Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Pain & The Glory: My Swansea Wembley Story

Well, they only went and did it! Swansea City are in the Premier League!

On Sunday I blogged here about the journey ahead of me and my first ever visit to Wembley - and it didn't let me down!

Bus No.18
Having stayed overnight with my friend Chris, our 8-strong group of 'the boys' met at 6.30am yesterday morning and made our way to the Liberty Stadium. There were 76 buses waiting in line to take a vast number of the 40,000 fans travelling to London and ours was number 18. It was pretty full but as we'd all arrived on time, we set off earlier than the expected 7.30am departure, at 7.15am. There were a few young children on the bus blowing their hooters and generally being rather excitable but on the whole, it was a rather 'sedate' crowd! That was influenced by the fact that we'd been told that the buses were 'dry' and so we set ourselves up for a quiet journey to the stadium. But as our many buses all took it in turns to pass each other on the M4 towards London, it soon became apparent that some of the buses were in fact 'wet'! Never mind!

Wembley Way
The journey was smooth and with little traffic congestion, we pulled off the M4 and into Wembley Stadium coach park at 11.15am. Only a 4 hour journey and we'd spent half an hour in services so good going.

Having never been to Wembley before and parking as we were, right in its shadow, I was taken aback by what looked like a splendid modern stadium in the same mould as our Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. But what I wanted was a walk down the famous 'Wembley Way' and we did just that as our gang went in search for food. A well timed pre-lunchtime rush sit-down at a local Wimpey's at noon set us up for the day ahead and we then soaked up the incredible atmosphere on Wembley Way. There were thousands upon thousands of happy, enthusiastic supporters wearing the black and white of Swansea or the red and white of Reading, mingling with each other. There did seem to be a hell of a lot more Swansea fans around but then we were near the Radio Wales tent where they were broadcasting live and interacting with the Jack Army. When Jason announced live on Radio Wales in front of us as 12.45pm that David Jones had just been sacked as the manager of Cardiff City, a great roar went up as if to signify that the day was getting better and better for their greatest rivals along the M4.

The Stadium
With match-day programmes bought for a reasonably priced £6 each and having bought myself a new scarf, we made our way back towards the stadium and once at the top of Wembley Way, looked back at the incredible sight of a wall of supporters all decked out in their club colours for as far as the eye could see.

Now gone 1pm, we made our way into the stadium itself. 6 of the boys had more expensive tickets and were sitting away from myself and Chris' brother Andrew. They were sat central onto the pitch whilst Andrew and I were up in the Gods in the right-hand corner with a brilliant 3D style view of the whole pitch (similar to the view I had when Wales beat Italy 2-1 in the Millennium Staidum in 2002). The stadium just looked fantastic. It's right up there with the Millennium Stadium for the view and for just having the 'wow factor'.

Chris and Noir met up with me for a pre-game pint in one of the many bars to calm the nerves and then it was time for the action.

The Match - 1st Half
It encapsulated everything that sport is about in 90 minutes. All different kinds of emotion were felt as the balance of the match swung one way then the other and then back again - talk about a rollercoaster ride!

The game began slowly for the Swans and I felt that Reading had the upper hand. It was nervy and it was tense. Swansea hadn't settled down and hadn't got into their natural rhythm whilst Reading were looking dangerous. We'd spoken before the game of how the Swansea boys needed to turn up on the pitch to show what they were capable of and they weren't doing so at the outset. It wasn't an inspiring start.

Then suddenly, drama. Some 20 minutes in and a clumsy Reading tackle in the box resulted in a penalty for Swansea. The Reading goal, in front of their own supporters was on the opposite side of the ground to where Andrew and I were sitting but as it happens, we had a great sight up the pitch to the goal and saw Scott Sinclair cooly slot the ball home. 1-0!

Joy unleashed itself around the black and white half of the stadium as suddenly, against the run of play it felt, we drew first blood. Suddenly, the early jitters ebbed away as we now had that vital, early goal cushion.

We'd barely settled and calmed down from this huge turn around when just 75 seconds later, a swift move up the far right-hand wing resulted in a Stephen Dobbie cross into the box and at the far post, again, ideally placed for us to see where we were sitting, Sinclair guided the ball home to double the lead! Absolute pandemonium! This was crazy. 2 goals in 2 minutes and we were going wild. At 1-0, we had our noses in front but suddenly with our tails up and 2-0 ahead, for the first time I realised that actually, the Premier League dream could be fulfilled. It was a moment of pure unadulterated joy!

Suddenly, the boys were playing with confidence and the Jack Army were singing their hearts out! Wembley was reverberating to the sounds of Hymns and Arias and it was wonderfully deafening!

