Sport

Gary Speed; Leader, Captain, Legend.

“Gary Speed, Gary Speed, yn mynd a ni i Gwpan y Byd!”

That was the dream. Gary Speed is going to the World Cup with us, the Welsh fans sang. Gary Speed would be leading us to the cliched date with destiny as his Barmy Army looked to take their own Valley’s carnival to Rio. Thousands of fans flocking from God’s Country with our leader in front of us as we took on the very best the World had to throw at us. Was it a mere pipe dream with little chance of coming true? Probably. Yet the fact we were able to wistfully daydream about such things only 10 matches into Gary’s Welsh managerial career is evident of the impact his short reign had on the fans. We Believed. We Dreamed. Now we’re broken-hearted and in a nightmare.

Much has been written in the last 48 hours about Gary Speed, both about his personal character and his footballing ability. I struggle to recall another human being whom has received such unrepentant grief upon their passing. This is without doubt a prime example of not realising what you had until its gone, for Gary Speed’s death has unleashed a torrent of tears from everyone of us linked to his career, be it as fan or player. I’ve been in a daze since I received the text Sunday morning whilst in the pub before the Swansea vs Aston Villa game. “This isn’t true” I shouted and immediately went to twitter where these days seems to be the ultimate platform of breaking news. There it was. Wales Manager Gary Speed, dead at 42. How? Why? When? Then the eyes started watering and I had to stop reading momentarily. An Aston Villa fan got dragged out of the pub by police apparently and I never saw it. Dazed. Confused. Is it possible for a stranger to have this affect on me? I didn’t think it was. I’m not one for sentiment for those that know me.

I’ve had people I consider to be heroes pass away before, its a part of the growing up process it seems. Michael Jackson. Nate Dogg. Aaliyah. Yet whilst I respected such people and would express grief at their deaths, its different with Gary Speed. He doesn’t seem like a celebrity at all but rather just your local football coach, friend, even family member. One word being used to describe him is how “normal” he was in respect to the overpaid, spoilt footballers of the modern generation whom are not in touch with the local man. Any man that makes a football reporter break down and cry live on air like Bryn Law did must have been a special man. Any man that makes that colossus of a human in Big Bad John Hartson cry his eyes out in public over his friend must have been a special man.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this blog. Dan Walker of Football Focus began his tribute article on the BBC Website by mentioning that it was just a stream of his consciousness. I can relate. Everyone knows of Speed’s solid and under appreciated career for Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United. When a play has no ego and doesn’t put himself in the spotlight, it is easy to overlook just how great they were. Paul Scholes is another who has traditionally been overlooked in favour of more showy and PR-savvy players of a more mediocre talent.

I will end by saying I have three overriding memories of Gary Speed and his impact in my life. Again, due to the very nature of Speed and his character he was definitely taken for granted and as such it is sad his talent is only really being expose upon his passing. As a boyhood Newcastle fan it was Shearer or Asprilla I would get on the back of the tops but like all football teams the star is nothing without the true talent pulling the strings behind them. Think Claude Makelele at Real Madrid or the aforementioned Scholes. I remember loving Gary Speed because he was Welsh and I felt with him being at the Toon we had something in common. I remember the poster I had on my bed room wall, an A5 one which had Speed in all his pomp and glory in the infamous Black and White stripes with a Welsh flag in the bottom corner. I loved that Poster. The Welshman at Newcastle. Perhaps I thought I could one day emulate him, I don’t know.

From around 2000 to 2004 this was the period where I really began to support the Welsh team. And what a team we had, key word being TEAM and not individual star players. John Hartson, Paul Jones, Robbie Savage, Mark Delaney, Craig Bellamy and running the show our captain and leader Gary Speed. Solid professionals who got the job done. And get the job done we did. I was there when we beat Germany. I was there when we beat Italy. I was there when we drew to Argentina. We consistently destroyed your Azerbaijan’s, Kazakhstan’s and Belarus’s. What a halycon period. 72,000 fans for every home game, pride, passion, perseverance. Did Gary Speed miss friendlies, consider himself above playing against minnows in favour of a week off to go shopping? No. Some display patriotism with tattoo’s and photo opportunities, some put their all on the line out on the pitch.

