Dylan Llywelyn is one of the many friends I’ve made from watching Wales over the years, and he’s now in Azerbaijan for Wales’s first game of Euro 2020 against Switzerland. I asked him why he was making the effort. “In 2019 I hobbled around Frankfurt airport and then Baku on our last visit. It was only after returning home that I discovered I’d broken my leg a few weeks earlier. It was still simpler, and less painful than getting to Baku this time. I dislike myself for going and parking 15 months of Covid-compliance that bordered on fundamentalism, but I’d hate myself for not going.”
This is a golden age for Welsh football. This team, and Chris Coleman’s before it, have allowed Wales fans to experience almost inconceivable success. But off the pitch a legacy has been created that will outlive the careers of Bale, Ramsey, and Allen. I, Dylan and thousands like us are part of it – Wales away.
It took a surprisingly long time for me to watch Wales play away, considering I’d been loyally attending home games since 1993. Friends who I’d watched football with since secondary school had been supporting the team in the further flung parts of mainland Europe for a while and would routinely, zealously extoll its virtues to me, like those ravers in the late 80s who thought the world’s problems could be solved by giving Mikhail Gorbachev some MDMA. I, however, had dedicated my 20s to becoming a broadly competent standup comedian, so sampling Liechtenstein’s or Montenegro’s delights had to be put on hold in favour of performing 20-minute sets at Northampton’s Picturedrome, or High Wycombe’s improbably named Hellfire Comedy Club.
In March 2013, however, I finally got my first Wales away cap. Scotland 1 Wales 2 at Hampden Park, Glasgow. A game that’s memorable to most who went for Hal Robson-Kanu’s towering header in the snow, but as Hal scored his first international goal I was having a slightly more existential moment, high up in the stands. As I made my way on to the Wales end that night I became struck by an overwhelming feeling that I’d found my people, and there was a footballing subculture into which I was about to throw myself.
It’s strange that what is basically a mini-break piss-up with a football match in the middle should mean so much to so many. The success of the team and the increase of cheap flights to previously inaccessible places have swelled the numbers, but having canvassed the opinion of some of the scene’s early pioneers, the ethos has remained the same.
Mark Ainsbury is one of the 78 who went to Moldova in 1994 (a trip I’d repeat with 2,500 others for a World Cup qualifier in September 2017), giving him a cachet amongst our support equivalent to having seen the Beatles at the Cavern. It speaks volumes that being placed under house arrest at the border, having to play chess with armed guards to pass the time (“I had one of them at checkmate but he had a Kalashnikov”) and the fact Wales lost 3-2 didn’t put him off. Mark already had the bug by the time the dark days of the Bobby Gould era came around, but as he put it: “Outsiders used to pity us, because of the drubbings and the near misses, but we would pity them, for not knowing that Wales away is a state of mind, not the state of a football team.”
Gary Pritchard (whose first away trip with Wales to mainland Europe was to watch us lose 7-1 against the Netherlands in Eindhoven in 1996) described the early years as being “the best kept social secret in Wales”, as apart from the one big fixture against the top seeds in each group, the number of fans travelling to away matches used to be relatively small and the majority of travellers knew each other. The days of our away support consisting of a handful of true believers seem to be over though, with the full allocation of 1,800 fans making the trip to Elbasan, Albania’s version of Newport, for a friendly in November 2018.
The appeal of seeing new places, the camaraderie in travelling to obscure destinations with old friends and the ability to say “I was there” should be fairly apparent, but the old days of being seen as rugby’s inferior cousin by the Welsh media and the siege mentality that develops when you’re losing to Macedonia gave the experience a countercultural feel that has remained, even though the numbers have grown and results have improved.
Gary described how away fans always had a repertoire of songs that never surfaced at home, and a dress code has now developed. Vintage Wales shirts, the ubiquitous Spirit of ’58 bucket hats, and the sort of obscure Adidas trainers you see in coffee-table books.
“We all seem to be linked by a similar outlook on life, from our politics to our taste in music,” explained Haley Evans, who has been attending away matches since Milan in 2003 (Italy 4 Wales 0), and was so frustrated at an inability to find Wales tops in women’s sizes that she launched feWales, a clothing range for female members of the Red Wall.
I’ve talked to dozens of supporters on these trips, and all have expressed the feeling that we’re representing our country. To some, that means making an effort to learn a few words of the native language when it comes to ordering beer. To others that means buying a new coat and bringing peerless Welsh terrace cool to Latvia or Hungary. I’m always amazed at the efforts of the Gôl! Appeal, the Welsh football supporters’ charity, which helps underprivileged children wherever Wales play and have done incredible things in promoting a positive image of Welsh fans.
Lives have been changed in more subtle ways, though. The large North Walian contingent has always made going away with Wales a bilingual affair, and I’ve heard of people from more anglicised parts of Wales learning the language because of the friendships made on these trips.
It’s not always been perfect, of course. The hostility between Swansea and Cardiff fans is well documented and, although this has improved over the past decade, it can still simmer. When hooliganism was at its height an M4 rivalry could play out on ferries to Ostend and of course, at home matches.
But the culture around the national team is different now. Only whoppers wear club colours to Wales games. I asked Ralph Davies (first trip Nuremberg, 1991) to sum it up for me. I first met Ralph in a bar in Brussels in 2013, when I drunkenly asked if I could touch the badge on his pristinely kept 1984-87 Adidas Wales home shirt. Ralph has seen the nature of Welsh support change, from the handful of fans who went to Georgia in 1994 to the 30,000 who were in Bordeaux for the opening game of Euro 2016. “I think the following has become really diverse and inclusive, there’s lots of men, women and kids going now, so in that way it’s bigger and better … but I think the football is still somewhat incidental. And that’s the magic.”
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