Going Berserk with Drunk Swansea Fans at the South Wales Derby
Feb 12 2014
Derbies. From the Old Firm to the Old Farm, from Manchester to Milan, Hampshire to Haifa, Belgrade to Bulawayo, they keep football tribal and dangerous. In the post-Football Manager era of sitting back and nodding in quiet appreciation as one Spanish team you don't care about tediously passes another to death on Iraq Goals, local grudge matches are a reminder of football's more visceral delights. For fans, they are Thatcher's Britain-themed retro all-dayers, where globetrotting mercenaries become local heroes and the opposition players and their fans are a horde of invading rapist savages.
To some they may seem like petty squabbles that provide an excuse for upset men to indulge in gloating, bigotry and pathetic drunk violence but whatever, to me, derbies are machines that create great moments. Balotelli's "Why always me?" T-shirt, Souness's kamikaze flag dash in front of thousands of seething Turkish ultras, a pig's head lobbed at Figo, the bloke who smacked a police horse in the face and the time a murderous Serbian warlord led 3,000 of his football mad followers into battle against a firm known as the Bad Blue Boys. Yes, all of these incidents in some way involve gloating, bigotry and pathetic drunk violence. But for pretty much all teams who aren't secretly owned by Qatar, winning the local derby is the closest they'll come to a Premier League trophy. So you can see why they drive people mad.
Wales is a whole bloody country. A whole bloody country that sits – at dusk, at least – quite literally in the shadow of England. So it's a big deal when two of its clubs are competing with each other in the top division of the English league for the first season in history and as such the Cardiff-Swansea derby has flavours of both a civil war and an anti-imperialist revolution. Which is why it was fucking hilarious when the Premier League and the police decided that the season's second South Wales derby should be played at 5.30PM on a Saturday, giving fans time to get completely blasted in their local pubs beforehand. Usually, to lessen the risk of people caving each other's heads in, derbies take place on awkward weeknights, Sundays, or so early on Saturday that most fans sleep through it.
But not this time. This time, we were staring down the barrel of a fearsome and frequently violent rivalry with a whole day's worth of booze slathered all over the top like petrol. So we decided to go.
The South Wales derby isn't very regular. A decade ago, the sides had two divisions wedged between them, as well as 43 miles, but neither set of fans need much encouragement to keep the fires of hatred burning. In 1993, Swansea fans tore up Cardiff's home ground so badly that away fans of both teams were banned from attending the fixture for four years.
There seems to be an intrinsic disconnect in the two cities' identities. Swansea fans see Cardiff as the lah-dee-dah capital. Swansea is a place that still bears the scars of the industrial apocalypse of the 80s, and is fucked if it'll be transitioning to a poofy service economy any time soon. Not that this makes certain elements of the Cardiff support any less keen on a ruck.
Mostly, though, the two sides seem divided by the same shit derby rivals usually are – a series of half-remembered beefs and ingrained territorial loathing that manifests itself in the unwavering belief that the opposition are scum.
The plan was to travel to Swansea, where the game was being held, via Cardiff, where the Cardiff fans would presumably be coming from. But when we arrived in the capital, it soon became clear that we'd forgotten about that other great Welsh distraction.
In England, rugby is primarily watched by blokes called Giles and Duncan. They love Bastille, umbrellas and hog roasts, wish they'd been in the army and always have the latest WHSmith bestseller tucked into the pocket of their Berghaus fleece. But in Wales, rugby is still a rough and tough working-class game. In fact, during our time in Cardiff, we didn't see a single Cardiff City shirt.
So we let Cardiff get on with the rugby, and headed for the coast to Swansea, the birthplace of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Martin Amis, Chris Coleman and Dylan Thomas. The train was devoid of Cardiff fans. We’d expected a police escort, but got chatty housewives down from the Valleys to see their mothers. So, we sat sipping our tinnies, looking more like sixth formers than the cast of The Firm.