Finally, not content with merely leading us on the pitch the man became our mentor, leader, inspiration on the sidelines. Gary Speed, Manager of Wales. It was perfect. It was ideal. It was natural. Again I’m not going to go into specific details about the game as its not important. What I will say is I was at the Wales vs England game in February this year in his second game in charge and we were shocking. A hangover from the previous regime. I was also present at Gary’s last two games of his career and indeed life. His 9th and 10th games in charge. We were fantastic. We played incredible football. We scored, we passed, we ran, we tackled, we entertained. This wasn’t Wales surely? But it was. Red Dragon on the chest and “Gary Speed’s Barmy Army” emanating from our throats in the stands. Without being a Welsh football fan and understanding how ridiculous we have been in general since god know’s when I am not a good enough writer to explain the optimism we were feeling about the future. Bale, Ramsey, Allen, Bellamy, Collison, Blake, Williams, Matthews, Taylor, Vokes. We had the right man to lead them, both professionally and personally.

I’m thankful that I got to grow up a fan of Newcastle who regularly watched and admired Gary Speed. He was present on my 13th birthday when my father took me and my friend to watch Newcastle play Blackburn. I was in awe at that game, the famous Newcastle and I was here to watch them! Given, Speed, Shearer, Barnes. Amazingly my first ever game I went to watch was as a 10 year old when we went to Highbury to watch Arsenal play Leeds. Gary Speed was also present in that game. How coincidental.

Now its gone. Maybe the dream will be kept alive in his honour but at the moment, its gone. Shattered. I don’t know what to say. I’m sad for his wife. I’m sad for his sons. I’m sad for his dad. I’m sad for his friends, team-mates, players, family, supporters. I’m sad for Gary Speed. I’m sad. Finally, another footballing hero of mine, Sir Bobby Robson, has finally found his captain in heaven.

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Why Athletic Bilbao’s Cantera Policy is to be Celebrated

As I’m sure all football fans will agree, there is nothing quite as exciting or pleasing as seeing a local youngster make the breakthrough from age-grade football into the first team and then blossom into an integral part of the club. Time and time again such players have been reared and raised on the goodwill of the fans from timid and shy youngsters with raw talent into vital cogs of the club’s soul to earn the epithet “fan favourite” and “cult hero”. This is something that is not a modern phenomenon but something that has always been a part of the game, although one may argue it is less rare and thus more important in today’s multinational and global game.

Infamous local lad’s made good include Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher at Liverpool, two young lads who were watched by fans as they were 13 and 14 years old and still learning the game. Whispers of their talent and words of encouragement would have passed between fan and teenager as they graduated through the levels before making their debuts accompanied by a rapturous applause. The sad fact is that many a 19 year old debutant at higher clubs eventually drift out on loan before getting free transferred, but the ones who make it become part of the club’s fabric. Gary Neville at Manchester United is another, as was Tony Adams at Arsenal and Paolo Maldini at Milan. As a Swansea fan arguably my favourite player at the club is Joe Allen, a young player who grew up local and graduated through the club’s system to take his place in the squad. Whilst there have been more technically proficient and experienced players available for selection from a multitude of nations across the globe, nothing makes me prouder than seeing Joe continue to grow as a player and move from League 1 to the Premiership and International Football. He returns this mutual feeling by giving his all in action-man displays, none more evident than when he scored the winner in a South Wales derby and disappeared into a crowd of his fans, his people. There are of course many an outsider who have taken a club and a region to their heart but they are very much a minority. I don’t hide my dream of seeing a Swansea team with a full Welsh squad. Indeed, Celtic still hold their infamous 1967 Lisbon Lions in such exalted fashion it is near blasphemy to criticise them. It is not the mere European Cup winning exploits that make this team so special, it was the incredible and unmatched fact that the entire team was born and bred within 30 miles of Celtic Park.

The days of this are seemingly gone. Today’s game is a high pressured world that is slave to the money men, every game at the top level potentially worth untold millions and the patience of owners at an all time low. There is no longer the time available to carefully train and cultivate a youth team player into a top quality star, evident by the lack of English youngsters breaking through at the top clubs. A case in point would be Chelsea; Roman Ambramovich’s insatiable quench for success has repeatedly led to managers bringing in proven talent from abroad for instance results as opposed to planning for the long-term. The result is that in recent memory only perhaps Josh Mceachran appears to have a battling chance of making the breakthrough whilst other youngsters with untold potential such as Scott Sinclair and Daniel Sturridge are repeatedly farmed out on loan to other clubs before eventually leaving the training ground for the final time.

