The devoted followers of the oft-troubled Wrexham team are petitioning the British Prime Minister to help save their team’s Racecourse Ground.
Wrexham fans have launched a petition for the Racecourse Ground to be protected by the local authority from being sold off without a replacement stadium being in place.
Besides being a North Wales sporting home of history, pedigree and now, following investment, some quality, the Racecourse Ground is also a symbol for all football fans of the need to protect clubs and their grounds from speculators seeking to make money out of them.
I’ve been to the Racecourse Ground to see a Wales-Canada friendly. (See story below.) It’s certainly no palace but it’s a home. I can appreciate the pleasures of a familiar rundown place to see a game, that’s for sure. And I have a soft spot for the team because it’s currently coached by one Dean Saunders, whose virtual self once played a key player/coach role for me in a Championship Manager game.
To an American, what is striking is how they’re trying to make this a national issue. For us, stadiums are a local, maybe state-wide issue. It’s hard to imagine anyone petitioning Barack to save a stadium, absent his hometown Cubs deciding to abandon Wrigley Field. (And even then, as a Sox fan, it’s not clear to me how responsive the big guy would be…)
Wrexham – May 2004
Americans know little about Wales, that enclave on the western edge of the Britain. The odd celebrity – Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Burton – joins our glamourous cast. Reaching back, there is the poet Dylan Thomas and his tale of a child’s Christmas in Wales. But we don’t know much else. Wales is rarely on the UK tourist circuit for Americans. The Welsh, they’re British, right? But quirky, with a funny language all their own? Diana was the Princess of Wales, right?
In the UK the story goes that when President George W. Bush was introduced to young soprano Charlotte Church, contemporary Welsh celebrity, he asked what country Wales was in. This may well be apocryphal, given the fervent British belief that Bush is an ignorant cowboy, but it suggests how Wales rests outside of our view, despite how near it is.
In Britain, Wales brings to mind coal mining, although there is little of it left, and holidays in the outdoors. Mist-covered mountains and narrow hollows and summer weeks at the seaside in villages with odd-sounding names. A British West Virginia, perhaps, with a touch of the Jersey shore tossed in.
Like the Scots, the Welsh came to soccer early, having been incorporated into Great Britain long before the game took modern form. However, they have traditionally much fonder of rugby – a great sport for those rough and tumble miners in the valleys – but have made their own contributions to the sport. Also, like the Scots, the Welsh have always competed separately from the English in international soccer. And so a pleasant May afternoon finds M. and I in Wrexham, in northeastern Wales, to watch the Welsh national team take on another country with a large obnoxious neighbor – Canada. It is a friendly, a chance for each team to play a warm-up game before upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
We are approaching the Racecourse Ground, home of Wrexham’s team which, confusingly, competes in the English lower divisions, as does the leading Welsh club of the moment, Cardiff. There is a separate Welsh soccer league of smaller teams, a bunch of semi-pro clubs who eek out an existence in part by playing games on Friday nights when there are no English Premiership games for competition. It is hard sitting so close to the flash and celebrity of the English league – Liverpool and Manchester United are only an hour’s drive away from Wrexham, at most. In fact, Liverpool’s reserve team plays some of its games at the Racecourse Ground.
We haven’t been in Wrexham long. There is little for tourists to do in the town, unless they are truly devoted Yalies. An early benefactor of the school, one Elihu Yale who managed to get the whole university named for him, is buried in St. Giles in Wrexham. Wrexham’s history is an industrial one, albeit one marked by economic struggle in recent years. It has a population of about 40,000.
We park close to the Racecourse Ground and join the flow of fans in red Welsh replica jerseys. They are using Welsh flags as capes and, in a few cases, as skirts. The dragon in the center of the Welsh flag does make for a striking symbol. (It is supposedly descended from King Arthur’s battle standard – wherever you are in the UK they make a claim for Camelot, it seems.) We get leafleted by representatives of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, urging more power for the Welsh government in Cardiff. A good nationalistic target audience, this. M. and I are almost the only ones without Welsh paraphernalia of some sort.
We get a burger and fries from a cart near the entrance, as the parade of red goes by. There is only one pub near the stadium and fans have packed it to the point of spilling outside, enjoying a pint in the May warmth. The Racecourse Ground is in a semi-industrial area on one of the main routes out of town – we parked at an auto salvage yard making a few extra quid on the side. The salesmen are doing a good business with “Wales – Land of My Fathers” scarves, a reference to the Welsh national anthem, “The Land of My Fathers.” The fans include many families. It makes for a good patriotic Saturday out with the kids.
