Contrary to unpopular opinion, for many of us football isn’t just about twenty-two people kicking a bag of air back and forth for ninety minutes every week until the end of time. For some it’s an opportunity to spend quality time with friends and family, shouting obscenities at the referee and drinking unwise amounts of questionable lager; for others regularly attending football matches gives them a sense of belonging, a chance to escape. Far from just being about the players, football is about people and places. For this week’s guest, Losing his Favourite Game didn’t just mean being on the wrong end of the final score - it meant saying goodbye to a home away from home.
Russell Todd is something of a Welsh football oracle. Founder of the fantastic Podcast Pêl-droed, a blog and podcast that covers the Wales National Team, by day Russell is a Community Development Consultant. For his stroll down the Memory Lane of Pain, he’s taking us back to 2008, and an U21 European Championship playoff between Wales and England. While the on-pitch action would ultimately prove disappointing for an up-and-coming Welsh team, it was the setting of the match that gave the evening an added sense of occasion, as Cardiff City’s Ninian Park said a final farewell to international football.
Wales U21 2-3 England U21
UEFA European Championship Playoffs
10th October 2008
UEFA Under-21 European Championship 2009 Qualifiers: Wales had topped their group, which included France. Only Germany, Spain and Serbia across the whole continent had scored more goals.
Breaking with the tradition of simply admitting the group winners to compete in the tournament, UEFA decided they would contest play-offs. Naturally, Wales drew one of Europe’s strongest nations at under 21 level: England
The significance of this campaign, and this game in particular, was two-fold. On the pitch it was becoming increasingly clear that Wales had a crop of exciting, talented youngsters coming through that played with as much panache as they played without fear and who were being expertly guided and coached by Brian Flynn. It was taking a while for John Toshack to mould the senior team into a competitive force, but the Welsh fanbase were increasingly salivating at the prospect of these players advancing full-time to join Gareth Bale, Wayne Hennessey and Chris Gunter in the senior ranks. Players such as Jack Collison, Ched Evans, Joe Allen and Simon Church. Yes, even Simon Church. More of him later.
It was these kids who were restoring hope, if not quite yet belief, among fans for whom hope had dissipated from the mid 1990s onwards after the shoddy way in which Terry Yorath had been dismissed as manager in 1993, and thanks to Toshack’s 6 week dalliance with the manager’s job and the calamitous reigns of Mike Smith and B***y G***d. Mark Hughes had restored self-esteem but apart from a 15 month mid-reign spell he ultimately flattered to deceive and had left the cupboard bare of players under thirty with the experience, technique and quality for international football.
Off the pitch, the fixture was likely to be the final ever Wales game of any sort at the rickety, rattly, raucous Ninian Park ground that had just entered its 99th year. A ground where I had watched club heroes such as Phil Stant, Nathan Blake, Carl Dale, Jimmy Gilligan, Jason Perry and one-time next door neighbour John Lewis, and which had not so much as shaped and influenced my formative footballing years but intoxicated them. Though it may have only been 15 years since I stood as a member of Eddie May’s Barmy Army on Ninian Park’s (then roofless) Grange End to watch Cardiff City beat Shrewsbury Town and win the Division 3 title, with the way in which the English league had been revolutionised into a slick, corporate, Mammon-obsessed industry, it felt a lifetime ago.
Unlike that balmy afternoon in May 1993, I was on the Bob Bank approximately mid-way between the centre circle and goal area for the first leg of the playoff, sat towards the Grange End which had long come to be my preferred location in that stand. The surroundings were pretty much what you would expect from a 99 year old stadium that had been starved of all but the very essential and basic investment for many a year: cramped, uncomfortable and spartan. But I loved it. She was mine.
Oh and it was noisy. Far noisier than an under 21 international had any right to be even accounting for our emerging talent and the opposition being that lot. I was determined to make the most of probably my final visit to Ninian Park (I had begun to fall out of love with the Bluebirds) and hopefully see Wales qualify for a tournament. At that point it had been exactly half a century since Wales had played in the 1958 World Cup. Even an under 21 one would do us!
Right from the off the Welsh fans were full of voice. The BBC Wales match report states that the attendance was 10,500. Ninian Park held about 19,000 by that time, but it felt fuller than that which is testament to how well the Bob Bank amplified our noise.
My memory also insists that it was a right old ding-dong affair. Wales attacked at will despite being shorn of Gareth Bale and Ched Evans, who had been joint top scorer in the entire regular qualifying rounds with 7 goals in 8 games. We were also deprived of Chris Gunter, who had played in half of the qualifiers, and Wayne Hennessey who had been elevated to the senior squad. Joe Allen was only on the bench for the game.
Even shorn of players of the calibre of Gunter and Hennessey, the back five had been a consistent unit through qualifying, both in terms of personnel and form. In this game they played as if they had won the opportunity to grace the Ninian Park turf in a raffle. Goalkeeper Owain Fôn Williams, who had been excellent throughout the qualifying campaign to date, was particularly nervy. Author of Brian Flynn’s biography Little Wonder, Leon Barton tells me that according to Flynn, Fôn Williams “bottled it” that night. That’s a shame but probably accounts for him having only a modest professional career at the likes of Tranmere, Inverness and Indianapolis and only a single substitute senior cap.
