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.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Wembley Bound with Swansea City AFC!

Expect some web-based silence from me over the coming days - because I'm off to Wembley!

Tomorrow afternoon, Swansea City take on Reading for a place in the Premier League and I'll be cheering the Jacks on with friends from the stands!

I've never been to Wembley before (old or new) so as a die-hard football fan, this is a big deal! I've been to a play-off final involving Swansea City in the Millennium Stadium in 2006 (don't mention that name Akinfenwa to me) and watched the Swans down at the Liberty Stadium earlier this season when they defeated Sven Goran Eriksson's Leicester 2-0. But this will be my first walk down Wembley Way!

I'll be there along with a sell-out allocation of 40,000 Swansea City fans including John Hartson who has said in Friday's Western Mail that he has turned down media opportunities so that he can cheer on his boyhood team from the stands with fellow supporters. Good boy John!

As well as the 40,000 Jacks, there will no doubt be the same number of Royals as Wembley prepares for a sell-out crowd just 2 days after it hosted the Manchester United Vs Barcelona Champions League Final. As it happens, Swansea are using the same Arsenal training facilities in warming-up for the big match as Barcelona did - hopefully that'll stand as a good omen after Barcelona's annihilation of Manchester United last night!

Swansea have not been in the top flight since the days of John Toshack in 1983 and were the last Welsh team to reach that pinnacle (Cardiff were last in the top flight back in 1962). A Swansea win will therefore put a Welsh team in the Premier League for the first time in its 19 year history.

So this is a huge match not just for Swansea but for Welsh football. I'm hoping that all real Welsh football fans will support the Jacks on Monday because it will be a huge boost to Welsh football if we can get a team into the Premiership for the first time in a generation. I doubt that all Cardiff City fans will do so which is a great shame but I'm sure many will see the bigger picture and will offer their grudging support!


Saturday, 28 May 2011

Manchester United Vs Barcelona - A Classic European Final

It's shaping up to be an epic.

Arguably two of the best club teams in world football at present will fight it out tonight for Europe's top prize - to be Champions of Europe.

The current Spanish champions take on the current English champions in what will be a fitting climax to the tournament this year.

The Wembley Factor
The venue is also adding to the occasion. It is a venue that goes down in glorious history for both clubs. Manchester United won their first European Cup against Benfica at Wembley in 1968 whilst Barcelona won their first European Cup (the final one in its original format before it changed to the Champions League in 1992/93) down Wembley Way in 1992. So both sets of fans that will be descending on London today will have fond memories of this stadium.

Incredibly, both Manchester United and Barcelona are tied on 3 European Cups/Champions League titles each.

Manchester United - 1968, 1999 and 2008
Barcelona - 1992, 2006 and 2009

The winning club will move level on 4 titles with Bayern Munich and Ajax with only Liverpool (5), AC Milan (7) and Real Madrid (9) ahead of them.

Indeed, Barcelona's last victory in 2009 was against Manchester United so there's going to be a sense of payback tonight which adds to the tension.

I'm off to our Ceredigion Liberal Democrat 'Thank You' party this evening and I will be watching as much of the final as I can squeeze in because it has all the potential to be an absolute classic!

So to get myself in the mood for this European encounter, it's the Champions League anthem...

We're used to only hearing a clip of it before or after every match on TV but here's the full 3 minute version as written by Tony Britten in 1992 and performed by the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra and sung by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The chorus is sung in UEFA's 3 official languages - English, French and German.

It should send the shivers down the spine of any proud football fan.

Now...let the battle commence!

The Magic of Monaco

It's arguably the biggest weekend in the F1 year.

It may be the slowest race of the year with the slowest corner of any race track in F1, but the Monaco Grand Priz oozes the class and most importantly for me, the history that puts a win around its famous corners as one of the most prized possessions for any Grand Prix driver.

The Famous 37mph Loews Hairpin
The first Grand Prix around the tight street circuit in Monte Carlo was held back in 1929 and was won by Briton William Grover-Williams in a Bugatti. The race was not held between 1938-1947 and though it was also not held in 1949, it did play a part of the first ever F1 World Championship in 1950. Having not been held in 1951 and 1953-1954, it has been held without fail for the past 56 years since 1955.

The roll-call of winners is a show-case of Formula One's greatest drivers of all-time.

