Proud to be welsh

Sup­port in thick and thin

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS - Nick Davies writes for the In­ter­na­tional.Wales fanzine. His Twit­ter han­dle is: @nicholas­davies1

ANY Welsh fan read­ing this will recog­nise how dif­fi­cult, gut-wrench­ing, and down­right frus­trat­ing it was to grow up sup­port­ing Wales.

Deal­ing with dis­ap­point­ment is a life les­son we all learned by the end of our first child­hood qual­i­fy­ing cam­paigns (or of­ten mid­way through our first qual­i­fy­ing cam­paigns).

But at least most Welsh­men and women can con­sole them­selves with the fact that at school the day after yet an­other cat­a­clysmic, spirit-quash­ing de­feat, they weren’t greeted by the sound of a class­ful of English voices re­joic­ing in their pain.

But that was my life, for I was a Wales fan born and brought up in Eng­land. And I can trace this mis­er­able ex­is­tence back to Easter 1982…

One of three broth­ers, we grew up in a quiet Northamp­ton­shire vil­lage. Our street was a mod­ern cul-de-sac on the edge of the vil­lage, per­fect for fam­i­lies and, most im­por­tantly of all – with its wide, quiet road – ideal for kick­abouts.

At the start of each ti­tanic all-day clash, as well as se­lect­ing which kid would be on each team, we were also tasked with the equally im­por­tant job of choos­ing which pro­fes­sional side we’d pre­tend to be: Liver­pool, Man United, Spurs?... Then one day, it was de­cided we’d be in­ter­na­tional teams. Coun­tries.

“We’ll be Eng­land,” piped one of the big­ger boys con­fi­dently. I was six years old and he was a gi­ant of at least eight so nat­u­rally I didn’t ar­gue. “Who’re we gonna be then?” I asked. “You’re Welsh,” he said mat­ter-of-factly.“You can be Wales.”

I’ll be hon­est, I’d never given any thought to my na­tion­al­ity. I didn’t even know what it meant. I knew the names of teams in the up­com­ing World Cup in Spain – the gi­ants of Italy, Brazil,West Ger­many and Ar­gentina, and I knew Eng­land, Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land were “the home na­tions” talked about on telly and all over the Roy of the Rovers wallchart. But Wales’ name never came up.

The older boy sensed my con­fu­sion.“Your Dad’s Welsh so you three can be Wales.”

My Dad’s Welsh? I had no idea what that meant. The boy cer­tainly didn’t say it with any venom or hint of xeno­pho­bia – he was just stat­ing a fact – but I had no idea my Dad was dif­fer­ent to the other fa­thers and, most as­ton­ish­ingly of all, he was from an­other coun­try.

I knew we went to Wales to visit Mamgu and Dadcu (it never crossed my mind that my grand­par­ents had dif­fer­ent names than every­one else’s, let alone those names were in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage) but we didn’t fly or get on a ferry to see them so how could that be a dif­fer­ent coun­try? Surely Wales was just a place – like Northamp­ton or Mil­ton Keynes, but I knew they didn’t have in­ter­na­tional foot­ball teams.

My older brother, Jonathan, ac­cepted the boy’s sug­ges­tion with­out too much hes­i­ta­tion. “Yeah, al­right, then – we’ll be Wales and I’ll be Ian Rush.”

Now Ian Rush I did know. A gen­uine su­per­star, he was al­ready bang­ing goals in for fun in his first sea­son as a reg­u­lar at Liver­pool.

The thought set­tled in my head. Be­ing Welsh made us dif­fer­ent; special, even. Best of all, while all the other kids had to make do with be­ing Trevor Fran­cis or Mick Mills, only my broth­ers and I got to be from the same coun­try as Ian Rush…

Within a year, we were in our Dad’s red Ford Es­cort on the way to Wem­b­ley. Eng­land ver­sus Wales in the old Home Na­tions Cham­pi­onship.

“Now, you know, boys, you’re half-English and half-Welsh so you can sup­port who­ever you like,” he said cheer­fully from the wheel. “Or, of course, you could sup­port both.”

With Dad be­ing a pa­tri­otic ex­iled Welsh sport lover, this was an ex­traor­di­nar­ily self­less state­ment and, I’m ashamed to say, dis­play­ing far more char­ity than I have ever been able to muster since I’ve be­come a fa­ther my­self (my chil­dren were both be­decked in Wales colours be­fore they were old enough to make the de­ci­sion on who they might sup­port, for which I apol­o­gise pro­fusely, though se­cretly do not re­gret at all).