As the Welsh landscape unfolded in front of us, I wondered about the nation's identity and what the South Wales derby meant to it. The match isn't as famous as something like the Old Firm or Millwall-West Ham. It's more self-contained, more parochial but also more subtle and perhaps more intriguing for that. Welsh football might not be as flagrant as Scottish, Turkish or even London football, but there's still a rivalry at the heart of it that makes grown men tear seats from their concrete moorings and hurl them at each other.
As our train steamed through the deep valleys and industrial flatlands of Bridgend, Port Talbot and Neath, Swansea's Liberty Stadium came into view, a good five minutes before we reached the station in the city centre. Looking like it's made out of marshmallows and toothpicks, the Swans' current ground is not the one where the club's legend was born.
Having opened in 2005, it's arguably the site of many of Swansea's most golden years, but its dual-purpose design (the stadium is shared with The Ospreys rugby team) and out-of-town location ranks it among all the other soulless modern British football stadia. The ones that are surrounded by furniture shops and drive-in KFCs rather than sawdust pubs and family-owned cafes; the ones that most fans understand as a financial necessity, but bemoan for the loss of spirit within.
On the way to the hotel, we asked our cab driver about the rivalry. With one eye on the rugby playing on his buffering tablet screen, he told us that "there used to be murders over it, stabbings and all sorts".
We asked him where the hotspots would be if there were any trouble after the game. "Oh, Wind Street, that's for sure," he said. "That's one of the worst streets in the country, that is. Apart from Glasgow, there's nowhere really worse for violence than Swansea." We asked him if he thought we'd be OK with our English accents and camera equipment. He said we'd be fine as long as we weren't wearing Cardiff shirts.
Our cabbie wasn't joking. In 2012-13, there were a staggering 963 alcohol-related crimes on Wind Street. In 2010, it had the second most reported crimes on any street in Wales and England combined. It is about 350 yards long. There are 27 licensed premises on it, which can hold between them a maximum total of 20,000 flailing, fighting, fucking, puking people at any one time.
So it was no surprise that, at just 3PM, every pub on Wind Street was flanked by day-shift bouncers, standing outside their premises like out-of-work actors at a Wild West theme park, making sure people were drinking their double Jaeger and Monster test tubes as responsibly as possible.
Still, the Heddlu seemed in good spirits. I like the Heddlu – they seem like how police should be. Friendly, a part of the community, a force for good. If they had to pick you up I'd imagine they'd just call you a "silly bastard" and put you in the cells for the night. It was probably Heartbeat rather than Training Day or Richard Littlejohn columns that inspired them to sign up.
Because cabs in Swansea cost about the same as buses in London, we decided to jump in another one towards the stadium, which these lads also leapt into. As we rode to the ground we spoke about Swansea legend Lee Trundle, who one of them claimed to have taken a slash next to once. To be fair, it's probably easier to go into a pub in Swansea and find Lee Trundle taking a piss than it is to decipher the name of the club's current shirt sponsor.
Outside the stadium, fans were beginning to pile in. Although The Liberty has more in common with a ground like Stadium:MK than Loftus Road or Goodison, it did little to dampen that infectious pre-match atmosphere that made me fall in love with football watching Chelsea vs. QPR back in '95 (1-1, John Spencer scored for Chelsea). The fried onions, the wet concrete, the piles of horseshit – I was really, really regretting not having a ticket now.
There were some disorientating elements, though. Like this Frankie & Benny's. Because of the location of a lot of modern stadia, a lot of today's football fans end up drinking at places like this. Restaurants where eight-year-olds have birthday parties and young coppers go on dates are forced into becoming makeshift pubs and pie shops for pre-match drinkers. The financial temptation is just too great, so they put up marquees and serve them foamy lager in plastic cups and plastic hot dogs in foam trays.