But it got better! With half-time approaching, Dobbie connected beautifully with a cross on the half-volley and smashed the ball into the corner of the goal to make it 3-0! This was just unbelievable Roy of the Rovers stuff! Suddenly, the Swansea supporters around me were singing 'We are going up!' I can tell you now reader that I was not one of those! As incredible a 20 minutes as it may have been, I've known and seen bigger comebacks in my time and the Liverpool Vs AC Milan Champions League Final sprung particularly to mind at that moment! Indeed, we were fortunate to lead 3-0 at half-time because Reading should've pulled one back in the dying seconds of the half but Long scuffed his cue in front of goal and I welcomed the half-time whistle with open arms!

I needed to re-gain my composure so half-time saw me just sit in my seat and soak up the incredible atmosphere. I also daringly prepared a tweet, ready to publish on the stroke of full-time, in the quiet confidence that though anything can happen in sport, 3-0 at half-time was looking incredibly promising. We had one foot in the Premier League. It was all of a sudden so tantalisingly close.

The Match - 2nd Half
When the second half got underway, I said to Andrew next to me that we just needed a stable and calm 15-20 minutes so we could really ratchet up the pressure on Reading and effectively kill the game off.

No chance! Within minutes of the re-start, Hunt for Reading converted (it turned out to be a marginal Joe Allen own goal) a corner and suddenly, the mood changed. Now, at 3-1, I could sense that Reading had the momentum changing moment that they needed to give themselves the confidence to push on and push on they did. It was getting tense again as a 2 goal cushion is not the mentally safe gap that a 3 goal cushion is. But any idea of a comeback should've been quashed in its infancy as Dobbie danced his way like a hot knife through butter through the Reading defence akin to Archie Gemmel for Scotland against Holland in the 1978 World Cup and set himself up a glorious chance to open up that 3 goal advantage again. This was now at our end of the stadium and we watched on in utter dismay as Dobbie not only missed, but saw the ball scuttling away for a throw-in!

Within minutes, it got worse...much worse. Poor marking in the box from yet another Reading corner (one of 16 in all) gave Mills an unmarked header and he didn't let his team down. 3-2. You could hear a pin drop as it began to sink in with the Swansea faithful.

Suddenly, the dream was turning sour and the Reading fans were now themselves in full voice. It was the only period in the match when I could hear them sing because the Jack Army all around me were so brilliantly loud and vociferous in their support that they drowned out all other noise at all other times. Now, the Reading fans were coming over loud and clear and they got even louder as, just minutes later, Karacan hit the post and then captain Monk made a heroic diving tackle to deny Hunt's rebound attempt. This, all on the hour.

Within just 15 minutes of the re-start, Reading had turned the game upside down again and had come within a coat of paint from levelling the scores.

This now was fear. Real fear. The thought of losing having led so comprehensively at half-time was stomach churningly awful but was now staring at us right in the face. This was painful. Really really painful.

But to their credit, the Swans took the sting out of the game and began controlling the ball again. For 20 minutes, a tense stand-off saw Swansea comfortably repel anything that Reading had to offer. I was counting down the minutes and the seconds, no doubt frustrating Andrew by constantly asking him how long's left and how much time is on the clock. The seconds ticked by like minutues and the minutes like hours but slowly, they did indeed tick away.

Then suddenly, with 10 minutes left, another crazy defensive Reading lunge in the box left the (I felt) excellent referee Phil Dowd to point towards the penalty spot. He was facing us as he pointed firmly towards the spot and we all went wild!

Unbelievable! Another penalty! Suddenly, here was a reprieve - a chance to relieve ourselves of this excruciating position of only having a slender one goal advantage. But the demons still played their tricks. What if, having converted the first penalty, Sinclair misses this one? Could this be another turning point back to Reading if he does miss it? At times like this, the mind goes into overdrive! But never fear because he confidently and cooly slotted it into the same left-hand corner of the goal that he did in the first-half and suddenly, it's 4-2! Wild scenes again around Wembley Stadium as the black and white contingent believed again that it would be our day. Me? A big, big sigh of relief. Suddenly, this felt like a second chance and that we'd been let off the hook.

As the final minutes tickets ticked by, so did Reading's realistic chances of scoring the 2 goals needed to force extra-time. But still I wasn't wholly comfortable. Anything can happen in football as Reading had already shown and I was still screaming at the boys on the pitch to keep the ball and to keep calm. Suddenly, 90 minues was up on the clock and the 4th official announced 4 minutes of injury time. There were groans around me but I thought 4 minutes was reasonable. It was only a minute or so into this period after another Reading chance went wide that I suddenly began to relax. I reached for my mobile, altered the score on my pre-written half-time tweet, and posted it with about a minute to go!

The Jack Army were whistling for the final whistle but I didn't care! A 2 goal advantage now in the final seconds was enough! Premier League status was on its way to Wales!

Final Whistle
As you can imagine, when the whistle did blow, 40,000 Swansea fans went wild! After a rollercoaster of an afternoon, the unbelieavable had happened. Just 8 years after surviving a last day match against Hull City to save themselves from being relegated out of the football league in 2003, here they were, about to join the elite for the first time after 28 long, difficult years.

