“You were born in Doncaster so you should support England” they’d say. Perhaps. But in the trophy cupboard in the front room there was this cap. Nestling between Station FC Players’ Player of the Year and Anglesey League Champions 1973-74, a dark red cap. It was velvety to touch, with an odd metallic tassel, was too small even for my head and it had a dragon on the front. I couldn’t just ignore that. The fact that the man it belonged too was reluctant to speak of it made it even more alluring.
My dad played for Wales as a schoolboy and semi-pro international. He scored against England at the Manor Ground. He had a trial with Wolves; a one-day run-out through which he didn’t progress and he went into teaching instead. At University he reached the FA of Wales Amateur Cup Final with UWIC (as he had done the FA of Wales Junior Cup Final with Borough United a few years earlier) and in between lessons he would leather a ball at Dai Davies. That may seem a brief synopsis, but it is as much as I’ve managed to glean from my dad of his early football career. Had he been one to brag, and soundtracked each meal-time with “When I played for Wales…” then maybe I’d have followed England just to spite him, but instead his reservedness just added to the pull. He never forced or encouraged me to support or adopt Wales it’s something I just did. I concede my Welsh identity is a socially constructed nationalism, but it’s where my roots are, specifically my sporting ones, and so it could only ever be Wales for me.
And it all started so perfectly. As I first began to understand football’s significance beyond playground kickabouts Wales, it turned out, were a bit good at it. OK, they hadn’t featured at Italia ’90 much to my confusion, but the following year they beat Brazil and then World Champions Germany a result which made them much better than England, who couldn’t even beat the West half. Then came 1993, and the Arms Park, and watching television through clasped fingers as Paul Bodin’s penalty thudded back off the bar. From then on being the only Wales fan in the school became progressively harder; the defeats in Moldova and Georgia – “what’s the time?” “Ooh about five past Southall” – annihilation in Holland with a captain’s arm-band on Vinnie Jones. Bobby fucking Gould.
But, whilst I was at University, Wales got good again. In a pub full of people solemnly watching England stumble to a draw with Macedonia, “Latest Score: Wales 2-1 Italy” flashed up on the screen and as I jumped about cheering to confused stares I realised it was about time I found like-minded people with which to share the joy and the inevitable despair. Deciding to go all out for my debut, over the following months I saved for an InterRail ticket which would get me to Belgrade and Milan, and then a month before the big trip struck lucky as I was introduced to Ralph with the words; “You follow Wales, this guy watches them all over”.
The next time I saw Ralph he greeted me not with hello, but with “Right, I’ve sorted you a ticket for Serbia”, and we parted on an arrangement to meet up next in the Czech Republic the Sunday before the game. Belgrade was my first Wales match; that I had started there and not Cardiff seemed to endear me to those I was introduced to in Novi Sad, as too did the big ‘Doncaster Rovers’ Wales flag I took with me. At that point though, as we rattled back to the still bomb-damaged capital after a woeful under 21s game in a mini-bus driven by a seemingly blind Serb, none of them were to know the misery my appearances at Wales games would go on to bring.
Wales lost in Belgrade… they lost in Milan too. Back in Cardiff they drew with Finland and lost the return game with Serbia & Montenegro. I had attended all four. A previously successful qualifying group, of which Wales had been top, had petered out in my presence and we had to settle for a play-off with Russia. I didn’t go to Moscow, I watched that life-affirming 0-0 in a pub in Lincoln with a support group of fellow Welsh fans I’d rounded up on campus during the weeks before (one of them, John, I’d only found because he was whistling Men of Harlech in a nightclub toilet three days earlier). Inevitably, I was at the return leg, a game devoid of atmosphere from the outset; the importance of the game having crushed any sense of optimism and shrouded it in a fog of doom-laden foresight. Many of those who were present will tell you it felt as though we were destined to fail the moment Wales took the field, in hindsight I believe we were doomed the moment I took my seat.