I can't help but wonder if that classic image of men in flatcaps queuing for Bovril is now but a distant memory reduced to a cliche, something only really believed in by Americans. Yes, the burger vans are still knocking about, but you can get blue cheese, paninis and coffee at most of them now. People getting drunk at Frankie & Benny's might seem like a bad joke about modern Britain, but it's a reality in modern football.
A semblance of the underground, fan-led rather than money-driven spirit remained, however. Here was a man, prepared to stand out in the cold, selling people a homemade independent fanzine for a pound. It's nice to be reminded sometimes that not all football fans' raison d'etre is saying racist stuff to Stan Collymore on the internet and doing bumps of gear in the loos before.
Swansea are clearly a club that mean a lot to people, as John, a cancer survivor and life-long Swansea fan showed us. Having lost his eye and put up with all kinds of cruel bullshit, John is proof that football gives ordinary people something to live for.
By now, the weather had really gone to shit, and the marching drum bands were sent running for shelter by the onslaught flying in off the Atlantic. It felt like being at Notting Hill Carnival again. We were cold, wet, drunk, we didn't have tickets and people were running around with drums. The quintessential British experience if ever there was one.
In an era where football seems so moneyed, distant and inaccessible, there's something romantic about the idea that a ballboy who's turned up late for duty can simply bang away at the steel entrance hoping that somebody will let him in. It's more Kes than El Clasico. Although, if it's that kid who wouldn't give Hazard the ball back then he can fuck right off.
Oh shit, it looks like Jonjo Shelvey and Angel Rangel had turned up late, too.
Not having tickets for the game, we decided to get some stodge in us before the game started and the beers caught up, and Frankie & Benny's seemed like the best way not to catch pneumonia (which, sadly, may be one of the more flattering reviews it's ever had). It was odd sitting down to a plate of meatballs ahead of a game, but I kept telling myself that this is probably how they do it before the Derby della Madonnina.
When we were done, we asked the waitress where the most quintessentially "Swansea" place to watch the game would be. "The Railway Inn, they'll be going mental over there," she replied.
Located in a backstreet near the ground, The Railway Inn didn't seem like the kind of place where away fans can stop by for a swift half of pale ale and check on the Bundesliga scores before the game. It seemed like the kind of place where somebody in the urinals would ask you what you thought of Gary Monk and then smack you, whatever you said. The kind of place where everything you do and say is wrong.
Inside, though, the atmosphere was fucking great. People were on each other's shoulders, using the ceiling beams as monkey bars, punching the walls and appealing for throw-ins like they'd put their life savings on one of Ray Winstone's obscure bets. You could barely move. It was like being at the front of a Sick of it All show where the only music was songs about Cardiff being a shithole.
And yeah, you know you're in the right place to watch a derby when there's a Stone Island mirror on the wall.
Apart from the lad in the Blood & Honour (google it) shirt and "skinhead" throat-tat, the crowd seemed like a friendly bunch. At one point, a guy forced me to buy some Swansea badges off him and another asked if we wanted to take a picture of his girlfriend's dick, but mostly our camera was the toast of the town. Perhaps any other day of the week we'd have ended up as stuffed trophies above the pinball machine, but what's an English accent when there's a South Wales derby going on?
However, the game was still goalless at half time, and people were only going to get drunker and more irritable. The fact that Cardiff had won the game earlier in the season to play on my mind.
Thank fuck Swansea scored. Wayne Routledge gave them the lead at the start of the second half, and a massive weight seemed to lift off everybody's shoulders. Football is a brutal affair, and nobody was celebrating just yet, but Swansea were looking good and Cardiff weren't. A sense of tantric anticipation began to seep through the pub; the floor seemed to rumble with all the trembling knees and tentative bouncing. Something was in the air here, it was like we'd been caught up in the first stage of some collective pill rush.
And then they scored again.
