Here’s Jonny! Talking films and Welsh football with Jonny Owen
Jonny Owen is no stranger to Welsh football fans, he’s the man behind the now legendary film ‘Don’t Take Me Home’, which documented Wales’ incredible passage to the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
He’s also the filmmaker behind acclaimed football films, ‘The Three Kings’ – about Matt Busby, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly, as well as ‘I Believe In Miracles’, which charted the spectacular European Cup success of Nottingham Forest.
On Sunday mornings you can hear him on his TalkSport show with an array of star guests. You can also read his weekly column in the Sunday Times.
He’s followed Cardiff City and Merthyr Town since he was a young boy and always loved the Wales national football team.
Here we chat to him about growing up with football in Merthyr as well as his films.
What was the moment that made you fall in love with football?
My first ever memory was of the 1974 World Cup final, I remember the orange and white shirts. I was brought up in Merthyr Tydfil, which is a football town. My father, grandfather, uncle and brothers were all obsessed with football. It just seemed to be everywhere. All we did every day was play. There wasn’t really a specific moment. Being into football just seemed like breathing, just a natural thing. I was surrounded by it. There were always football kits being passed down and it was always on the TV. I just became a football fan by osmosis in Merthyr Tydfil at that time.
You follow Cardiff City and Merthyr Town but who did you start watching first?
I went to Merthyr first. Like I said my father was a big football fan and he was actually of that generation who supported all the Welsh clubs. He would go to whoever was at home, he never really understood the bitter rivalry that came in later decades. I was about 6 or 7 when he took me to watch Merthyr first, I remember it vividly. I was too young to go to Cardiff on my own without my dad or brother until I was about 14 or 15 and then I started going with my mates. We’d watch both sides, usually whoever was home. There was a big overlap of people who supported both teams.
How different were the experiences of watching Cardiff and Merthyr at the time?
They were massively different. Cardiff was obviously much more dangerous than Merthyr, although going away with Merthyr could be quite lively because you didn’t have any segregation in non-league. In the mid to late 80s, football was such a different experience to what it is now. Watching Cardiff was just more visceral, they would have bigger crowds, they were in the football league and the vast majority of the crowd was aged between 15 and 30, and male dominated in those days.
It just seemed a lot younger, full of testosterone and lots of singing on the terraces; and Cardiff would come with a certain reputation! It was very exciting in those days. So many people miss Ninian Park and those terraces for that reason, but a lot of people say the past is a different country, they did things differently back then. Has football changed for the better? I don’t know but it was very different and I’m glad I lived through it.
What about Wales, when did you go on your first Wales trip?
I think it was Ireland away in 1988 or 1989. I’d been to watch Wales at home a few times and then I went away with my mates to Dublin for the first time. What happened was, the home internationals had been scrapped and it left the FAW in a bit of a financial hole and the FAI stepped in to help. What they would do is play the Republic home and away every year and get part of the gate receipts. It caught the rise of the Republic of Ireland team under Jack Charlton, so they were getting big crowds. We travelled over there to play them at Lansdowne Road, and we lost. It was a great trip and I fell in love with going away. I ended up going on a few trips across Europe in the following campaigns.
How did ‘Don’t Take Me Home’ come about and how did you try to capture how special that summer was?
I didn’t know we were going to make it when I went out there. I went out as a fan, and I’m really glad I did because I wasn’t worried about coverage and shots and all that kind of stuff. I came back and the guy who was the head of BT Sport, Grant Best, who’s a really great guy and a top producer, got in touch and he wanted to do something about the Welsh experience in France and the FAW were keen to do it as well. I’ve got a great relationship with the FAW and they promised me interviews with all the players, which we did in one day at the Vale, but then the core of my idea was to do something about the journey.
I wanted to mention the fact we’d not qualified for 58 years and set up the story, and then I wanted fan footage. The advantageous part of that is that everyone has a camera phone now. So I had lots of stuff to use and I was able to mix and match this expensive footage that UEFA had shot at the games with these fan shot clips. The advantage I think I had personally was because I was born and bred in Wales, grew up a Wales fan and I knew the people and the culture, I was able to bring that to it. I think that’s why it worked in that respect. I’ve never bought a pint at a Wales game since, so people must’ve enjoyed it! People always say to me they’ve watched it 50 times or put it on when they come home after a few pints, so I’m really pleased about that.
You’ve made films about Nottingham Forest and your most recent one is about Celtic, Liverpool and Manchester United managers Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Matt Busby. Are there any stories from Welsh clubs or players you’ve always wanted to make a film about?
I’d love to do something about Gareth Bale. He almost transcends sport now with what he means to the Welsh nation and also the fact he’s our greatest ever sportsman, certainly footballer, with such an attachment to Wales. Even people like the great John Charles and Ian Rush were always Juvents and Wales or Liverpool and Wales, whereas with Gareth it’s Wales and Real Madrid, and Wales always comes first. He’s such a fascinating character, so that is something I’d be certainly interested in doing, and of course my own home town club of Merthyr Town. I’m more involved there now as I’m getting older, me and my partner, (Line of Duty actress) Vicky McCLure, have sponsored this season’s shorts and are trying to help get other sponsors in up there, so maybe something around that.
