The story of how Wales created the best fan experience in sport as pride, passion and culture shine through

A stirring anthem sung so proudly in an ancient language that it can invite tears of joy to run down the cheeks of anyone.

A country’s unique culture which is celebrated and magnified to the rest of the world by the Red Wall, and the players who would be cheering among the fans were they not on the pitch.

Bucket hat-wearing fans who are the epitome of uber-friendly wherever in the world they go.

That is how we do international football in Wales. The men in red have marched to qualify for their first World Cup in 64 years and will further capture the nation’s imagination when they head to Qatar this winter off the back of an electric few years for the Welsh game.

Right now, many feel Welsh international football is the best sporting fan experience there is. The rest of the world first got a real glimpse of this at Euro 2016, when Welsh fans who turned French cities red were the unexpected off-field highlight of the tournament.

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A special connection between players and their fans has been fostered, and being a Wales supporter is also now inextricably linked to a sense of Welsh identity — not necessarily a given, however automatic it may initially seem.

Mark Evans is the FAW’s head of football operations and says: “The fan culture we’ve got now and everything we do around it is the most important thing, even more so than the players and the team performances. We need to get to the point where people come to watch Wales because it’s a great experience, fun, colourful, noisy, it’s crazy now and again — if we can keep doing that, we can sustain doing a lot of things going forward.”

 

Gwlad, Gwlad

 

There is also no fear of trial and error. Take Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, for example. Nowadays, the opening bars of the song are played to give fans a starting point but that’s it. Fans do a better job singing it without any music, puffing their chests out and doing our land of song proud.

Gone are the days where the music is too slow and fans are out of sync with each other.

“We tried different things with the anthem, bringing a singer in – we didn’t want to bring a choir in – and then we did away with that and just allowed the fans to sing it but the music was in the background,” FAW head of public relations Ian Gwyn Hughes tells us. “But, of course, it was never in sync.”

A natter with Aaron Ramsey and Chris Gunter on the flight back from the 2017 World Cup qualifier win against Georgia led us to where we are today.

“I remember them saying ‘what about just playing the first few bars?’ the FAW man goes on. Now, some reckon it’s the best anthem rendition in the world.

It is a far cry from the Millennium Stadium days. “Sometimes when you’ve got 10,000 or 15,000 people in a stadium like the Millennium it’s difficult to generate that ‘wow’ factor,” Hughes says. “Maybe there was a lack of confidence in singing the anthem, not a lack of pride. I think it was just a reflection of the atmosphere around the game during what we would call rather bleak periods.”

 

Legacy of Gary Speed

 

Like anything related to Welsh football success, it doesn’t take long for Gary Speed’s legacy to be recognised. He first got the ball rolling in terms of instilling the importance of Welsh culture into players.

“Before the England game [in 2011], we were at the hotel at Hensol and he called the players in to talk about the relevance of the anthem and how proud he was of singing it,” Hughes remembers.

“Courtenay Hamilton, who was singing the anthem for us at the time, said how proud she was singing in front of the fans, and Raymond Verheijen, who’s a Dutchman, he said ‘if I can learn it, you can’. We had a bit of historical context to it, and Gary said ‘look, has anyone got any inhibitions about this?’ They stood up in the middle of the room, 26 of them, arms around each other and just sang the anthem. It was quite surreal.”

Former FAW chief executive Jonathan Ford appointed Speed at a time when the association wanted Welsh football to be part of everyday life for the public. The team was playing in front of low crowds, were very low in the FIFA rankings and there wasn’t too much support for the FAW, either.

“The rugby was ingrained and when it was an international everyone was interested, so how could we at least try and do the same with football?” says Hughes. “I think Jonathan Ford knew that the only way we were going to get out of this and get a profile for international football, or football in Wales, is if the national team is successful, so that’s why everything was ploughed into the men’s national team to get them up to qualify for a tournament, and hopefully spin-offs would come from that.”

Getting results was obviously Speed’s priority but it didn’t hurt to have a manager who understood the bigger picture. A big people person, he went on the road to try to start understanding the supporter base, recognising their efforts in coming from north and west Wales, for example, to cheer on Wales.