Yet there is one club that has consistently brought through youngsters from their youth academy and refused to succumb to the growing globalisation of the game. This club has many critics but the core policy of only picking their own is not xenophobic, racist or outdated but rather something to be commended. The club is ofcourse Athletic Club Bilbao and their infamous “Basque-only” policy is perhaps the most infamous constitution in World football. To understand the policy is to understand Spanish politics and delving into the background of Spanish history can take many books, thesis and dissertations just to get a grasp of the delicate situation within the Kingdom. Most fans will be aware of the El Clasico derby between Barcelona and Real Madrid whereby the Whites tend to represent the Crown and Spain itself whilst Barcelona are understood to be representing Catalonia, the autonomous region with a strong independent and nationalist mentality. The Catalan’s have an intense pride in their statehood and nationality and reject Spain as their country. Barcelona is their legitimate and popular medium for broadcasting their ideology to the wider world to the point whereby every sports fan is aware that Barca is “mes que un club”, or More Than a Club.

Across the Kingdom is another autonomous region that has become more infamous for its violence as opposed to its sport. The Basque County (Euskal Herria in its native and unique tongue) is home to the equally fierce and nationalistic Basque people whom tend to take their patriotism a step further than the Catalans. A constant uprising amongst members of the Basque Community has caused havoc both in and outside the region for decades as ETA, denounces as terrorists by some but freedom fighters by others, have taken to violence to “force” their independence from the Kingdom which oppressed them under previous regimes. Whilst Barcelona have succeeded in exporting their Catalan culture to the world via their club, the Basque’s are by nature more insular and this is manifested itself in Athletic Bilbao’s extraordinary century-old policy of only picking Basque players. Barcelona may be more than a club, but the Basque take it a step further and have arguably shunned commercialism and success in an incredible show of dedication to the cause.

Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country and with a nationalist mayor in charge of the city it has long been a bastion of Basque support. The city’s football club is no different. In keeping with the Spanish tradition of “Cantera”, the club is similar to Real Madrid and Barcelona in that the club’s youth policy is an integral part of ensuring continuity of ideology and ensuring the club continues to bring through quality youngsters. The amount of money that Barcelona have saved by developing Xavi, Iniesta and Messi for example must be over a hundred million pound in potential transfer fees. What separates Athletic’s “Cantera” from the others however is that as opposed to simply scouring the Globe to tie down any youngster who has the necessary talent regardless of passport they instead choose to keep their recruitment policy Basque only. The club’s own attitude to this can be summed up with the motto “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación”, translated as “With home-grown support and a fan base, you don’t need foreigners”, whereby the term foreigners even applies to Catalans, Castillians and other people whom come under the citizenship of the Kingdom of Spain. For example, Xavi or Cesc Fabregas are not eligible to represent the team that represents the Basque people because of the very reason, they are not Basque people themselves. Officially the club will only sign players from the greater Basque Country, including those from the areas of Biscay, Gúipuzcoa, Álava, Navarre, Labourd, Soule and Lower Navarre. In a recent relaxing of the rules the club will now pick players who may not have been born in the region but whom have been trained and brought up in the region as youth players or of undoubted Basque heritage to battle the growing phenomenon of Basque emigration. The bottom line is “if your not Basque, you will not represent the Basque people”.

This has brought both criticism and commendation, ranging from claims of racism and xenophobia from the critics yet also admiration from supporters for their unwavering nationalism. Although trophy less since the League and Cup double of 1984, the club have been one of only three clubs to have never been relegated from the top tier of Spanish football (no prizes for guessing who the other two are) and have provided more players to the national Spain set-up than anyone else bar Real Madrid. They have won 8 La Liga titles in total and 23 Copa Del Reys. The system has worked incredibly when one considers that the selection pot for Basque-only players is very bare considering there are only 3m Basque nationals in all.

The youth facilities of Athletic are top of the range and are no doubt an important part of creating the next generation, vital for the club’s survival should they keep up their policy of not conforming to the capitalist agenda that is currently the norm across the sport. Lezama is the facility that has helped produce many great stars of the Spanish game, the latest potential superstar being the much-coveted and prodigious striking talent that is Iker Muniaiz, a first teamer by 16 and someone wanted by every major European club.

