How not to win the When Saturday Comes writers’ competition

25 07 2014

I entered the following piece in the When Saturday Comes writers’ competition. Despite the fact I’d clearly mined my fragile soul for the piece the judges didn’t place it in either of the top two places. Ho hum, there always next year………..

No country for young men?

How does it feel when you and your country split up?

February’s draw for the qualifying rounds of Euro 2016 caused me to wonder whether I had finally lost my country. I didn’t leave them you understand, they left me.

I suspect that some people would feel rudderless if they were deprived of a national team to follow and I might have been in danger of feeling like that if I hadn’t remembered  a comforting university anecdote. A lecturer once told me and my enraptured fellow students about the difference between “Welsh socialists” and “socialists from Wales”.

My lecturer’s simple words drew attention to the uncomfortable inconsistencies that I didn’t want to confront. I could see the clear clash between an internationalist class-based outlook and a more parochial national-based outlook view but I chose to overlook it. I saw the tension between being a socialist and being a fan of the Welsh football team but I also knew it was possible to both hate Thatcher and love Ian Rush at the same time. I also noticed that there was clear red water between me and those people that liked to sing songs about not surrendering to a set of initials at international matches.

It was also the first time that I had thought clearly about the tension between being Welsh and being a socialist. Until that point I’d instinctively placed “being Welsh” in the radical tradition; I knew Welsh was the true language of poets, I lived by the evocative mist shrouded area of Snowdownia and Wales had a stack of Labour MPs. At the very least I thought being Welsh was a refuge from people like Thatcher and the BNP.

My reminiscence caused me to wonder about my time as a Welsh fan. Was the draw trying to tell me something?  Had I let down socialism? Had I wasted my time? I wasn’t sure that I’d wasted my time as I’d really enjoyed my experiences as a fan of the Welsh football team, sadly I suspected something was coming to an end.

Here’s my story of finding and then losing a team. At first I had a team. I became an avid Wales fan in March 1985 when I went to the classic Racecourse encounter with Spain.

Then I became a fan. My age, and lack of money, precluded my attendance at most Wales matches until the late 1990s,  however all Welsh matches were broadcast on the BBC so I could follow the proverbial rollercoaster. The feeling after Ian Rush’s winning goal against Germany was as good as anything football has to offer whereas the morning after 1993 defeat by Romania was as depressive as the morning after the 1992 general election.

Then I became a diehard. In the early 2000s I was able to put my own money and knowledge of public transport to use; I became a regular at Wales matches, even though it took me at least 4 hours to get to Cardiff. I was such a regular I only missed one home qualifier between  between March 2001 and September 2006. I even went on fantastic away trips. It’s difficult not to enjoy Welsh away matches as Welsh away fans are generally a hardy and friendly bunch that like drinking..

2006 was my annus mirabilis. On St. David’s Day I managed to leave work in Ellesmere Port and arrive in Cardiff in time for a friendly with Paraguay, I was even able to sit in the same row as the Super Furry Animals. On the Whit bank holiday weekend I travelled for virtually thirty six hours straight in order to watch Wales play a friendly with Trinidad & Tobago in Graz and on my birthday I became part of Brazil’s world tour at Brazil v Wales in White Hart Lane.

Then I became a lapsed diehard. 2006 is now a footballing age ago. n the last eight years I have been to five home matches and a single away match in Dublin, I’ve missed the hopeful train journeys to Cardiff and the away trips that resonate when you subsequently bump in to your away trip comrades. To explain why I became a lapsed diehard I need to use the parlance of our times, “stuff happened”, or to be more exact; “incremental stuff happened”.

Firstly I haven’t been able to go to matches. Since 1991 Wales have played virtually all qualifying matches in south Wales. The preponderance of south Walean matches might be understandable because of the practicalities – about 2/3 of the Welsh population and all of Wales’ FIFA/UEFA complient grounds are found in south Wales –  but their location doesn’t help the north Waleans that watch to watch Wales play, especially with the nature of  Welsh road and public transport networks. Four hour return journeys after tame defeats tend to chip away at your enthusiasm.

Matches have also been gradually scheduled at more and more inconvenient times. I work in education and as Eric Morcambe might have said, “I have the right amount of  time off but not necessarily at the right times”  At first I had to miss midweek matches but this was fine when there were still matches on Saturdays, then there didn’t seem to be as many home matches on Saturdays, then UEFA opted for a Friday-Tuesday international matchday combination in 2010.

Secondly I refuse to watch Wales play on television. I refuse because the Football Association of Wales have had a broadcasting deal with Murdoch since 2004. The first few years of the deal with Sky didn’t matter as I was usually at the match, now that I don’t go the deal really matters. While my outlook means that I feel less connected to the Welsh team – I’m not entirely sure what Simon Church, Hal Robson-Kanu and Joniesta (Jonny Williams) look like –  it’s a price I’m willing to pay for purer televisual experience. I’m happy to say this attitude is a hand me down from my dad.

As I’ve  already hinted February’s Euro 2016 qualifying draw convinced me that something was up. Thanks to UEFA’s latest brainwave the only day upon which Wales won’t have a game over the next eighteen months is the traditional midweek matchday, Wednesday.

There are two matches on a Saturday but they’re both away and one of them takes place in Israel, a location that my conscience won’t allow me to consider. How can I enjoy a football match when I know what’s happening on the other side of the “Peace” Wall? Wales will also have home matches that kick off at five o’clock on a Sunday and half past seven on a Monday evening. I sensed that fate was trying to tell me something, it would probably be easier for everyone concerned if I declared my international retirement.

When I remembered the words of my lecturer, my mind was calmed, if the Welsh team don’t need me, I certainly don’t need them! I’m a socialist from Wales rather than a Welsh socialist. Now I could stop living a philosophical lie and democratically centralize my life. I have nothing to fear, the workers of the world have no country!!

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