The place erupted. Only a miracle was going to save Cardiff now, and they sure as fuck didn't have many miracles on the bench. Fists pounded the ceiling, guys who'd usually tell you that wearing black jeans is gay were kissing each other's heads, shots were bought and the barmaids were calling Craig Bellamy a "scab bastard" every time a misjudged cross flew over his head.
It was magical.
This guy was showing us his arse crack, had a massive tattoo of a swan on his back and was making an offensive gesture with each of his hands; but he was full of love. When the sad day arrives, and Jeff Stelling retires from telling Britain the latest scores, I hope they replace him with this guy and his obscene scorecard.
By the time Wilfried Bony all but sealed the deal in the 85th minute, the crowd were reaching spiritual levels of euphoria. There was a sense of ecstasy and relief in the air. Derbies are rarely as comprehensively won as this 3-0. Sometimes easy wins can feel slightly unfulfilling, but in this case the result only compounded the sense of madness. The football fan's Haka of, "Let's go fucking mental, let's go fucking mental, na, na, na" reverberated off the low ceilings.
We had now become honorary members of Gary Monk's Barmy Army. It's odd, I had no connection to Swansea or Wales at all, I had no more than a passing interest in this football team, and even less reason to dislike Cardiff City, but this seemed like the real deal to me. This was love and I'm certain I experienced a kinship that I'll retain forever.
We left the pub at the final whistle, hoping to catch the exodus from the stadium towards the town. Watching entire families clamber over walls to get towards the train, I was reminded of the fact that in moments of extreme happiness, human beings tend to panic. Swansea had just thrashed Cardiff and nobody really knew what to do. Perhaps it's the British football fan's way, to expect misery and then react with a mixture of confusion and joy at any other outcome, but everybody seemed to be in a state of shock.
It looked like the entire city were out in force by this point, all torpedoing towards the town centre, cans in hand, singing old songs about their city and agreeing with each other that Craig Bellamy is a complete wanker.
As the families dwindled off into the tight residential streets between the stadium and the town centre, it seemed that there could only be one place for the pissed remnant army to take this party: Wind Street.
Aptly named, huh? People often talk about spirits being "dampened" by the weather, they don't talk about them being drowned by the weather.
People tried to hold it off, with umbrellas, Morrison's bags and their hidden reserves of mental and physical strength, but it was no good, the carnival had become a windswept nightmare. Had we been in Rio or Rome, we probably would have all run into the town square, danced in fountains and met our future life-partners. But in Swansea, the Atlantic tempest was destroying everything in its path, as though somewhere back in Cardiff a furious Vincent Tan was getting all Prospero on the weather machine.
The fact that people were still prepared to go out and get pissed in the face of such carnage was truly admirable.
Retreating to the sedate confines of a local pub, where they sold ham rolls behind the bar and had a signed Chris Coleman shirt on the wall, I wondered about the nature of derbies. On one hand, it's very easy to paint them as pathetic, petty, provincial – is there really any reason for the people of Cardiff and Swansea to be abusing each other in 2014, purely because they were born 43 miles away from each other? No, there probably isn't.
But sometimes, a bit of context can help lift a game of football into something truly extraordinary. Teams like Swansea or Cardiff aren't going to find themselves in the Champions League final any time soon. Essentially, most games they will play will merely be about survival. The fans might see some good passing, and some great players pass through the clubs they love, but that sense of glamour, those hot nights at the Bernabeu or San Siro, are things glimpsed only in dreams and pre-season friendlies.
Really though, it's all panto. Yes, there are rivalries that spill over into violence, and yes, Swansea vs. Cardiff has been one of them, but for all the rhetoric, only three people were arrested. All of them for being too pissed, as far as I can tell, which isn't too great a surprise given, well, Wind Street.
The truth is that booze goes great with derbies. They are to football what alcohol is to life – a crucial break from the depressing realities of survival. I'm not saying that singing songs about being knee-deep in the blood of your enemies is a good thing, but without it, football would just be rugby.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
See more of Tom Johnson's photography here.