We ar­rived at Wem­b­ley – the old sta­dium and its twin tow­ers were a mag­nif­i­cent sight, es­pe­cially to a boy that age. I wish I could tell you that it was a full house of im­pas­sioned spec­ta­tors cre­at­ing a crack­ling at­mos­phere, but it was ac­tu­ally just a quar­ter full, re­flec­tive of a malaise in sup­port for these all-Bri­tish ties lead­ing to the English FA’s de­ci­sion to with­draw from the tour­na­ment just a year later. I cer­tainly don’t re­call be­ing over­whelmed by the noise or the sheer scale of the crowd.

The teams lined up for the an­thems. Sar­to­ri­ally, at least, this fix­ture was as aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing as foot­ball gets: Eng­land’s hor­i­zon­tal streaks of red and blue on their white Ad­mi­ral shirts against Wales’ early eight­ies Adi­das clas­sic, red with the white sleeves.

Not much to choose be­tween the two teams at this point. But then a strange thing hap-

pened… Every­one stood for the an­them, the away team’s first. The band struck up the open­ing bar of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau and, to my sur­prised em­bar­rass­ment, Dad be­gan to sing. Very loudly.

This wouldn’t have been so bad had we been sur­rounded by a throng of proud Welsh­men belt­ing out the song to­gether. But we were stand­ing amidst the Eng­land sup­port­ers.

Dad was singing solo, seem­ingly un­aware of the swing of heads in his di­rec­tion, some tut­ting in­dig­nantly, some amused by his brazen­ness. My Dad isn’t an overly-demon­stra­tive pa­triot and would never dream of singing or chant­ing any­thing at a foot­ball match other than an an­them or a hymn if sung taste­fully. And he cer­tainly wasn’t at­tempt­ing to rile the Eng­land fans.

He does like singing though, and singing proudly and loudly at that, and at that mo­ment, de­spite the sur­round­ings, he sim­ply re­acted to the sound of the open­ing notes and mus­cle mem­ory took over.

While the first verse had my broth­ers and me star­ing res­o­lutely down at our pro­grammes won­der­ing why time seemed to be go­ing back­wards, by the cho­rus we were strangely cap­ti­vated.

We be­gan to feel less awk­ward. By that point, the mood of our neigh­bour­ing spec­ta­tors was one of gaw­ping cu­rios­ity more than en­raged anger. I think I re­mem­ber some po­litely ap­plaud­ing his ef­fort.

And if Dad’s im­promptu per­for­mance wasn’t enough, in­side quar­ter of an hour, Ian Rush (who else?!) put Wales ahead. All in­no­cent neu­tral­ity went out of my mind as I cheered his scruffy strike hit­ting the back of the net.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, Eng­land’s two goals that brought them a 2-1 vic­tory stirred noth­ing in­side me but dis­ap­point­ment. For my broth­ers and me, our lives had changed for­ever.

It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary we never wa­vered in our sup­port for Wales. No-one would have be­grudged us if we’d turned to Eng­land – it was the land of our birth, after all, and they ac­tu­ally qual­i­fied for World Cups and Euro­pean Championships – but my broth­ers and I stayed res­o­lute.

Like monks re­sist­ing the plea­sures of the flesh, we de­nied our­selves the car­nal de­light of see­ing our own play­ers in a Panini al­bum.

In­stead, for us it was long Wed­nes­day trips, straight from school to Cardiff, slink­ing low in the car seat on the A43 to change out of school uni­form and into our Wales tops.

And, of course, it wasn’t all bad. Those early 1990s nights at the Arms Park were thrilling and made bet­ter when Dad would let us fly a scarf from the win­dow after vic­to­ries against Ger­many, Brazil and Bel­gium.

For a blissful but short time, it seemed it was ac­tu­ally more fun sup­port­ing Wales, with our English friends and teach­ers keen the fol­low­ing day to dis­cuss our ad­ven­tures in Cardiff.

That fa­mous 1991 win against Ger­many caused an eth­i­cal dilemma for me and my twin brother as it came the night be­fore our fi­nal GCSE Sci­ence exam.

My Dad was a deputy head at our school so had sworn us to se­crecy over the fact we’d sped down to Cardiff and back, ar­riv­ing home in the early hours on the day of such an im­por­tant mo­ment in our ed­u­ca­tion.

On arrival at the exam, one of the teach­ers greeted us with a roar: “Here are the Welsh dragons!!! What a night – what was the at­mos­phere like?” he asked.

What were we to do – be­tray our fa­ther’s con­fi­dence and even his pro­fes­sional in­tegrity, or wal­low in the warm glow of beat­ing the world cham­pi­ons? “It was the best night ever!” we beamed.

Four months on, though, and the morn­ing after the 4-1 away de­feat to that same Ger­man side and with our dreams in tat­ters, we ar­rived to find our school friends less char­i­ta­ble.

