Football and the First World War in South Wales

It is unimaginable that people could look on at a game of football and forget themselves in the ecstasy of a winning goal at the moment when their comrades, maybe brothers, are making gallant and stupendous efforts at the front, even sacrificing their lives for the life of the nation.

Letter to South Wales Daily News, 3 September 1914

In August 1914, war broke out in Europe, driving Britain into a patriotic frenzy. WVery quickly, all rugby matches in England and Wales were suspended to help the nation to concentrate on the push for victory.  There was no similar official suspension in junior and amateur soccer but, with so many players joining up, many competitions were abandoned anyway. By December 1914, 1,217 players affiliated to the South Wales and Monmouthshire FA had enlisted and nearly a hundred clubs had disbanded.  At the end of the season, there were just seventy affiliated clubs still active, 325 fewer than the previous year

The press looked to professional soccer’s authorities to follow rugby’s moral lead but, fearing financial losses and expecting it all to be over by Christmas, the FA and Football League decided to play on.  The FAW followed suit with its president claiming that to interfere with football would be nothing short of ‘panic legislation’.  He argued that soccer fulfilled a large place in the organized life of the nation and that its discontinuation would only produce undesirable results.  Although many professional players had already enlisted, and some of the smaller professional teams disbanded, those clubs that did play on faced a battle of their own.

The government and the War Office may have supported the continuation of professional soccer but elements of the public and press saw things rather differently. The first two months of war saw letters and editorials in south Wales and national newspapers denouncing the playing of soccer during a time of crisis.  It was felt that since footballers were fit young men looked up to by much of the public, they should be setting an example by enlisting.  Some critics believed that playing and watching the game were not necessarily wrong if the players and spectators were too young or too old to enlist.  They accepted that sport had a role in relieving public tension and anxiety. However, the more extreme antagonists felt that the whole concept of spectatorism was wrong in a time of war and the sight of thousands of young and able men enjoying themselves at matches during wartime sickened them.

5 Sep 1914

Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 5 September 1914.

19 September 1914

Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 19 September 1914.

The south Wales press printed lists and pictures of famous, and not so famous, rugby players who had joined up, thus indirectly criticising professional soccer.  The decision of Swansea Town’s directors to contest the military’s decision to requisition the Vetch Field was subtly criticised after one member of the board suggested that the War Office could have the ground if it took over the club’s liabilities.  The implication that the club and the game were putting their own finances before the nation’s needs was made clear by the press article then moving on to look at new recruits from the town’s rugby fraternity.

In an effort to make a stand against the continuation of soccer, the South Wales Argus announced that it would not report any football news for the duration of the war. The South Wales Daily News also chose not to print match reports in the first few weeks of the 1914-15 season but, as attendances showed that the public were still interested in professional soccer, the paper slowly increased the coverage it gave to the game.

Other papers also reversed their stance and made it clear that sport was acceptable during the war.

9 january 1915

Sporting News reports on Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, 9 Jan. 1915

Despite the allegations that professional soccer was unpatriotic, the game was helping the war effort.  Grounds were made available to the military for drill or training at any time other than Saturday afternoons, most clubs gave their players rifle practice, and some even paid them in advance for the 1914-15 season to allow them to enlist.  On occasion, soldiers were let into matches half-price in an effort to show that the game was doing its bit, while spectators regularly found themselves the target of enlistment campaigns. The 7,000 spectators at a Welsh League match between Swansea Town and Llanelly in 1914, a third of whom were eligible for service according to a self-righteous reporter, were addressed by six different speakers, including the mayor and club chairman, on the virtues of enlistment.

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Recruitment advertisement from Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers FA Cup match programme 1915 (Swans100 archive)

The immediate impact of such appeals was limited in south Wales.  The Times used the fact that only six recruits came forward after appeals at a Cardiff City match as an example of the selfishness of the game and its followers.  However, as the club pointed out, hundreds of its supporters had enlisted, while the majority of the rest were involved in the coal and rail industries, integral parts of the war effort.

Nationally, soccer gave the state easy access to large numbers of potential recruits from working-class communities and thus became an important vehicle in the recruitment campaign. The wartime hostility towards soccer in England was not widespread and actually represented the resentment of exponents of amateurism at the usurpation of the game by professionalism and the working classes.

In south Wales, antipathy towards soccer was even less common and given disproportionately large publicity by a patriotic press.

Restrictions on rail travel and a ban on mid-week games played havoc with fixture lists and soccer found it harder and harder, in both financial and practical terms, to continue.  In November 1914, the FA estimated that, on average, attendances had fallen by approximately fifty per cent.  Cardiff City’s average in the Southern League dropped from approximately 11,700 to around 9,300. Other clubs, like Mardy AFC of the Southern League, already operating on tight budgets, suffered critical declines in their gates and closed before 1914 was out. The soccer authorities’ restrictions on players’ wages caused further tensions within clubs.  Cardiff City players threatened to go on strike in 1915 over the issue of their benefits.