“We did the National Eisteddfod and there were 25,000 people that day on the field, and I walked in with Gary and wow, Wales weren’t going well at the time but everybody wanted a slice of Gary Speed,” Hughes says. “Gary was so humble. I’d say ‘we’ll go here’ and he never thought it was about him.”

Other than a sell-out against England, the biggest attendance for a Wales home game under Speed was 14,000. That has more than doubled these days after the move to Cardiff City Stadium.

 

Welsh language and culture

 

Taking a leaf out of Finland’s book — they call themselves Suomi, the Finnish word for ‘Finland’ — the FAW rebranded to calling Wales ‘Cymru’.

“It sort of clicked that we need to call ourselves what we call ourselves, not what others call us,” head of football ops Evans tells us. “The Welsh language is important to us. Everything we do is mindful of that.”

Around a third of the men’s team speak Welsh, while the biggest songs sung in the stadium are Welsh-language: Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Dafydd Iwan’s Welsh folk song Yma O Hyd. “You’ve got 30,000 people singing Yma O Hyd – maybe the only time they use Welsh is in the stadium,” Evans says.

Having our ancient language play such a big part in everyday football has no doubt aided in normalising the use of Welsh for traditionally non-Welsh speakers.

"When I was a boy speaking Welsh, people would tell me during football matches 'wnhat are you speaking that for?' The Welsh language was considered as something very strange. This is completely different with what you have today. Back then it was completely English. It’s so important to me that the Welsh language has revived, if you like, within the Welsh supporters."

Welsh football fan Tim Hartley remembers how different it used to be (S4C's Cenedl Pel-droed Annibynnol)

The explosion of popularity around Yma O Hyd, which was originally released in 1981 and tells the story of how Welsh language and culture has survived more than 2,000 years against the odds, has seen it reach number one in the iTunes chart, but is a perfect example of fans taking the lead with their traditions.

The song has actually been played at half-time for men’s matches for the last six years — and has been Wales Women’s walk-on song for their current World Cup qualifying campaign — but it was only from the 2-0 Euro win over Hungary in 2019 that it started to loom large.

“It suddenly started to be not just background music, but to be sung,” says Evans, who has worked at the FAW for more than 32 years.

“We didn’t make anybody sing it, the fans just suddenly did it. So then we facilitate that by bringing Dafydd Iwan in and everybody says ‘the Welsh FA are geniuses!’ We’re not geniuses, we just recognise what the fans are looking for and provide it. Everybody sings it now. But we didn’t make that happen, it wasn’t us, it was the fans.”

It’s the same story with bucket hats. They multiplied in the stands, so much so that the decision was taken not to produce official FAW merchandise for Euro 2016 for fear of encroaching on already-existing merchandise. “We never got involved with that, but we’re happy to push it and have our players wearing them — it’s unique to us, it’s a unique sign of being Welsh,” says Evans. Another brand, FE Wales (selling merchandise for women and girls in the Red Wall) has received similar backing.

“We’ve got people here at the FAW who are able to recognise what’s happening because they are fans themselves,” Evans added. “The majority of the stuff that we do comes from the fans. We just amplify what’s coming off the terraces.”

 

Welsh history

 

Delving into Welsh history can be something of a two-way street. It enables fans to see that their culture and history is valued and respected, while players can get a deeper understanding of just who they are representing when they pull on the red of Wales.

Visits have been paid to Aberfan, Ypres and Passchendaele in recent years to pay respects to victims of tragedy and war, while training has been stopped for moments of silence to remember Aberfan, Gresford and Senghennydd.

“You try and say to them ‘look, when you play for your country, you’re not just representing the three million people, you’re representing these here, you’re representing history, our traditions, the past, it’s all about this — when you’re out there playing, that’s who you represent’,” Hughes explains.

“I’m not saying that makes a difference to the results but it’s just to give them that sense of what Wales is as a country and who they’re actually representing.”

Evans had never seen the squad so quiet than their return from visiting Aberfan, with some of their relatives having been present on the tragic day of October 21, 1966, trying to dig for survivors. 144 people, mostly children, died after a colliery spoil tip slid down the mountain onto a school and nearby houses.

