Review: Red Dragons – The Story of Welsh Football by Phil Stead
This is the third incarnation of Phil Stead’s seminal history of Welsh football, the previous edition having been completed before the Red Dragons’ epic odyssey through France in 2016 and before Y Wal Goch became an integral part of the Welsh lexicon.
So there’s a lot to catch-up on – two Euro tournaments as well as the first successful World Cup qualifying campaign for sixty-four years. To undertake this journey in Stead’s company is to be in safe and comforting hands.
As both a journalist and avid fan, he writes with the emotion and depth of knowledge garnered only by the few who spent years traipsing through the wilderness with no expectation and very little hope of seeing their heroes ever reach the heights.
For when it comes to Welsh football and its fans, being there for the failures – for the litany of horror – has become a badge of honour, especially now that their dreams have finally been realized and surpassed.
Those historic failures were numerous, calamitous, controversial and often self-induced. Reading about those campaigns -which came so close only to end in heartbreak – feels a lot easier now…there is a catharsis in exorcising the ghosts.
The first superstars
History buffs will love Stead’s tales of football’s early days in Wales, the initial north/south divide, the following north-east/north-west schism, the first internationals and the first football superstars.
Chirk’s Billy Meredith counted as such, having played for both Manchester clubs and been an integral part of United’s first League Championship and FA Cup winning teams. He was also an early champion of forming a players’ union.
Yet he was challenged in the fame game by his Welsh international colleague Leigh Richmond Roose. As Stead describes Meredith dominating the sports pages, so Roose; was just as prominent in socialite gossip columns.
Regarded as the greatest goalkeeper ever to play for Wales, his off-the-field antics cemented his reputation as football’s first playboy.
Both Roose and Meredith starred in the draw against England at Craven Cottage in 1907, which set Wales on their way to becoming British Champions for the first time.
Even celebrated stories such as Cardiff City’s Wembley win in 1927 produce surprises.
The Bluebirds didn’t just win the cup for Cardiff, they won it for Wales opines Stead, and backs up the claim with tales of packed London-bound trains from Swansea station and thousands listening to the FA Cup Final via loudspeaker commentary at The Racecourse.
This though is very much a history of the national team and as such the Boys of ’58 get their deserved moment in the sun.
Only 2,823 spectators were at the ground in Stockholm for Wales versus Hungary in the quarter-final play-off – the most important match in Welsh football history up to that point.
Compare this with 25,000 Welsh fans in France six years ago, or the fact that some 3,000 have made the difficult decision to follow Wales to Qatar over recent weeks. Wêls Awê is a different, bucket-hatted beast by now.
Mel Charles was voted the centre-half of that tournament, but it was brother John who shone brightest in football’s firmament. He was injured for the quarter-final against Brazil, having been kicked mercilessly by the Hungarians.
The almost unknown Pelé scored, Brazil won and went on to claim The World Cup. A long chronology of Welsh footballing pain had begun.
There was another, less-celebrated quarter-final appearance in the 1976 European Championship and that match against Yugoslavia at Ninian Park is often cited as the catalyst for cataclysm.
Stead calls it; a sordid afternoon…one supporter from Penylan in Cardiff was later charged with using a corner flag as an offensive weapon. Wales were banned from Ninian as a consequence, which meant Anfield in ‘77 for Joe Jordan and the Scots.
Then came Iceland in ’81, Scotland again in ‘85, Romania in ‘93 and Russia in the Euro qualifiers of 2003. Even the criminal loss to The Republic of Ireland in 2017 should count, although it spoils the narrative flow.
The British Championship provides the odd occasion for fond remembrance, the anthem protest and subsequent victory at Wembley in 1977, the 4-1 drubbing of England at The Racecourse in 1980. The truth remains though that countless good sides and Welsh footballing greats missed out over the years.
As well as the on-field disappointments, Stead also remembers a number of off-field tragedies, culminating in the outpouring of grief after the death of Gary Speed in 2011. It’s necessarily tough reading, but puts Welsh failure on the pitch firmly into context.
If Speed’s untimely passing united the nation in mourning, what eventually made that unity standard was sporting success.
Much has been written already about the flowering of the new generation but Stead takes obvious pride in celebrating the glory days of Bale and Ramsey, Coleman and Page, conveying the sense of innocent joy that surrounded both squad and supporters on their voyage into the great unknown of tournament football.
The Euros of 2016 and 2020/21, followed by that historic World Cup qualifying campaign, are all packed into the final fifty pages, ending in Cardiff with an elated squad belting out Yma o Hyd in the company of a reborn footballing nation and a resurrected national hero in Dafydd Iwan.
There is much here to ponder, so much more depth to be found in the significance of the song itself, the FAW’s remarkably bold approach to language and identity, the rousing, wonderfully inclusive rise of Y Wal Goch, the new confidence and consciousness both on and off the pitch. But that’s for the future maybe.
With the story of Qatar ’22 yet to be written and the FAW’s 150th anniversary on the horizon there’s plenty of scope for more.
Add in the tantalising hope of seeing Gareth Bale prolong his glorious reign with one last Euro hoorah in Germany in two years’ time and Stead’s next chapter must surely be taking shape already.
Red Dragons: The Story of Welsh Football by Phil Stead is published by Y Lolfa. It is available from all good bookshops or you can buy a copy here.
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