Juan Manuel Fangio - 1950, 1957
Stirling Moss - 1956, 1960,1961
Jack Brabham - 1959
Graham Hill - 1963, 1964, 1965, 1968, 1969
Jackie Stewart - 1966, 1971, 1973
Niki Lauda - 1975, 1976
Gilles Villeneuve - 1981

But the sheer dominance of 3 giants of F1 became evident on the streets of Monaco throughout the 1980s and 1990s. 15 of the 18 Monaco Grand Prix's between 1984-2001 were won by either Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher.

Alain Prost - 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988
Ayrton Senna - 1987, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993
Michael Schumacher - 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001

A Decade of Change
The past decade however has seen something of a change. The growing depth and strength of talent in F1 has led to a greater number of winners including David Coulthard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jarno Trulli, Kimi  Räikkönen, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Mark Webber. In total, there have incredibly been 9 different winners in the past 10 years.

The Most Famous Track in Formula One
There are some notable world-class exceptions to the winning Monaco rule. Whilst Senna, Schumacher, Graham Hill and Prost set the bench mark with 4 or more wins each, the likes of Jim Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill never won at Monaco.

Add to that list the name of a certain reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel.

But then, he's got an opportunity to put that right tomorrow from pole position and if he finishes on top of the podium, he'll be joining a long and proud list of Formula One greats to have mastered what is probably the toughest Grand Prix of all.

Friday, 27 May 2011

After 8 long years...Cardigan's Tesco Junction is...OPEN!

Yes folks, for the first time since it was closed 'temporarily' to south bound traffic in 2003, Cardigan's 'Tesco' Junction at the northern end of the town's by-pass is open at long last.

At the Junction with Mark Williams MP
and Town Councillor Nicky Charlton-Lewis
After years of procrastinating by successive Welsh Assembly Governments, it has quietly been opened today by the contractors with no fanfare, 2 months later than planned. It has re-opened with traffic lights which whilst it wasn't my ideal solution of a roundabout, it's certainly a lot better than the lego set of blocks that have been stationed there for the best part of a decade.

To the 1,500 + people who signed my 'Open Our Junction' petition in 2008 and which I personally delivered to the Senedd in Cardiff Bay, thank you.

The entire community deserves great praise for showing its fighting spirit when faced against the odds of an intrasigent Welsh Assembly Government on this issue. The Town Council, the County Council, the local Chamber of Trade, local AMs, our local MP Mark Williams and most importantly, local residents have battled and battled to win the day and today, we've done it!

Cardigan's northern-most entrance is open for business once more and in being so, so is Cardigan's local economy.

I'll say it one more time. Cardigan's Tesco Junction is open.
At last.

Queen Elizabeth II becomes the 2nd Longest Reigning British Monarch

I'm a historian so forgive me my geekiness here, but as I mentioned in my blog here back in February, Queen Elizabeth II has continued to pass new milestones as her longevity and time on the British throne knows no bounds.

Today sees her overtake the mark of her great-great-great-great grand-father King George III as the second longest reigning monarch in British history.

The only monarch to have reigned for longer of course is Queen Victoria and she still has a 4+ year advantage over her great-great grand-daughter.

Queen Elizabeth II would surpass that record if she were still to reign on September 10th 2015 by which time she would be 89. If she has her mother's constitution and she seems to have so, there's no reason why this incredible additional milestone may not be achieved.

Whatever your personal views on the institution of monarchy itself, I doubt that many would be able or indeed desire to besmirch what has been an incredible reign by an incredible monarch.

Nick Clegg: Missing in Action?

So, after the abysmal local election results last Thursday, Nick Clegg today used the first anniversary of the forming of the coalition government in Westminster to announce that there would be a more "muscular liberalism" on show to demonstrate "the real Lib Dem input" at the heart of the of the Coalition Government in London.

Most supporters and members will no doubt welcome this more forthright announcement and expression of intent, but it does beg the question...where has Nick been for the past 365 days?

A Bad Year for Bad Men - Bin Laden, Mladic...who's next?

After Osama Bin Laden's capture and death at the hand of US forces, Bosnian Serb Military Commander Ratko Mladic has been arrested by his own Serbian authorities and awaits a probable extradition to the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.

With Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi under extreme siege from NATO forces in Tripoli and with long-standing leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria either out of office or struggling under severe local unrest to go that way, it has been an extraordinary 2011 for those who have been seen to use their powers for wrong.

