at both the Vetch Field and Ninian Park is holding up despite disappointing starts to the season though just how long the Cardiff fans will continue to back the reformed Crazy Gang of Sam Hammam, Alan Cork and former manager Bobby Gould remains to be seen.
If you still believe rugby is the national sport, then consider the attendances at two fixtures played in Swansea on the same wet and windy Saturday afternoon in October. While the All Whites beat Stade Français in the European Cup in front of 4,500 at St Helens (admittedly live on TV) a few hundred yards up the road at the Vetch, Swansea City attracted 2,000 more for their victory over Stoke.
Such unfortunate double bookings will be a thing of the past when the two sides move to the new Morfa Stadium. Whether football in south Wales will ever get the attention it deserves is another matter.
From WSC 166 December 2000. What was happening this month