Wales usually plays national team games in Cardiff, the Welsh capital down on the south coast. Cardiff was, back in the day, a busy port, placed right near the old coal valleys. It got a nifty new massive stadium in 1999, the Millennium Stadium, as part of urban renewal efforts, and has been hosting FA Cup finals while London’s Wembley is being rebuilt. They use it for rugby too, of course, and for all important Welsh soccer games. Playing this friendly in Wrexham gives the fans up here in the north a look at the team – and it appears to be working.
I had bought cheap tickets in advance and they prove to be in the standing terrace behind one goal. The Racecourse Ground has, as best I can tell, no race course, being merely a modest soccer stadium with a capacity of 12,000 or so. The stands along the sides of the field look newer and nicer, with reasonable seats. They just haven’t gotten around to upgrading our section behind the goal, perhaps because they cannot afford to do so. The stadium gradually fills, with only a few bare patches left in the stands. No sign of Canadian fans. You wouldn’t really expect any to make the long trip from the Great White North for a mere friendly against the Welsh but maybe some expatriates in London could show up and make some noise. Then again, the Canucks probably think that sort of nationalistic behavior is embarrassingly American.
We settle in on the terrace, joining all the others standing behind the goal, enjoying the sun. A dragon mascot bops around the edge of the field to amuse the children. Then comes the pre-game entertainment and I have trouble not laughing – it is Mike Peters, the only Welsh singer whose albums I actually own! Those of you who, like me, spent the 1980s listening to alternative rock may recall his band, the Alarm. They started off as folk-flavored punks, big-haired acoustic guitar protest types, singing about making “The Stand” and “68 Guns.” By the end of the decade they were selling out like everyone else, making decent mainstream guitar rock and managing a few hits in the process, such as “Rain in the Summertime.”
I explain this quickly to M., who did not listen to such music. Peters, hair shorter but back to the acoustic guitar, gives us a couple of folk-style songs, one of which calls for a “New Wales.” Then he gets the attention of the crowd by playing a Woody Guthrie riff with lyrics claiming that “Wales is bound for glory” and working the names of the team’s players and coach into the song as the reason why. “And Ryan Giggs is going to get us there!” The crowd cheers.
For the last few decades, the notion that Wales was bound for soccer glory would have been laughable. They did play, and play well, in the 1958 World Cup, going out 1-0 in the quarter-finals to eventual champion Brazil. But they haven’t been back since. They can point to more rugby history than soccer history.
It is what happened in the last two years that has this crowd excited. For years the leading Welsh soccer star has been Ryan Giggs, the Manchester United left winger. Even with an international superstar like Giggs Wales still lost time and time again. Then a Manchester United player of the previous generation took over as coach. Mark Hughes, known as “Sparky,” had also played for years for the Welsh national team and was making the transition from playing to coaching. Sparky, who is prematurely gray, changed the tactics to better suit the team’s strengths – particularly the speedy wingers Giggs and young Newcastle player Craig Bellamy – and things turned around.
This is a good moment to pause and explain how you qualify to play for a particular national team. The basic rule is that you have to be a citizen of a country. But in a world where people of different citizenships often have children together, there are regularly players who can choose between nations. (Once you represent a country as an adult, you can’t switch to another by changing your citizenship – something which used to happen in the 1930s and 1950s all the time.) Often players with double heritage go with the team that offers the best chance to play. Thus, during the 1990s the US national team featured sons born abroad to American military men, like Earnie Stewart (raised in Holland) and Tom Dooley (raised in Germany) who knew they could get to the World Cup as Americans and probably not as Dutch or Germans players.
The situation is more complicated in the UK, where there are English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish national teams. British citizens can often claim multiple soccer nationalities through parents and grandparents and various places of residence. The story goes that Ryan Giggs had a choice between England and Wales – and if he had chosen England he would played for them for years, including a World Cup or two. But he thought of himself as Welsh and chose to play for Wales, despite growing up mostly in Manchester. Michael Owen, the story goes, also had a choice between England and Wales and chose to play for England.