That an­tag­o­nis­tic, cu­ri­ously Cock­ney-sound­ing “Aaaaaaaaaah!!!” noise that be­came pop­u­lar in the late eight­ies and early nineties to greet any­one’s mis­for­tune (the same one used to goad op­po­si­tion goal­keep­ers back then, as in:“You’re shit – aaaaaaaah!”) rang in our ears all day. I pre­tended to shrug it off but my wob­bling bot­tom lip be­trayed me.

Al­though it’s those big moments I re­mem­ber most, much of the time my sup­port for

Wales was greeted with slightly sus­pi­cious cu­rios­ity or even con­fu­sion.

I re­mem­ber wear­ing my Wales shirt to the vil­lage pub and one of the reg­u­lars be­ing con­vinced it was a Not­ting­ham For­est top. I im­me­di­ately cor­rected him, point­ing to the big bloody red dragon on the badge, but he was hav­ing none of it and pro­ceeded to get into a drunken con­ver­sa­tion about For­est’s for­tunes after Clough.

For years af­ter­wards, the same man would stop me for a chat about the lat­est go­ings-on at the City Ground and, for some rea­son, I went along with it, even to the point of con­sciously mem­o­ris­ing the lat­est For­est news just so I wouldn’t dis­ap­point him. I be­came an ex­pert on Brian Roy’s ham­string prob­lems.

Aside from awk­ward con­ver­sa­tions in pubs, the Wales foot­ball team has changed my life in in­cred­i­ble ways.

It’s why I chose to study in Wales. It’s why I’ve since set­tled here, had a fam­ily here, learned the lan­guage. I con­sider my­self 100% Welsh – and I’ve earned it. How­ever, when I first moved here, I quickly came to re­alise that – for those who re­ally care – sup­port­ing Wales in Wales wasn’t much bet­ter.

Whereas in Eng­land I’d had to con­tend with ban­ter from my mates about our abil­ity to claw de­feat from the jaws of mis­guided hope (as well as some oc­ca­sional ca­su­ally racist re­marks about sheep), the gen­eral malaise amongst many peo­ple I met when I moved here re­ally hurt me.

It took a long time for me to meet any­one who truly sup­ported our na­tional team and, as the tepid cam­paigns of the late 1990s saw crowd in­ter­est dwin­dle fur­ther, I al­most felt be­trayed.

All those years of putting up with the ridicule, the frus­tra­tion of see­ing my clos­est friends en­joy­ing the ex­cite­ment of a build-up to a ma­jor tour­na­ment, the late nights back from Cardiff and Wrex­ham, tired days at school… and now it felt like no-one cared any­way.

It was only when I went on my first proper away trips that, fi­nally, I re­alised there were oth­ers out there like me.

For many, they’d faced sim­i­lar ob­sta­cles in their sup­port of Wales – only in­stead of con­tend­ing with be­ing in an­other coun­try, they’d had to face up to the ap­a­thy of their peers as an­other qual­i­fy­ing dream came and went, or even an­tag­o­nism from a rugby-cen­tric me­dia.

Cer­tainly, any North Walians read­ing this will recog­nise the long mid­week jour­neys to see the team play, just as I ex­pe­ri­enced as a boy. I re­alise now that I’m not that dif­fer­ent after all.

The drip-feed of a throw­away com­ment from a boy up our street, fol­lowed by my fa­ther’s singing demon­strat­ing that the con­cept of be­ing Welsh is a feel­ing more than a ra­tio­nal thought, to the world’s greatest ever mous­ta­chioed striker nudg­ing the ball past Peter Shilton… It was in­evitable re­ally that I should end up choos­ing to fol­low one team.

Had it been a gen­uine de­ci­sion, I would have been sen­si­ble to re-visit it in the years to fol­low: to switch to Eng­land and a life in which ma­jor tour­na­ments were a reg­u­lar re­al­ity and where one har­boured, al­beit mis­guid­edly, gen­uine hopes of win­ning one.

Fol­low­ing Wales isn’t a path that has brought much joy. But it wasn’t a de­ci­sion, it was an in­vol­un­tary com­pul­sion – like fall­ing in love or pre­fer­ring a par­tic­u­lar ice cream flavour over an­other.

There was noth­ing con­scious in it, merely a feel­ing that this felt right and sup­port­ing Wales was where I be­longed.

When, at Euro 2016, I posted a photo of my broth­ers and me in Bordeaux for our first match at the fi­nals, we were flooded with mes­sages of good luck from old school friends from Eng­land.

That good­will ex­tended and grew through­out that glo­ri­ous tour­na­ment through semi-fi­nal de­feat to Por­tu­gal. They fi­nally un­der­stood – and were thrilled by the fact – that, for us, choos­ing Wales was all fi­nally worth it. Of course, deep down, we’d known it all along.

Now, if we could just qual­ify for a World Cup…

Glory days: Wales salute their fans at the Eu­ros

Big time: Nick with brother Jonathan in France

Lethal: Ian Rush cel­e­brates scor­ing for Wales

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