To select only players who are connected ethnically, linguistically and culturally with the fans ensures the club will always have a unique relationship with the terraces and one popular quote is that the vast majority of the Socio’s will happily accept relegation for the first time in history if it meant keeping the policy intact. This relationship is perhaps best exemplified in the way Bilbao legend Joseba Etxeberria played his final season for the club without accepting any wages, an incredible stance considering the way footballers are these days considered immoral, money-grabbing souls with no ounce of loyalty to any one club. As expected, Club Captain Etxeberria was eventually clapped off into retirement with the well wishes and gratitude of an entire Basque nation and has remained the prototype of loyalty and integrity.

Personally, as explored earlier, I would love for my club to implement a Welsh-only policy however I fear with the dearth of talent available it would be the end of Swansea City as a credible footballing force especially due to the lack of pride in nationality when compared to the ferocity with which Basque’s have for their homeland. Would Chelsea compete by adopting a West London only policy or Manchester United with a Manc-only selection criteria? I highly doubt either would be incredibly successful which once again highlights the achievements that Athletic Bilbao have attained throughout their history. A unique club in an ever-increasingly detached and money-driven game, Athletic are a club to be admired and revered.

 

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Memories of Wembley – Swansea’s Grand Day Out

So that was Wembley. The infamous home of football and the very hallowed ground whereupon legends were born and myths cultivated. From the 1923 White Horse final to the 1966 World Cup final and from the 1988 Wimbledon FA Cup upset to Barcelona’s master class merely a week ago, both incarnation’s of the incredibly revered stadium have witnessed many unforgettable moments in the “Beautiful Game’s” history. That said, I would venture to say that despite the illustrious events that any football fan can reel off that have taken place under either the Twin Towers or the new Arch, only one will stick out in the minds of every fan in one picturesque corner of South West Wales.

Monday 30th May 2011 will forever be a date etched in the mind of every Swansea City fan dotted all around the globe. It will be revered as the date that the 40,000-strong Jack Army invaded North West London with such passion and fire in their bellies that negative thoughts were immediately banished in favour of the feeling that destiny and fate and propelled them to this very moment. Merely 8 years ago the club couldn’t pay the electricity bill and yet now here they were on the grandest stage of all playing for an estimated £90m in a match they dared not lose. Too many glorious memories, not enough time or space to recall them all.

Having been outside Wembley before on a non-match day and being distinctly unimpressed, the transformation on game day is awe-inspiring. The stadium looms above all and the arch cuts through the sky with the ease of a knife through the softest of Welsh butter. Fresh from the constant pouring of lager down our throats in the Torch pub and being inebriated enough to not remember the walk down the road to Wembley way, the second you hit the mass of humanity on the famous walkway jolts you back to reality whilst also ensuring you realise the dream is right here and right now. Unexpectedly long, it is perhaps thankful that once off Wembley way there are escalators to take you deep into the bowl of the stadium and before you realise it the infamous glean of the red seats draw your eyes away from the bar. So highlights of the day? Where to begin? Apart from the obvious footballing aspect of the day which I’m sure have been recounted incessantly by the media since the final whistle, everyone has their treasured memories. Amongst mine would have to be the way 40,000 Jacks held their hands aloft, puffed out their chests and broke into a synchronised chorus of the well-known and well-loved Rugby song “Hymns and Arias”, a unique and spine tingling anthem that has recently worked its way into the hearts and throats of the Swansea faithful. Some even whisper it may have been the loudest song ever heard at the New Wembley. If the Welsh are known for singing, then by god let’s sing! I still have goosebumps from the moment and it evidently impressed the hierarchy at Sky as a video montage was seemingly immediately authorised and has become a Youtube favourite in West Glamorgan and beyond.

Closely following that has to be the wonderful and sombre tribute paid to tragic ex-Swan Besian Idrizaj during the post-match celebrations by a squad that by and large were fellow team-mates and indeed friends of the young Austrian. In a sport often accused of a lack of sentimentality and morals amongst the top tier of players, it is inspiring to see a collection of young men whom are still honouring and remembering Besian one year later and whom turned what could have been a hollow gesture into a fulfilled promise by securing promotion. To see Alan Tate, Gary Monk et al joyfully raise the Play-Off trophy towards the heavens adorned in Besian t-shirts ensured that a player who was only at the club for a short period will remain in the minds of Swans fans and players for a long time. A great personal touch in an ever increasingly detached society.