In Euro 2004 qualifying the Welsh shocked Italy in Cardiff early on, winning 2-1, and actually led their group for much of the qualifying process. Alas, injuries took their toll on the handful of top players the Welsh have – as did the angered Italians who won 4-0 when the two teams met again in Italy. Wales ended up second in their group, earning a play-off spot as a result. They just had to beat Russia over a two-leg play-off to go to the tournament in Portugal, which would have been the first major tourney for the Welsh in decades. Talk about a size differential – Wales versus Russia. The Welsh managed a 0-0 draw in Moscow but lost 1-0 in Cardiff. Argh!
I know all about this because M. had been rooting for the Welsh during the qualifiers, charmed by the land on a previous visit and unable to resist their deeply underdog status. (They upset Italy! No one knows about them! They have a coach named Sparky!) M. had become so pro-Welsh she had taken to calling Michael Owen “traitor to Wales” for choosing to play for England. I suspect some of our terrace neighbors in their red replica jerseys and “Land of My Fathers” scarves would agree.
The game kicks off. M. and I recognize a handful of Canadian players. Dwayne DeRosario is a forward who plays for San Jose in MLS – he scored the winning goal in the MLS Cup in 2001. Goalie Pat Onstad also plays for San Jose. The other forward, Tomasz Radzinski plays in the English league for Everton. The Canadians are in white.
On the Welsh team, in red, there is the familiar Ryan Giggs, although he seems to be playing forward, probably because Celtic’s John Hartson – “the fat man” – is out with an injury. Bellamy is also running free. Sparky is testing out some new defenders in the back line, looking ahead to the next round of qualifiers, for the 2006 World Cup, now that the great opportunity has been missed.
The Welsh start brightly, moving the ball well. They look sloppy in defense, however, and Canada looks capable on the counter-attack fast breaks. Ten minutes into the game Giggs lofts in a corner kick which forces a defender to hastily clear the ball and it rebounds dangerously off the crossbar. But the Welsh are unable to get to it to score.
The Welsh keep attacking. In minute 21 a nice chip finds Bellamy in the Canadian box. Instead of making the obvious move of flicking it over to a nearby Giggs he passes over him and on to Paul Parry, who heads it home. 1-0, Wales!
The crowd comes awake. Flags are waved, horns tooted. The chants demonstrate a variety of ways to pronounce Wales from the drawn-out “Waaa-lll-eeesss!” to a sharp “Wales!”
As we cheer, the Welsh offense is continuing to generate chances. Giggs almost scores on a free kick and Bellamy breaks clear on goal late in the first half but his shot is rather lame. It goes to the half, 1-0. M. and I are concluding the US has little to fear from the Canadians in the upcoming World Cup qualifying process in our region. Giggs has been all over the place, clearly the best player on the field. M. comments that he has proven he can “beat two men on the dribble but not three.” As much fun as it is to watch him she expresses a hope that he starts passing the ball after he gets by the second guy. The Canadians are obviously afraid of him, which creates space for Bellamy to attack.
After the half-time break, Canada comes out in better form. Or maybe the Welsh have simply relaxed, figuring they are in charge. The game becomes relatively even with the Canadians enjoying a lot of possession. Giggs keeps motoring and almost gets an assist with a pinpoint cross. Then, since this is a friendly, the substitutions start rolling in as the coaches seek to get several more players a taste of international soccer. By the last twenty minutes of the game the flow of play has been disrupted. The pace is gone. Bellamy is still roaring along and gets a couple of more good chances but doesn’t score.
M. is assessing the Welsh on this rare chance to see them up close. She is annoyed that they haven’t finished off the Canadians with another goal. Why can’t they close it out? Me, I think they tried but got a little tired. Bellamy has had plenty of chances. M. wonders if it is more of a mental thing, of not being experienced in closing out games after being a losing team for so long. Or maybe it is about Sparky’s tactics, which are built for speedy attacks – they are not so good at holding the ball and killing the clock. They’d rather run forward and attack. In basketball terms, they are built to fast break, not play half-court ball.
With five minutes to go, Sparky subs out Giggs and the star receives a deserved standing ovation. He may never get to play in a World Cup but the Welsh love him, perhaps because they know he could have if he had abandoned them. The player who replaces him, Chris Llewelyn, gets an even louder cheer. He’s a fringe national team player but is a member of the Wrexham team, getting a chance to play for Wales in front of his home fans. No wonder Sparky is so popular – he doesn’t just win, he knows how to give the people what they want.
The game ends 1-0 and the Welsh depart happy, still savoring the idea that they can be winners. And we head deeper into Snowdonia to explore what they’ve saved from the English..