I missed Wales’ next five matches, a succession of friendlies which filled the gap between qualifying campaigns; they won four of them, defeating Scotland, Hungary, Canada and Latvia, and drew in Norway. I returned for the opening games of World Cup 2006 qualifying and Wales failed to win any of them; would-be victories against Northern Ireland and Poland fell away to a draw and a loss respectively, before defeat to England at Old Trafford. It was a pattern that would continue. Even matches in which Wales dominated ended in disaster in my presence. Like Austria away, where we sang songs from the Sound of Music high up in the Ernst Happel Stadion whilst watching Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy tear the home side a new one, only for Austrian keeper Helge Payer to put in the performance of his life, whilst Danny Coyne at the other end proved as resolute as Jordan’s wedding vows.
After Vienna, my next seven Wales matches brought five defeats and two painful goalless draws, the latter of which saw Giggs bow out and bugger off against the Czech Republic. He’d probably have carried on playing if he hadn’t turned up. In those seven games (and the two before them) I saw Wales score just twice; a Gareth Bale free-kick, the joy of which was tempered somewhat by the five Slovakia put past Paul Jones without so much as pausing to snigger at his ridiculous commemorative haircut. And an own goal in Teplice, which we thought was to have rescued us a late point, one which I celebrated so wildly I lost a shoe. By the time it was handed back to me the Czech’s had grabbed a winner. In my absence though Wales continued to chalk up the victories, triumphing over Hungary, Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein, San Marino, and Cyprus at home, and winning away to Northern Ireland, the Basque Country, Trinidad & Tobago and Bulgaria.
But then came Slovakia, or as it should be otherwise known, the exception that proves the rule. Slovakia away was my eighteenth Wales game, and we went to Central Europe with no hope, not because they had put five past us in the Millennium Stadium, but because I was amongst the travelling party. “I tell you what,” Ralph said to me as we rode the train to Trnava, “I’ll buy you a beer for every goal Wales score, no sod it, make it two beers for every Wales goal”. We all expected his Koruna to remain safely in his pocket, especially as the Slovaks took the lead. But then Freddie Eastwood scored, and so did Craig Bellamy. Twice. And at half-time we posed for pictures in front of the scoreboard, making the most of the moment ahead of the inevitable collapse. It didn’t come. Instead Wales scored again, and again. A 5-2 win and a sign the tide was turning perhaps? It did seem so when, at my next game a year later, Wales (eventually) overcame Azerbaijan 1-0. Sadly normal service would resume on my next trip to the Millennium as Jari Litmanen turned Wales inside out without ever actually running; it’s a depressing sight watching a man stand your team ragged.
The jinx has continued ever since; whilst I’ve watched on internet streams and friend’s televisions Wales have beaten Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Estonia and Northern Ireland, and yet I’ve taken my seat in the stands for defeats to Germany, Russia, Bulgaria, England and Montenegro where Ralph was finally able to buy beer number ten; the fizz of Slovakia continuing to get me through. Of course I accept football fans are notoriously superstitious and ritualistic, to the point where it’s those reading this who don’t have a lucky spot at their ground’s urinals or a have never eat a pukka pie with their left hand whilst stirring their tea with their right to ensure victory, who can be considered the ‘freaks’, but unfortunately the stats back me up.
Since August 2003 I have attended a third of Wales’ international matches, and of those 25 games, just two have been won, four drawn, and nineteen lost. On a three points for a win system it converts to 10 points, or 0.4 points per game. In the same period Wales have played 51 matches which I have not attended and have won more than half of them; 26 to be exact, with nine draws and sixteen defeats. Damningly this works out at 1.7 points per game in my absence. I am statistically holding my nation back. I have a worse Welsh record than John “it worked at Real Madrid” Toshack, than Bobby fucking Gould even. I am the grim reaper of Welsh international football, my scythe a ‘Doncaster Rovers’ Wales flag.
On the basis of all this knowledge, and with circumstances preventing me from travelling to Cardiff on Friday night, despite having a ticket, I had long predicted a Welsh win over Montenegro. As sure as day follows night, as sure as Neil Warnock will argue with a fourth official, as sure as the British media will marginalise any home nation about to face England, Wales would win in my absence. So, whilst I would love to be in the away end at Wembley tonight, whilst I would give anything to be part of that throng of red, I will have one small crumb of solace as I sit down to a night of ritual patronisation from Adrian Chiles and Andy Townsend. That is that in my absence, I have done all that I could possibly do to carry Wales on to victory. Gorau chwarae cyd chwarae.