I am a political soul. I am a sports soul but first and foremost, I am a historian. So I just lapped it all up. Whilst everyone around me went wild, I just soaked up the sights and the sounds of a historic event for Welsh football. After the dismay of failing to qualify for the 1978 and 1986 World Cups at the death to Scotland, after Paul Bodin's penalty miss againt Romania in 1993, after the limp performance in the second leg of the European Championship qualifier against Russia in 2003 and after Cardiff's play-off defeat to Blackpool only last May, finally, a Welsh team turned up and delivered.

It was just a magical feeling to know that I'd been through the emotional mill but that at the end of the day, it was all for the result that we'd travelled to London to witness.

Hymns and Arias!
But the sentimental, foresight of hindsight maudling didn't last for long! Having taken in the enormity of the occasion for Swansea City and for Welsh sport that was unfolding in front of my eyes, I then started waving my FAW flag like a loon as Status Quo's Rockin' All Over The World came on! As the trophy celebration unfolded and the team came back down onto the pitch to share in their glory with the fans, Queen's Don't Stop Me Know and Tom Jones' Delilah followed the Quo and being a fan of all three, I quickly decided that the best way to celebrate was to sing myself hoarse! Apart from a sturdy dozen or so souls, the Reading fans had not surprisingly by now all drifted away so we found ourselves in the slightly surreal situation of having half of an 86,500 filled stadium completely empty and the other half all decked out in black and white going absolutely bananas!

Going Home
All good things must come to an end unfortunately and we left the stadium with a hoard of jubiliant Jacks and got back onto our bus and set off in good time at 5.45pm. We were back in Swansea at 10pm and back at Chris' house at 10.45pm - just in time to watch it all over again with the highlights on the Football League Show! With a celebratory glass of champagne, it was the perfect end to a wonderful day.

My Top Moment?
For me, the celebrating after the final whistle was magical. Knowing that the summit had been successfully scaled and the dream realised was what we'd all hoped for.

But my top moment - that one moment of absolute pure and unadulterated joy actually had to be Sinclair's 2nd goal. His first gave us realistic hope and the lead up to his penalty kick gave us the knowledge that we might just edge ahead. The 3rd goal added to a growing sense of what now could be whilst the 4th was met with a sense of relief that Reading's comeback had been stopped in its tracks. For me, it was that 2nd goal that changed everything. Barely a minute after taking the lead, the quick counter-attack sucker punch second strike came so suddely after the first that it just added to what was the barely calmed down emotion of minutes earlier. It was now sudden and glaring realisation that at 2-0 up, this really really, could be it. It put us in the driving seat that we never thereafter relinquished.

It was in that moment and as a part of the entire day, the greatest sporting moment of my life.

I've been to 2 British Grand Prixs in Silverstone including a Lewis Hamilton win in the rain in 2008 on the way to the World title, I've seen the World Darts live at the Lakeside, I've watched Wales at rugby in Murrayfield against Scotland in the 6 Nations in 2003, I've watched Wales play England in the last ever 5 Nations match in the old Arms Park in 1997, I've watched Rugby World Cup group matches in 1999, I've watched a giant-killing FA Cup victory in Wrexham over then Premiership side Ipswich in the 1990s but nothing touches this. The finality of the day and of the result - knowing that there would be a winner and a loser by the time we caught our buses home, meant that the tension and pressure was astronomical. A whole season down to one final winner-takes-all, £90m encounter. A match that meant so much to Welsh football and to Welsh sport.

It was an incredible match and I'm immensly proud that I'll be able to look back in years to come and say, as Max Boyce did, 'I was there'.

A spooky post-script
Do you believe in fate? Well in 2003 on that fateful final day of the season when Swansea City had to beat Hull City at the old Vetch Field to stay in the Football League after an 80+ year stay, they did by winning 4-2 - the same scoreline as yesterday. They did so with a hat-trick hero - for 2011 and Sinclair read James Thomas in 2003. Oh, and how many of Thomas' 3 goals came from the penalty spot that day? Yep you guessed it, 2 of them.

1 comment:

  1. I was following it on Twitter in Llanishen, along with the 3 women I was with.

    Am pleased for Swansea as Wales has so many occasions of building up the hope (on BBC Today) only for it to go crashing down in defeat, whatever sport it is.

    Well, the easy part has been achieved. The most difficult part is to survive one year in the Premier League as 2 of the 3 teams that went up 12 months ago, have gone back down again, if I am right.

    Blackpool were on top of the Premier League for a few weeks early in the season, but they still went down and I am sure that Swansea would rather stay up for more than 1 season than go down and shrug it off by saying, well, we got the £90m....

    Good luck to Swansea next season and I am sorry that Cardiff City used the occasion to sack Dave Jones. A good day for them to bury bad news.