By the end of the 1914-15 season, it was clear that the war was going to be a long affair and the FA decided to suspend league and cup programmes.  Falling attendances and practical problems had achieved what the anti-soccer agitators could not. A new makeshift league involving Cardiff City, Newport County and teams from south-west England lasted just a season because of low gates and rail restrictions.  Cardiff City’s average attendance during the season was a meagre 1,700.

24 July 1915

Sporting News, 24 July 1915

1916 saw the introduction of conscription and the call up of most of the eligible professional players who had not enlisted voluntarily.  Junior leagues did continue throughout the war, offering light relief from the hardships of the home and overseas fronts, but professional clubs spent the rest of the war playing the occasional friendly with teams of amateurs and guest professionals. Without the regular income of popular matches, the expense of paying rent and ground maintenance proved difficult.  Cardiff City, Merthyr Town and Swansea Town survived the war but few other clubs were so fortunate.  Yet the real loss was the 35,000 to 40,000 Welshmen killed in the war, among them a host of amateur, professional and international players.

For those who returned, the war was a watershed in their personal lives.  Fred Keenor of Cardiff City served alongside other professional players in the 17th Middlesex (Footballers’) Battalion and a leg wound threatened to end his footballing career before it had really started.  In later years, he mostly refused to speak of his experiences on the Western Front.  As his son put it, ‘Dad blotted it out. He had lost too many friends. He often said that he was one of the lucky ones who came back’. On being demobbed, the ‘land fit for heroes’ was no more immediately apparent to Keenor than it was to most other returning soldiers.  He found work in a gasworks and on a milk round before rejoining Cardiff City when professional football resumed in 1919 amidst much excitement.

Adapated from Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39 (University of Wales Press, 2002).

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John Charles and Welsh football

An old article I wrote for Soccer History.

John Charles was one of a generation of immense talent to emerge from the schools of Swansea from the end of the 1930s to the early 1950s.  Most notably, Trevor Ford, Cliff Jones, Ivor and Len Allchurch, Jack Kelsey and John’s brother Mel all went on to become international stars. In the early 1950s Swansea schoolboys won the English schools shield three times. The guidance of local teachers did much to foster this culture of footballing excellence but another local institution, Swansea Town, never benefited from it in the way that it might have.

Charles was lost to his hometown club when Leeds United ‘stole’ him (and several others) from the Swansea Town groundstaff in 1948, after a scout had spotted him playing on a public park. Charles was yet to turn sixteen and was thus technically a free agent, despite an understanding that he and other boys on the groundstaff would sign professional terms for Swansea.  The FA subsequently changed the regulations on player registration to avoid any repetition.

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It was thus on the international rather than domestic stage that Charles contributed to Welsh football. He made his international debut in 1950 against Northern Ireland in the home championship.  As in club football, his international career was at both centre-half and centre-forward.  He helped give Wales an international profile in the game; the secretary of the Italian league remarked in 1961 that ‘Wales should give Charles a medal. He has put it on the map. Nobody in Italy knew where or who it was before’.  Charles won 38 caps for Wales, scoring 15 goals.  It would have been far more had Juventus been happy to release him every time he was called up.  Charles recalled, ‘If they [Juventus] were playing just before or just after an international I would have to stay behind.  It broke my heart.’

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After Wales qualified for the 1958 World Cup his manager and teammates were unclear about whether Charles would be able to participate or not. When the Welsh party left for Sweden Charles was not amongst them.  Juventus, with whom Charles had just won the Italian league, had finally agreed to release him but he was still waiting for clearance from the Italian Football Federation.  Charles himself had not thought that Wales would qualify and thus never thought a problem would arise. When he eventually made it to Sweden he was unexpected and arrived at an airport not knowing where the Welsh team were staying. Charles played in Wales’s three group matches, scoring once.  In the subsequent play off against Hungry he was kicked out of the match and injury prevented him turning out against Brazil in the quarterfinal. Without their star player, Wales lost 1-0 to a Pele goal.

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His desire to play regular international football contributed to his signing for Leeds United in 1961. After he quickly returned to Roma he insisted on a clause in his contract allowing him to play for Wales.  Charles finally played for a Welsh club when he joined Cardiff City from AS Roma in 1963.  By then he had lost some pace and played mostly in defence.