The third and final prominent memory of the day (amongst literally hundreds for which I have neither the time nor blog space to include) is the camaraderie of the fans themselves. Fans do regularly interact with each other during games but apart from their common hobby for all intents and purposes everyone is a stranger. During the game though, the way in which every single person jumped about, hugged, laughed and screamed with each other was incredible. It was as though an instant friendship was conjured up out of nothing but goodwill and occasion. From working in the city as well, it seems as though the goodwill is going to continue deep into the summer. A cross section of Society, bonded together for an extraordinary journey by a common interest. The good times have begun, long may the continue.

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Swansea City; The Arisen Phoenix

“It’s best to have failure happen early in life. It wakes up the Phoenix bird in you so you rise from the ashes”

The Phoenix is an ancient and mythical Greek firebird that has endured throughout time as the defining symbol of rebirth, renewal and resurrection. The myth goes that when the bird dies, it spontaneously erupts into engulfing flames before being reborn from its own ashes and this completing its miraculous and sensational comeback. For Phoenix, read Swansea City Football Club, for ashes read 2003.

In one of the affectionate quirks that makes sport such a passionate hobby of the masses, all teams and supporters go through ups and downs and highs and lows. Some of course have deeper lows than others and the rare few are lucky enough to experience a constant stream of highs over an extended period of time. United fans, I’m looking at you. However it seems to be that even the smaller clubs will eventually experience their days in the sun even though that may be hard to imagine when all around you is grey, dark and bleak. The only differing component between each club is the length of time they have to suffer before they experience the glory that comes with success. Manchester City fans went 35 years without a trophy and were roundly ridiculed by their neighbours across the city for their drought whilst Rochdale remained in the same dreary division for 36 consecutive years.

Swansea City FC are a club that over the last two generations have experienced great highs and extreme lows, their fans enduring periods of unadulterated joy tempered with prolonged periods of pain. Many clubs can lay claim to being Phoenix-like in their resurgence from the bottom of a seemingly never-ending pit yet perhaps only a rare few have comeback with such aplomb as Swansea City. Whilst you have your AFC Wimbledon’s and Chester FC’s courageously beginning at the bottom of the pile and working their way back up, the chances of them reaching the very top seem long.

Swansea City’s are currently in the second sensational rise of their history and many may consider their current resurgence as one that characterises just what it means to be a fan. Whilst the first surge up the Football League back in the late 1970’s culminated in a season in the top division under John Toshack and has entered local folklore, if Swansea were to complete the so-called fairytale on May 30th at Wembley there will be a new bed-time story for legions of South West Wales schoolchildren for the next few generations. Promotion to the so-called “promised land” that is the uber-capitalist Premier League would be the end product of a long struggle from the seemingly inevitability of closure to unimagined wealth within a decade.

For the uninitiated, the club appeared all but doomed at the turn of the new millennium, their on-the-pitch actions rendered almost irrelevant by off-the-pitch mismanagement. The late 1990’s had been a period of uncertainty as the club cluttered around the lower reaches of the Football League, a position they had maintained since their disastrous fall from the top division some 15years earlier. A rare bright spark during this period was the Division 3 Championship winning campaign in 1999, although even that was badly immortalised in memories as the campaign where fan Terry Coles was killed by a police horse at the title-winning game in Rotherham. The fabled and loved Vetch Field was in disrepair, coaches and players came and went and attendances were dropping.

With spiralling debts in the boardroom, the club was eventually sold in July 2001 by owners Ninth Floor plc to fellow director Mike Lewis for the solitary figure of £1, albeit with the daunting acquisition of the £801,098 loan to the outgoing shareholders. Later in the year an Australian by the name of Tony Petty was at the helm of the club and his reign was so unpopular he was eventually ousted from the club with the kind of venom and vitriol last seen during the Miners’ Strike. Incredibly hated, the club under his stewardship came extremely close to being wound up and declared insolvent. Players wages were not paid, some were sacked, morale dipped and the very real spectre of closure loomed large across the city. Vicious pitch invasions, signs comparing the Australian to Osama Bin Laden and repeated chants against his ownership were common place as the club tumbled down the division. By January 2002 the club was described by Petty to be “very close now to the end of the road” and in one of the most heartbreaking events for the loyal fans, at one point the gates to the Vetch Field were locked and chained in a symbolic gesture of imminent closure.