I really like non-league and grassroots football. I’m not one of those people who particularly hate the Champions League or Premier League. I don’t mind them, it’s a great sport and at that level it’s wonderful and it’s always going to be there but it’ll always be the Man Uniteds, Real Madrids and Bayern Munichs. But I do like football further down the pyramid so maybe in time I’d love to do something about Merthyr Town. They’re the two really, Merthyr Town and Gareth Bale, that’s quite a combination isn’t it?!
From the outside looking in, Merthyr is like nowhere else. What do you think makes the town so special?
It’s a great question and one I’ve been asked so many times. The great Ken Jones, the journalist, once said that people from Merthyr have always been different to the rest of Wales, and it’s quite a difficult thing to explain from people outside of Wales but the Welsh do understand it. For me, the little things, like the fact it industrialised about 50 years before the rest of Wales, it was an iron town and then a coal town so it had a very specific set of values. It had a massive immigrant population. A lot of Italians, Irish, Catholics, Jews, English and it became a potent melting pot.
I don’t know why it is, and it’s been spoken about a lot throughout Welsh history, it just loves its football team more than anyone else. The rugby will only get around 50 in every week and I love the rugby club, there’s some great people up there but even they will say to you it’s always been a football town. Like anything, once you become well known for something, it almost becomes your identity. So people from Merthyr will always say they support Merthyr Town. Hundreds of kids play up there and that’s been the same since I was a kid. So it’s got a very specific identity and personality.
How big of a club do you think Merthyr could be, what do you see as their potential level?
When I was growing up they were always in the Conference (now National League), they had been in the football league in the 1920s. For me, I think we could get back to that level and even knocking on the door of the football league. Getting there is a big ask but it’s got the infrastructure and a population of 60,000, which is similar to that of Burnley, it’s even bigger than Villarreal who have just won the Europa League(!), and a passionate fan base.
What I would like to see happen now over the next few years is for the club to stabilise and make sure it exists in the centre of town as the heart of the community with lots of kids involved and make sure the social side of it thrives. If as a by-product of that, success on the pitch comes, then that’s fantastic. But for me, it’s stability and getting the club back on an even keel and make sure the club survives in this league and then over the next 2 or 3 years with good recruitment and sticking with the manager, look at the opportunities to get up a few leagues and get to where we were in the late 80s and 90s and then from there, anything can happen. As the famous flag says “Progress through stability”.
I know it’s a contentious question within the fanbase at Merthyr but would you ever entertain the idea of moving to the Welsh league system?
Some of my best friends passionately believe we should and won’t go and watch Merthyr for that reason. They think we should be in the Welsh leagues. Where I’m split with it is, I think our unique selling point is that we are in the English pyramid system and that makes it interesting. I know there are huge advantages to joining the Welsh system, and those are financial as well, and they’re pretty difficult to ignore, but for me I’ve always seen Merthyr as part of the English pyramid and I like that.
That Wales vs England thing gives those games a bit more spice but that’s just my personal opinion. I do understand the opinion and thoughts of the people who think we should play in Wales and we’ll have to see what the next few years bring, but for me, the unique thing about Merthyr is that they play in the English pyramid system. I’ve grown up with it and I really enjoy that.
How has your relationship with football changed as you’ve gotten older?
I think that because football has changed, I’ve probably changed with age as well. Going away to watch Wales is a fantastic experience, with the rise of the Red Wall and what happened in 2016. We were different in the 70s and 80s, we were very much like the English following in many respects, certainly the behaviour, but that changed and we became something very specific and very defined. Stuff like the rise of the label, Spirit of ‘58 and the look of the bucket hats, the shorts and the trainers and the general atmosphere is a fantastic thing. It’s got a very specific character and when it arrived on the world stage in 2016, the football world was pleasantly surprised by what Wales brought on and off the pitch. Long may that continue.
Just stuff like the fact Wales sell out allocations when playing away. In the ’80s and ’90s numbers would swing up and down, but it’s now a very definite thing and you have people who almost plan their life around it. There were always those that did that before but it’s in much bigger numbers now and I think that’s a terrific thing, I love it.
Jonny, Vicky McClure, Katie Owen and Dylan John Thomas will be playing an all day DJ set at Merthyr Town Football Club on Boxing Day to raise funds for the club. Find out more HERE
The interview with Jonny Owen first appeared in the latest issue of football culture fanzine Alternative Wales.
The fanzine positions itself as the voice of the counterculture community that has grown around Welsh football.
Their aim is to give a platform to the creative, diverse and entertaining people who follow Welsh football. Whether it’s the domestic game, women’s game or men’s game. From grassroots to the top.
Editor of Alternative Wales, Ryan March, said: “Wales has a football culture like no other. It’s inclusive, it’s bilingual, it’s special. We have our own soundtrack, our own style, our own politics, we even have our own sense of humour.
“We release four fanzines every year (March, June, September, December) along with a weekly podcast. There will also be events to come in the future.”
Find out more about Alternative Wales and subscribe HERE
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