“I think it’s good to give them a sense of reality,” Hughes says. “This is what life can be about: sacrifice and tragedies.”

Embracing Welsh history also includes Rob Page, on the eve of this camp, visiting the slate quarries of Llanberis and the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth to check out items from 1958. Wales Women boss Gemma Grainger has visited numerous schools since her appointment 15 months ago.

Chris Coleman, the man in charge for Wales’ Euro 2016 run, is credited with understanding that what might make someone feel Welsh in Newport is different to Porthmadog or Prestatyn, for example. He summed up the role of Wales manager as being so much more than a football-only role.

“He said being manager of Wales is more than being with the players and getting results, you’re an ambassador for the country, going around, meeting people, meeting the fans, understanding what people want and also explaining your own thoughts on football or being Welsh, just engaging,” Hughes says. “Rob Page does it, Gemma Grainger does it superbly.”

As for getting out and about, holding press conferences at the likes of St Fagans, Urdd Eisteddfod and Llangrannog takes Welsh football to wider sections of fans while also promoting those locations to a wider audience via the media.

 

Wales Women

 

It would be remiss to talk about the Welsh football fan experience without honing in on a Wales Women international, in particular. They are bidding to reach their first major tournament, and need four points from their final two World Cup qualifiers in September to secure a play-off spot for next year’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand.

A celebratory match-day atmosphere particularly popular among families is a guarantee, while the likes of Sophie Ingle, Jess Fishlock and Tash Harding choose to spend as much time as they are able to with fans post-match: taking photos, chatting, getting to know them.

“I think they know they have a bigger responsibility to grow the game here,” Evans says. “As ambassadors, they are second to none, and that reflects in the demographic of the games. The women’s team are probably a bit more proactive because they do try and sell the game a lot more and they know they’ve got to push harder to get things and to raise the profile.”

 

Ticket affordability

 

One of the major plus points around Welsh international football at the moment is the relative affordability of tickets. It is a balancing act but the FAW seem to be taking the long-term sustainable approach.

“We run a business here so it is a discussion we have,” Evans explains. “It is a fine balancing act between maybe cashing in or just keeping it affordable so it’s more sustainable. I think so far we’ve been pretty good at that.

“It’s not a football v rugby thing, rugby is very different to what we are, we can play at unsociable times, we play late kick-offs, early kick-offs, nothing is guaranteed for a weekend for us and a lot of our support comes from the north.

“That is incredible to see the buses on the way back up to north, the game finishes at 10pm and they’ve got another four hours to get to Anglesey. To commit to that trip, you’re paying your bus fare and that’s before you get to the turnstile.

“We’ve just got to be mindful of the fact that the average supporter doesn’t have an endless budget. With energy bills, petrol bills… that’s why we have a responsibility to make sure we price it properly.”

 

Selling Wales through the fans

 

Not many anticipated the explosion of interest in Wales on and off the pitch during Euro 2016, and what that could do in promoting the country as a destination.

Thirty thousand Welsh fans were in France on any given day, locals falling in love with them. The country is now presented with another fantastic opportunity to create an awareness of Wales away from the football, too, to a global audience from Qatar.

“The main reason you go there is to win matches, that is the priority,” Hughes says. “But on the back of that, you have this magnificent opportunity of selling the best of Wales and showcasing that on and off the pitch.”

There is potential for Wales to become the Iceland of Euro 2016, everyone’s second team with a much wider awareness of the country thrown in, too.

FAW chief executive Noel Mooney points to the likes of Croatia and New Zealand as having small populations but being among the world’s top teams in football and rugby respectively, which are in the countries’ DNA.

He says: “For me it’s beyond just a game of football. Look at my own Irish background and Gaelic football over there. It goes deeper than the sport, it’s about celebrating culture, language, your community. I regard us as a movement, not just a federation, but we need to articulate what we want, make our game even better, put in conditions that enable us to be at the very top table of world football on a regular basis.”

All of that will be crucial if football in Wales is to grow even further, allowing many more to experience the first-class fan culture we have right now.

Original article published 12.06.2022 on the Wales Online website.

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