In 1966 he moved on to join Hereford United as player-manager before returning to Wales to become manager of Merthyr Town in 1971 and then becoming assistant manager at Swansea in 1973 after a brief spell in Canada. Charles stayed at Swansea for three years before moving to Leeds to run a pub.  He was never a success in management, be it in football or business; perhaps his temperament was too genial.  But this did not sully the memories of those who had met him or seen him play.  With his greatest playing achievements taking place on the continent in an age before widespread television coverage, Charles was never as revered in Wales or the UK as he was in Italy. Nonetheless, he surely remains the greatest footballer ever to emerge from this small nation.

Martin Johnes is the author of: Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39 (University of Wales Press, 2002).

A Supporters’ History of the South Wales Derby

1912In 1912, Swansea Town played its first ever professional match, a Southern League game against Cardiff City. Although 12,000 people attended the 1-1 draw, it was a match that drew very little attention in the wider world. Professional football was still in its infancy and new clubs were being set up across the UK.  There was no guarantee that any of them would last. 

But last they did and, after the Great War, football’s popularity in south Wales soared.  Cardiff and Swansea both joined the Football League and Cardiff quickly rose to its first division, becoming one of the most famous clubs in Britain.  Its elevation meant derbies were not common but 1929 saw Cardiff slip out of the first division, bringing the first Football League match between the two clubs. Special trains and buses were put on to the game from across south Wales. Such was the interest that Merthyr Town even rearranged a match to avoid a clash.

The game mattered to Swansea more. In 1925, the Swansea chairman had suggested that a league match between the two clubs might help decide the ‘vexed question’ of the capital of Wales.  Although it was not until 1955 that Cardiff was officially declared the capital, Swansea still felt in the shadow of its larger neighbour, especially since Cardiff was a city and Swansea was not.  Moreover, there was some feeling that Cardiff’s claim to capital status was unfair because the city was more anglicized than Swansea. Football matches between the two clubs thus offered the Swans the opportunity to prove their equality with their larger neighbour.

Cardiff’s lesser interest in the derby was illustrated by a 1925 fifth-round Welsh Cup match between the two.  Feeling the league and its imminent FA Cup final more important, Cardiff City appeared to deliberately play badly, indulging in, according to one Swansea newspaper, ‘childish methods’ and ‘pompous swank’.  Despite winning 4-0, Swansea Town had missed out on an opportunity to secure a meaningful victory over its rival and its supporters felt insulted.

The proximity of the two clubs did, however, mean attendances at the derby were very high. In 1949, there were 60,855 at NinianPark for a Division 2 match between the two teams, a record for the derby that will probably never be broken. Fans remember the derbies of the 1940s and 50s as having a friendly atmosphere. There was certainly banter between the unsegregated supporters but nothing worse.  Indeed, both sets of fans were happy to see the other do well, bound by a common south Walian identity.

Some supporters, particularly those who lived somewhere between Cardiff and Swansea, were also willing to pay to see whichever of the two clubs had the most attractive fixtures or was playing the best football. In 1952, the Swansea Town manager asked the league if home games could be scheduled when first-division Cardiff City were playing away. He feared Swans fans would prefer watching the better standard of football forty miles away.

A hint of a more bitter rivalry emerged in 1960, when Cardiff, angry at the scheduling of the match, fielded a reserve side for a Welsh Cup fixture between the two teams. This brought a 350 guinea fine and a rebuke from the Football Association of Wales, who told the capital’s club to show the competition more respect. Swansea’s directors were also insulted by their Cardiff counterparts refusing to join them in the boardroom. It was a bad tempered match that saw three players sent off.

Football crowds were in decline by this time. Standing on a cold terrace was less appealing than watching television, doing DIY or taking the family out for a spin, all pursuits enabled by the new post-war working-class affluence. Many family men thus stopped going to matches.  Crowds grew younger and began to take on the characteristics of the modern youth culture that emerged in the 1950s. With their confidence and opportunities boosted by rising wages and near full employment, boys and men in their teens and early twenties travelled to away matches in large numbers, adopted fashions that made them stand out, drank more than earlier generations and acted more aggressively. The result was that fighting, swearing and obscene chanting all became relatively common at football matches in the 1960s and the sport gave young men a fun outlet for proving their masculinity.

Alongside these changes, patterns of regional support declined. This was a reaction to the rise of the televised game and more affordable travel, which both contributed to the biggest clubs drawing more and more supporters from outside their traditional catchment areas. For younger supporters who stayed with their local teams, there appears to have been resentment about people following other teams and regional rivalries began to replace regional identities.

The relationship between the two sets of fans thus changed and many began wanting their local rivals to lose. By 1969, this had spilled over into the first crowd trouble at the south Wales derby. In a two-leg Welsh Cup final, Cardiff fans vandalised a train on their return home and then, at the second leg at Ninian Park, they attacked two coaches carrying Swansea fans, smashing windows and denting the sides.