Aaron Ramsey was the best player on the pitch by quite some margin, though his best in the whole play-off tie was yet to come. I recall purring to myself at his vision, technique and self-assuredness. The other standout player in the match was England’s Michael Mancienne, who other than make a mistake that led to a Wales goal, resembled the calm ball-playing centre back that the England national team had been crying out for for years.
Simon Church twice made me leap from my pew before half time with deft finishes to cancel out England goals from David Wheater and Adam Johnson. The understanding that he and Ramsey shared for each other’s movement and positioning was particularly eye-catching. Years later, I was invited to Wales train pre-Euro 2016 in the Vale of Glamorgan. Church buried everything that came his way and looked so good. Perhaps that explains why he won so many caps.
But for all the attacking threat, it was all undone by a hesitant defence that didn’t seem to trust its goalkeeper. Perhaps this was the game which deterred Barcelona from signing Lewin Nyatanga…
The enduring memory of the game was basically, phwoar Aaron Ramsey and phwoar Aaron Ramsey. With a healthy side order of phwoar Aaron Ramsey. That feeling of giddy excitement when you see a young talent impose themselves on a game and you think ‘this is the one’. Remember at this point Gareth Bale was having an injury-jinxed start to his second season at Spurs, having played only 12 games in his maiden season at White Hart Lane. And as we leaked goals how typical it was of Wales to snatch failure from the jaws of qualifying success.
Ultimately the evening ended in disappointment at the 2-3 scoreline but I retained some hope that qualification was still on since the tie was very much alive.
In broader terms, there was a sense of validation that Wales did indeed have a crop of talented young players coming through en masse rather than the ones or twos of yesteryear. Of those on show that night at Ninian Park, the pick was undoubtedly Aaron Ramsey who suggested he could be the playmaking fulcrum for whom Wales had been desperate for arguably 30 years, notwithstanding the mercurial Jason Koumas. Ramsey made his full Wales debut a month later and within six months had shown enough potential to prompt Koumas to call time on Wales.
It should probably be pointed out that England made it all the way to the final of the Euros the following summer (where Germany pumped them 4-0) so it’s a shame - as England’s manager Stuart Pearce graciously pointed out - that Wales and England couldn’t both be in the finals.
I clung onto the hope that Toshack would finally turn the corner for far longer than most Wales fans. But eternal optimism gave way to an infernal optimism; one that goaded and antagonised. The longer we waited the more that senior player commitment and belief in Toshack’s methods waned.
It was another two years on from the night of the play-off first leg before Gary Speed eventually professionalised, modernised and inspired the set-up and in turn galvanised the fans. Though fans didn’t know it at the time, the foundations for the Red Wall were being put down and the summer of our lives beckoned. Tragedy, of course, came before that though. Sub-consciously, perhaps, I attempted to exorcise all that by starting a podcast about the Wales team, Podcast Pêl-droed. 80+ episodes later we’re still going.
As for Ninian Park, I stayed in my seat on the Bob Bank for a while after the game and took it all in. Building had already started over the road on its replacement, the Cardiff City Stadium. Exactly 11 months to the day after the match the site was handed over to Redrow to develop housing on it. Today houses bearing the address Bartley Wilson Way, after the founder of the original Riverside FC club, sit where the Grandstand, Bob Bank, and Canton and Grange Ends once did. I saw one final game at the old lady before the 2008-09 season was out: Cardiff going down to nine men in a 0-3 drubbing at the hands of Sheffield United. The ref had a shocker and the atmosphere turned spiteful and angry in the third of four season-ending games from which Cardiff needed only two points to make the play-offs, but could only pick up one. In contrast, under the lights at that play-off game, the cacophony was urgent and inspiring. That’s the game I prefer to remember as Ninian Park’s signing-off.
Despite going one final time to Ninian Park, that play-off game under the lights felt like I was saying goodbye to my younger football fan self. From that point on I curmudgeonly expected it to be shiny, new identikit stadia and sterile environments for me. Enhanced facilities but diminished atmospheres?
Not quite. I can only really speak for Wales games these days but there are more children, women and ethnic minorities at games now. The investment in modern stadia facilities is undoubtedly a factor in this. I welcome the greater inclusivity and as a parent priorities change; at least mine have.
They have also changed in respect of the domestic games I take in these days. You’ll find me these days taking in games in the Welsh Premier League, Welsh League or at Merthyr Town. The games are less cynical, more affordable and I’m not being constantly yelled at to have a bet. The clubs genuinely appreciate your support too; something I am sceptical is the case in the rarified levels of the professional game.
Of course the Cardiff City Stadium has been a raucous setting for plenty of national success of late. But the noise there sounds different to what I remember at Ninian Park. Maybe a metallurgist or structural engineer would tell me otherwise. But that’s how it feels to me.
When Ninian Park was torn down a little bit of football fan me - the bit that stayed on at the ground after the under 21 game? - went with it. Not for the better or worse; just different.
Thanks to Russell for sharing his memories of the final international match at Ninian Park. You can find out more about Russell’s Community Development work, alongside his thoughts on the Wales national team by following him on Twitter, along with Podcast Pêl-droed.