The story of Welsh football success and the rise of the Red Wall
Ahead of one of the biggest Welsh football matches of all time, Elis James – the Red Wall’s most authentic voice in the mainstream media – chats to author and Podcast Peldroed co-founder Leon Barton about Wales’ recent success and the fantastic fan culture that’s sprung up around the team.
Leon Barton: These are good times to be a Wales fan aren’t they?
Elis James: For years, one-off victories like Germany in 1991, Spain in 1985, Italy in 2002 would sustain us for entire campaigns…. and we were quite a nostaligiac lot so we’d talk about these great victories. Whereas now…. this is a better era than the 1950s (Wales got to the quarter final of the 1958 World Cup), it’s better than the Mike Smith era (1974-79, when Wales reached the quarter final of the European Championship and beat England at Wembley for the first time), it’s better even than the 1930s, which was previously our golden period. I think we won the home internationals four times between 1933 and 1939. We’d have these conversations because the present was so bleak. You would find these pockets where we’d been impressive and cling to that.
LB: What’s striking when you look back at previous campaigns is the difference between home and away results. In 84/85, we beat Spain 3-0 but also lost 3-0 in Seville. Germany hammered us 4-1 after we’d beaten them at the Arms Park in ’91. So the 3-0 victory over Israel in Haifa in 2015, that’s when I knew we were finally going to qualify because previously we’d got impressive results at home but struggled away. That result was one of the big turning points.
EJ: Yes, because Israel were flying at the time. They had a 100% record in the group up to that game. And then we went to Cyprus – bad pitch, conditions aren’t great…really, really warm, terrible ref – that’s the kind of game we’d have previously lost and we dug it out. I think Bale was possibly past his absolute peak by then… I think his peak was the final season at Spurs and first at Madrid. He was probably the third best player in the world then. So by 2015/16, he was past his absolute peak but he just had this incredible drive to get results. We’d never had a player before who could grab a game by the scruff of the neck and be the difference maker. Certainly not to that extent. As wonderful a striker as Ian Rush was, he couldn’t do what Bale did. Bale just dragged everyone along with him on this tide of belief.
LB: He’s a team player, that’s something that doesn’t get said often enough about Bale.
EJ: Yes. Him and Ramsey. They never have a go at teammates. All the youngsters who go into the camp say how nice they are, how approachable. Gabbs (Danny Gabbidon, former Wales international who does the Elis James’ Feast of Football podcast along with Iwan Roberts) always says that during the Mark Hughes era, the banter on the bus was absolutely brutal. Him and Earnie (Robert Earnshaw) would just keep quiet cos they didn’t want to get mullered. Savage would take the piss or Hartson would take the piss. I don’t think it’s like that now.
LB: There’s a great togetherness now and it feels like us fans are genuinely a part of it.
EJ: I think so. Wales home games now are what I hoped and wished they had been when I started going. My first Wales game was the 2-0 victory over Belgium in 1993… there were flashes of it during that 1994 World Cup campaign but even then it wasn’t as good as the atmosphere at club games. I used to think; I care loads, I’m sure everybody else cares loads so why can’t we make it like it’s Old Trafford or Anfield or Ninian Park or the Vetch or the Racecourse? I can’t lie about it, during the Gould era and for large parts of the Toshack era, it could be a chore going to watch Wales. You went because you had to; an act of duty. Now, even the friendlies are a great laugh. There are youngsters now who only know this. If you’re 25 and have been going since you were 15 you’ve only known the good times. If that is your introduction to supporting the national team, those people aren’t going away. That’s what’s exciting now. Even when Scotland were rubbish they had a big following. I think we’ve got that now. It means that even when the Bale/Ramsey era ends – which it will sooner rather than later – we are going to struggle a bit because, well, how do you replace two of our greatest ever players?
LB: Brennan Johnson?!
EJ: And Neco (Williams)
LB: Yeah, and Neco. I know what you mean about the end of the Bale/Ramsey era but I think the quality of the young players coming through, together with the culture that’s been created, mean
we should qualify from now on a semi-regular basis at least.
EJ: And that’s all I ever wanted. What Scotland and Republic of Ireland had when I was growing up. I used to look at those two and think, well, they’re not much bigger than us. What was fashionable at the time in south Wales was to say stuff like ‘what do you expect, we lose so many of our good young sportsmen to rugby’ But then, I used to think, well, the Irish play other sports too and they can qualify… why can’t we? Off the pitch we’re getting it right now. We have a small player base, but we’re always going to have that in a country of 3.1 million people. It just means you have to make the most of what you’ve got. I think we’re doing that now.
LB: We had a culture of making excuses. I always hated that. But I guess the fact that the FAW was so shambolic gave the players the excuse to underperform.