There was no league derby between the two sides between 1965 and 1980 and that held back the derby from becoming too embroiled in the growing football hooligan culture.  But the 1980 derby inevitably saw trouble and two weeks later fans clashed again after a bizarre decision to hold an FA Cup replay between Swansea and Crystal Palace at Ninian Park. There was considerable fighting on the terraces between Swansea supporters and Cardiff fans who had either turned up to see the match or perhaps just to enjoy a scuffle. The low point came outside the ground when a Swansea fan was stabbed to death in a fight with Palace supporters.

It was the 1980s that really saw the tensions intensify. Football hooliganism was peaking everywhere in Britain and south Wales was no different. Cardiff fans, however, had a new reason to dislike their neighbours down the M4.  In 1981, Swansea were promoted to the first division and their manager was John Toshack, a former Cardiff City cult hero. This created not just jealousy but a feeling that the natural order of things had been turned upside down. In a derby in Swansea’s promotion season, their fans threw bricks at cars and houses. At the 1982 Welsh Cup final, it was golf balls that were exchanged between the two fans and a policeman was hospitalized by a dart.

As both clubs fell on hard times, the extent of the rivalry became something of a badge of honour. Some fans looked at it as something that put their teams on the map. They might not be able to compete with the big boys on the pitch but south Wales had a derby to rival anywhere. It was gaining its own legends and language too. Swansea fans became ‘Gypos’, in reference to the perceived poverty of Wales’s second city. Cardiff fans were greeted by breast-stroking players and supporters who sang ‘swimaway, swimaway’, a reference to a group of teenage Cardiff fans being chased into the sea at a 1988 derby.

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The climax of trouble came at the 1993 ‘Battle of Ninian Park’. Swansea fans ripped up seats and hurled them at rival fans, which prompted a pitch invasion. Mounted police and dogs had to clear the pitch and control the situation. The game was delayed by forty minutes, eight fans were hospitalized and nine were arrested.

It was a turning point. CardiffCity chairman Rick Wright announced ‘If we allow these savages to enter our stadia and take their money, we cannot hold anyone else responsible for the scenes of carnage they create. It is all too easy for Cardiff to blame Swansea, for Swansea to blame Cardiff, for Cardiff and Swansea to blame the police. But the responsibility lies with the clubs.’

The result of the new determination to do something was the banning of away fans from the fixture. But the damage had been done and the next time the two clubs met in 1994, just 3,711 turned up to the Vetch. For many supporters, the derby had become something to avoid rather than get excited about.

Although hooliganism was a problem at most clubs, and Welsh fans were certainly playing up to the expectations of the time, there were some unique factors to the south Wales derby. In Swansea, there was some feeling that the BBC was too Cardiff-centric and that the club’s rise up through the divisions had not been given adequate coverage. Accusations of a Welsh media bias towards the capital grew and extended from the BBC to HTV Wales and the Western Mail. The size, extent and placing of coverage were all carefully scrutinized and Swansea fans could be quick to take offence at both real and imagined inequalities.

The regeneration of Cardiff Bay in the 1990s, funded by millions of pounds of central government money, threw another source of resentment into the mix. There was little surprise when the National Assembly was located in the capital but there was bitterness over how Swansea had been given the impression that it could win a farce of a competition over where to locate the new home of Welsh democracy.

Things did get better. Hooliganism went out of fashion. Policing and stewarding became better organised and managed. Both clubs got new all-seater stadiums that were closely monitored by CCTV. It was easier to identify troublemakers but people were also simply less likely to cause problems if they were sitting down.  When away fans returned to the fixture in 1997, they were herded in and out of the ground in police-escorted convoys. There was little opportunity to get anywhere near a rival fan, although that did not stop some vandalism of their rivals’ stadium or a few minor skirmishes with police.

Of course, not all fans have shared in the hatred. There were many on both sides who saw it as a bit childish or who were quite happy to see a fellow Welsh team doing well. Many Swansea fans have certainly welcomed Cardiff’s promotion to Premier League because it was an opportunity to have a derby again. There is even at least one person who has season tickets for both clubs.

Saturday’s derby will be a long way removed from the first match between the two clubs in 1912. The audience will be global and the atmosphere far more hostile.  No doubt there will be some songs sung and gestures made that would shock the supporter of a hundred years ago and will confuse the modern foreign audiences watching.  But, however much local pride is at stake, one thing hasn’t changed. You do not get more points for beating your neighbour than you do for beating any other team in the division. In that sense at least, even if in no other, it’s just another game.