Frayed in Wales

Fierce rivalry is one thing, but Swansea and Cardiff has become a poisonous affair in recent years. It wasn't always that way, explains Huw Richards

Gavin Gordon of Oxford United probably did not enjoy playing against Swansea in October. He got the reception George Bush might expect at a peace rally, was booed unceasingly and went off injured after about 20 minutes. Swans fans enjoyed the game even less, mind you, going bottom of the league for the sec­ond time after a 1-0 defeat. The abuse of Gordon was not racist in intent, although the Swans following is not free of that poison. Gordon’s crime was not that he is black, but that he was a Bluebird. That’s all it takes.

The relationship between Swansea and Cardiff combines standard intercity venom with strictly local idiosyncracies. Unwillingness to unite in the national cause is one. And where most vicious rivalries gather fresh momentum from frequent meetings, Swansea and Cardiff don’t play that often – only 48 league meet­ings in more than 80 years (concern for balance forces me to add that the Swans lead 18-16), although the Welsh Cup (Cardiff lead 18-7) has provided 33 more opportunities for mutual revilement.

The violence pervading these games is generally more of atmosphere than commission. Many were played on Boxing Day morning with spectators (and players, to judge by the quality of the football) too hung­over to do more than make rude gestures. We should, however, acknowledge the genius of the South Wales Police who, irked by holiday overtime pay­ments, insisted on Cardiff’s 1993-94 home game being moved to the evening of Wednesday, Dec­em­ber 22 and were surprised when fans took the chance to get tanked up before spreading alarm and despondency among city centre shoppers. As well, too, that Cardiff lost their Third Div­ision semi-final play-off in 1997. A Wembley meeting might have got dem­olition work off to a flying start, but militarising the entire M4 would have been challenging.

It wasn’t always like this. News of Swan­­sea Town’s Second Division survival in 1952 reportedly inspired one of the “biggest cheers” at Ninian Park. Martin Johnes’s excellent Soccer and Society: Wales 1900-39 records that 25 years earlier Cardiff City’s FA Cup winners were supported by a trainload of fans from Swansea and exultant coverage in Swan­sea papers.

What has changed since then is the relationship between the cities, as well as the football clubs. If Car­diff was always a little larger, wealthier, closer to Eng­land and more football-minded – its Valleys hinterland is predominantly football territory while Swansea is ringed with rugby towns like Neath and Llanelli – these were differences of degree. This changed in 1954 when Cardiff was declared the capital of Wales and, after 70 years of equal sharing, rugby internationals were taken away from Swansea.

This created a pattern, maintained since – the Op­era House, Millennium Stadium, county cricket and the Welsh Assembly are only the most recent prizes bestowed on Cardiff – which has fed Swansea’s sense of grievance and Cardiff’s of superiority. True, the av­erage North Banker setting upon his Grange End counterpart is not thinking about the opera, or con­sciously avenging the decis­ion to locate the Assembly in a city which voted against its creation. But there is a general resentment, crisply if inelegantly sum­marised by the Swansea Evening Post’s description of our capital as “a greedy city with a big mouth”.

It is deepened when the Cardiff-based media echoes Sam Hammam’s belief that Cardiff City represent the whole of Wales – the equivalent of suggesting that all Lancastrians support Man Utd while Lon­doners fol­low Arsenal. It adds edge to Cardiff chants of “We won’t play you again” – football’s equivalent of Metropolitan policemen waving their wage packets at striking miners – at last season’s FAW Premier Cup final.

Yet we have a great deal in common. Large numbers of our greatest players have played for both sides. The poet Danny Abse recounted how he would while away sleepless hours with a litany of Cardiff heroes: “Trevor Ford, John Charles, Mel Charles, Ivor All­church”. All four came from Swansea and started with the Swans, although John Toshack, per­haps the most significant of the shared careers, made the opposite journey.

Cardiff admittedly have the edge in lit­er­ary sup­port – Abse planned po­etry read­ings ar­ound their fixture list, while Dylan Thomas’s sole acknowledgement of his home town club was the question debated by two schoolboys in an auto­bio­graphical story: “Would the Swans beat the Spurs?” (Thom­as does not tell us, but of course they didn’t.) But Abse’s litany also underlines decline. Will any of us ever while away insomnia by summoning images of recent players, such as the obscure centre-forward and notorious hooligan Dai Thomas, or even useful performers like Andy Legg and Jason Bowen?

All 28 of the league derbies up to 1983-84 were played in the old Second Division. All 20 since have been lower. Cardiff’s ten-year average is 69th out of 92, and Swan­sea’s 72nd. So the answer to the endless, futile debate about Wales’s top club is, of course, Wrex­ham (58th).

As Cardiff rise, we fear that our next derby will be with Newport County or, worse still, Afan Lido. This induces envy – we’d like owners with the money and drive of Hammam, or before him Rick Wright. There’s amusement when they screw up in the play-offs, irritation at delusional “sleeping giant” guff related to a club of such minimal recent achievement and frank amazement at protestations of injured innocence following the Leeds riot last year. A vile reputation in every town in the lower divisions (no, we’re no angels either) hasn’t happened by accident.

But it is frankly tedious – as well as taking them at their inflated self-valuation – to chant “We Hate Car­diff” when playing Oxford or Darlington. Add in chants of “England’s full of shit”, and hating 90 out of 91 pos­sible league opponents (not that we’re keen on Wrex­ham, mind), seems a touch misanthropic.

There are some signs of change., a Swans website, has initiated a series of matches ag­ainst Cardiff fans. Cardiff voices were prominent in support of the Swansea campaign to eject the despised Tony Petty last year – and we will happily reciprocate should their Hammam adventure end, as it may well, in fresh disappointment.

So perhaps the Cardiff media folk who say we should welcome their success as good news for Welsh football (although I don’t remember Swansea’s Tosh­ack-era rise being seen in this light) are right. I can buy that, just as I accept that Conservative gov­ernments are the price of democracy and that Eng­land have the most exciting rugby team in Europe. Realities all. But who says you have to like reality ?

From WSC 190 December 2002. What was happening this month

Comments (1)
Comment by Antepli Ejderha 2009-12-11 07:45:39

A nice article still relevant.