EJ: When Ian Gwyn Hughes (former BBC Wales football commentator now head of PR at the FAW) went to the FAW he said it was an organisation that was very low in confidence. But partly it was his fault, becuase as a journalist he was always hammering them. But with good reason. The stories are legendary; leaving Gil Reece on the bloody runway before flying out to East Germany… make your own way to Dresden Gil! But they’ve changed so much, the FAW aren’t low on confidence any more. It helps that there are so many genuine Wales fans working there.
LB: They’re getting so much right. I mean, how great was it having Dafydd Iwan singing Yma O Hyd on the pitch before the Austria game?
EJ: Well, I think that illustrates the difference between the FAW and other governing bodies. The WRU for example – that’s an example of a governing body who don’t really listen. Dafydd Iwan on the pitch, only playing the opening bars of the anthem before letting the crowd take over, playing ‘Zombie Nation’ for the acid house casualties, playing ‘Can’t take my eyes off of you’ which came from a BBC Wales trailer in the early 90s… these are the things that inspire and motivate the supporters, so lets make the most of it. And there’s no goal music, they’re not playing ..I dunno…One Direction when we score. Let’s play the kind of music our fans like. And it makes us feel listened to. Occasionally I meet rugby fans who go to the football because their kids want to go, and they cannot believe the prices. Like, Mike Bubbins is going to the Ukraine game and I think the tickets for him and his son cost thirty-five quid – it’s a hundred and fifteen for the rugby! How can you inspire the next generation of rugby supporters when it basically costs five hundred quid to take a family to a Six Nations game?! That’s more than it would cost to see Hamilton on Broadway!
LB: Okay, I’m gonna play devils advocate. If I’m working for the WRU I could respond to the recent criticism by saying ‘well, the stadium’s full, our crowds are twice as big as the Wales football crowds, people are paying those prices and we’re making millions more than the FAW which we can invest in grassroots rugby’. So would they actually consider that they’re doing anything wrong?
EJ: The crowds have dropped a little bit but I just think charging those prices is short-sighted. Rugby is a working class game in Wales. And also, I don’t think the product is very good off the pitch, because people are getting up to buy drinks all the time and getting in the way of people trying to watch the game. I was aways quite jealous as a younger man that you could drink in your seat at rugby but I wouldn’t want that at football now. Only being able to drink on the concourse means that when I watch Wales, there’s complete focus on the game. I realise the WRU have to pay the players, its different to the football in that respect, but I still think those ticket prices are short-sighted.
LB: Let’s talk about France 2016. It was pretty special, wasn’t it?
EJ: I was 35 in the summer of 2016 and it’s very rare that you have the best summer of your life when you’re in your mid-thirties. And it’s also very rare to know that you’re having the best summer of your life whilst you’re having it. So, I would wake up every day and honestly, it was like Christmas morning! I wouldn’t say it made up for the near-misses because I’d have loved to have gone to USA 94 and Euro 2004 in Portugal. I think they’d have been very different experiences but France did feel like a sort of cosmic payback and the football Gods thought, ‘okay, we’ll give them this!’. We’d been so unlucky for so long. Actual footballers don’t think like this. Actual footballers are very rational in my experience, but when that Vokes header went in against Belgium I thought ‘Is this for Romania 93? Is this for Russia 03? Is this for Scotland 85? Is this for the time the lights went out at the Vetch versus Iceland?’
LB: You could feel this sense of catharsis… I once described Euro 2016 as a mass therapy
session for every Wales fan over the age of 30.
EJ: I’d agree with that. All I wanted was to sing the anthem and see us score a goal. And then Ben Davies made that amazing block after about three minutes against Slovakia in the opening game and I just thought ‘we’re gonna get tonked here… we can’t cope!’ I didn’t think we’d get out the group.
LB: To go back to the comparison with Ireland, you’ve said on the Socially Distant Sports bar that you were jealous of their fans for getting to attend tournaments when you were growing up, but after the Austria game, your friend (Irish football journalist) Barry Glendening said he was now jealous of Wales. That shows how much has changed.
EJ: I’ve seen footage of pubs in Ireland during the 1990 World Cup and it reminds me of Wales. Just swap green for red. You have to be grateful for where we are now. We’ve got to make the most of it. With Gareth, you just want to drain every last bit of talent out of him before he retires, but it’s not just him. I look at the team; the Welsh speakers, where they’re from, the diversity in the squad. I think it’s very reflective of modern Wales as well. I’ve been lucky enough to have met quite a few of them and they’re all really nice as well. When I interview them they certainly don’t correspond to the tired trope about footballers being spoilt, pampered arseholes. They’re really likeable. It just feels like all of the gripes I had growing up have disappeared overnight. It’s really weird! I mean, bloody hell, we’re in Nations League Group A and we’re there on merit! You have to make the most of it.
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