Proud to be welsh
Support in thick and thin
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