The controversial Aussie was eventually removed from power that same month when a deal was finally agreed with ex-Swansea stalwart and community man Mel Nurse, members of his consortium and the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust. Although pleased the club was back in local hands, the very real threat of relegation and thus potential extinction still loomed over the club. The 2002-03 started warily, the club hoping to turn a corner but also lumbered with a squad low on talent and experience and it was obvious after the first few games that the hangover from the previous regime would directly impact on how the season would unfold. The club was still in such a financial mess that after the hiring of Brian Flynn as Director of Football and then Manager, the supporters trust had to pay the wages of young Manchester United loanee Alan Tate. Together with another young Premier League loanee in Leon Britton, the squad were adding inexperience if well-intentioned players to their relegation-threatened team and soon found themselves in a battle for their very survival.

All Phoenix’s require destruction via flames before they can be resurrected. In Swansea’s case, the period 2000-2003 was one long and heated blaze. Re-birth would come on the day that could have potentially been the worst of them all. Saturday 3rd May will be the day that will remain in the hearts and souls of all Swansea fans as local-lad James Thomas erupted infront of his home crowd to score the most important hat-trick in club history. Would it be a mere exaggeration to call the 3 goals the treble that saved a club? Witness the scenes of jubilation and relief of that day and the question answers itself.

Surviving by the skin of their necks for at least another year, the re-birth was under way. A bright white Swan masquerading as a Phoenix and beginning its flight up the Football League ladder to battle with giants. From that season, Alan Tate and Leon Britton remain and can complete one of the most incredible sporting rebirth’s in British history should they complete the job on May 30th. Whatever should happen at Wembley, a fantastic footballing team with international players, a profitable bank account and shiny 20,500 seater stadium suggest Wembley would merely be the icing on the cake. When one remembers those padlocks being closed on the Vetch gates merely 8 years ago, it’s great to be a Swansea Jack and if we do go up, it will definitely be great to be back.

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A Match Review From The Past – Swansea City vs Shrewsbury Town, 30th April 2005 at the Vetch Field

A fantastic hot day unfortunately brought a poor and dull match in the last-ever game to be played at the infamous Vetch Field, watched by 11,469 people. The famous ground, which has seen such legends as Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish, Sir Matt Busby and a whole array of the game’s famous sons is replaced next season by the wonderful out-of-city White Rock Stadium, although it appears unlikely that the £30m arena will keep the same fervour that the North Bank generates at every home game.

The wonderful “Bank” and its amazing support brightened up a day in which actual sporting activities were somewhat lacking. Although the anti-English and anti-Cardiff chants should be frowned upon, the North Bank will be sadly missed by all who live in and around the “ugly pretty city”.

Prior to the game, legendary Welsh comedian Max Boyce led the crowd in the singing of the national anthem, following a comic marriage between the home team’s two mascots. Shrewsbury Town were simply turning up for the day for this game, already having secured League football next year, whereas Swansea City were aiming for the automatic promotion places with a win, not to mention a win for the memory of the old ground.

The game started with an unbelievable roar from the Swansea faithful on what was a big day for them, and the cheer that reverberated around the ground on the eight minute mark must surely have shaken the Gower Peninsula. £100,000 signing Kevin McLeod picked the ball up on the left hand side and produced an excellent through ball for Adrian Forbes who showed great composure to loft the ball over the keeper and, after what seemed an age as the crowd held their breath, fell wonderfully in to the bottom corner. Cue eruptions of delight from all four sides of the ground.

A great start that promised an afternoon goal glut that was unfortunately not lived up to. The game from there on remained dull and un inventive. Swansea were relatively poor with even the normally great Lee Trundle having a quiet game, “Magic Daps” man marked out of the game bt a Shrewsbury defence on top of their game. Shrewsbury were having a great first half, three wonderful chances all saved by the City keeper Willy Gueret, the big Frenchman having a brilliant first half, all three saves enough for him to secure the man-of-the-match award.

Swansea right-back Andy Gurney had a nightmare and was unsurprisingly replaced at half time by the eager Kevin Austin, with new Welsh international Sam Ricketts reverting to his familiar right back position. The half time team talk was of no use, manager Kenny Jackett obviously angry at the sight of his team with no fight in them as Shrewsbury continuously pushed for an equaliser, with livewire Luke Rodgers on top form. A Shrews header right at the death was disappointingly headed straight into the grateful arms of Gueret, who clutched onto it with relief.

Two minutes into injury time came the comic plea from the announcer for all fans to stay off the pitch, even though half of the North Bank were already over the barriers and standing beside the linesman, who was looking on with understandable worry in his eyes. The final whistle ended the illustrious 93-year life of the Vetch Field and unleashed a torrent of fans all across the pitch, straight towards the players.

The party atmosphere was certainly intensified as the players, in full kit, made their way out into the director’s box to the happiness of the Jack Army faithful. Boots, shirts and shin pads all made their way into the waiting mob, cheering and chanting surely heard for miles around. The actual game may have been forgetful, but thanks to the fans the day was anything but.

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The ECB…What About Wales?!

The ECB…Where’d The W Go? Something has been bothering me for a while now, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Why the hell is the England and Wales Cricket Board officially and popularly abbreviated to ECB. Where’d the W Go?

The Lord’s-Based governing body was set up on New Year’s Day in 1997 as an amalgamation of previous bodies to be a modern organisation capable of moving the domestic cricket game into the 21st Century, on the sporting side as well as the business side. Arguably they’ve been successful in their endeavours, hosting World Cup’s, winning an Ashes Series and bringing in millions of pounds in sponsorship and ticketing revenue to further aid the sport’s protracted growth. It is however, a governing body which oversees the game in both England and Wales as the full name suggests. So why the altered abbreviation?

Of course, the English cynics amongst you may start to state we have a chip on our shoulders and that it’s irrelevant, but how can anyone seriously expect to gain core support in a region that has been unsubtly deleted from the team badge. Cricket does not enjoy the cult status in Wales that it does across the Severn Bridge, only attracting that hardcore element you tend to find sitting in the rain during a drab and dull county championship game in an half-empty ground. Evidence of this can be seen during the Ashes’ Series. As someone who resided in England during the famous ‘05 series, it seemed everyone was talking about spin, swing and Freddie Flintoff’s latest injury crises. The pubs do brisk business just by switching on a couple of television sets and the workplaces are alive the male version of gossip – Sports talk. So why is the England team treated passively in a country it’s supposedly meant to be representing. It is surely all in the name. Max Clifford and his all his PR skills would not be able to market an ‘England’ brand within the borders of Offa’s Dyke. No Welsh sports fan, brought up in a country where Anglo-Welsh rugby and football games have always elicited fierce patriotism, can get behind a team named England. A similar situation would be the West Indies operating as Jamaica. The Grenadian’s and Trinidadians would never accept such a thing.

The 2009 Ashes Test in Cardiff went off without relative controversy, safe for a few boo’s when God Save The Queen played, and helped to bring this anomaly to the consciousness of casual cricketing observers. There was something unusual at seeing an England team play ‘at home’ in Wales. If they want cricket to ever catch on in the principality a welcome start would be the reinstatement of the ‘W’ into the abbreviation or an acknowledgment of Wales in the team name. When the ‘Welsh Taffia’ came to power within the corridors of Lords in 2004, there was hope that the issue would be resolved, but chairman David Morgan’s plans have yet to come to fruition. The issue has even gained support of prominent Englishmen, ex-Chairman of Selectors David Graveney stating in 2004 that the “point David Morgan makes is a very valid one. The full title is the England and Wales Cricket Board but its never stated like that”. A further possible solution is an independent Welsh Cricket board complete with its own competing team. With Ireland and Scotland making recent World Cup appearances, Wales has been conspicuous in its absence, most people missing the point that Wales have ‘technically’ been at every Cup. Just not in name.

The bigwigs are becoming more commercial and market-savvy in these sporting capitalist times, but surely they are missing a potential merchandising goldmine. The Welsh are known for how they get behind their national teams through the good and the bad. A major boost to the international home games is the casual and passive fan, not particularly well tuned on the nuances of the game, but hooked on “supporting the boys and supporting their country”. Adding that small ‘W’ to the official badges, giving some recognition of the Welsh contribution, will surely enable everyone to benefit in the long term. Increased support for the England and Wales cricket team, increased merchandise sales, and an increase player-pool from a possible player-boom in the valleys who would now have models to look up to. Everyone would benefit…but this idea is of too much common sense to ever be implemented by those in charge.

Categories: Sport | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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