Milosevic, Karadzic & Mladic
The arrest of the former Bosnian Serb Military Commander Ratko Mladic is a watershed moment in the history of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

Ratko Mladic then

General Mladic, was arrested yesterday after 16 years on the run and faces genocide charges over the 1992-95 Bosnian war. His extradition to the UN war crimes court at The Hague could take a week and is being questioned by his legal representatives due to his ill health.

Mladic was indicted in 1995 for genocide over the killings of about 7,500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys that July at Srebrenica - the worst single atrocity in Europe since World War II - and other crimes. It is to be hoped that he will be extradited to the Hague and legal proceedings against him can begin.
Ratko Mladic now

It is believed that he lived freely in the Serbian capital, Belgrade until he disappeared after the arrest of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2001. Following the arrest of former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic in 2008, Mladic became the most prominent Bosnian war crimes suspect at large.

His gaunt figure was a world away from the towering figure that was a regular sight on TV screens throughout the 1990s.

Some Questions...
The news has been hailed internationally as a big step forward in the process of reconciliation between the former Yugoslav states but many in Serbia are not so happy with the news - seeing him as a Serbian hero.

But how has it taken so long for the Serbian authorities to find him and arrest him? Did they know where he was beforehand or, like with Pakistan's insistence over Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts previously, did they honestly not know of his location?

Because for as long as Mladic and formerly Karadzic were at large, there were two great blots on the Serbian copy-book for entry into the European Union.

Source: BBC Website

Those road-blocks have now been removed and time will tell whether Serbia will join their neighbours Slovenia in he EU.

In the meantime, with this good news, it is right to remember the 100,000+ lives killed in the Bosnian Wars and the thousands massacred in Srebrenica in particular.

For the sakes of their collective memory and for those families still living today in the shadows of these awful recollections, let's hope that yesterday's arrest marks another milestone in the road to a happier, more peacful and more prosperous Balkans.

My Wonderfully Naïve E-mail to Ted Heath in 2001

For any political historian (of which I enthusiastically count myself as one), BBC Four's documentary this week on the titanic duel at the centre of British politics between 1965-1975 was a 'must watch' event.

I found it absolutely fascinating.

Hearing the accounts of the main players close to both Heath and Wilson at this time, mixed in with the excellent array of political archive footage and the music of the period, brought alive this pivotal period in our history which at its end, began to see the break-down of the consesual style of politics that had marked British political life post-1945.

It can be viewed for the next few days on BBC iPlayer, right here.

Heath, Wilson and I
My University dissertations centred around this period of political history so my views come from much detailed research into a period in which I did not live at first-hand.

My BA dissertation centred around the 1963 Conservative Party leadership crisis and I proudly gathered a First for my efforts (and a 2:1 degree in all). Ted Heath played a minor role in this work whilst Harold Wilson meanwhile, played a central role in my MA dissertation effort which concentrated on the Labour Party's attitude towards Europe between 1964-1983. Admittedly, my effort here was much for the worse of having began gainful employment and I was fortunate to have scraped a 40% pass which also went for my Masters as a whole.

Through these studies, I formed a rather low opinion of Harold Wilson who I've never held in high esteem. For me, his brand of 'personality over politics' marked him out as an early day version of Tony Blair. Much of the credit for the good that came from his time at No.10 (particularly between 1964-1970) I feel belongs to his his Home Secretary and latterly Chancellor of the Exchequer, Roy Jenkins.

Ted Heath meanwhile is a bewilderingly complex character to try and decipher. He certainly lacked Wilson's charisma and common touch and yet he did seem to have a deeper grasp of what he was all about. His singular greatest achievement and one for which I am thankful, was his success in getting Britain into the European Community in the early 1970s.

My E-mail to Ted Heath
It was my admiration for his ability in this arena, if none else, that enticed this young and politically keen though rather green and naïve young 18 year old to send a personal e-mail to him back in 2001.

I was a first year student in Aberystwyth University and I recall sitting in the Pantycelyn Halls of Residence computer room, prior to the 2001 General Election, sending a handful of electronic messages out to politicians both local and national, asking questions to them on various issues. I was only beginning to become politically active (indeed, I only joined the Liberal Democrats the autumn previous and my total effort in the 2001 campaign was to deliver one leaflet for the party around Pantycelyn!) and I was keen to communicate my various political interests to these different politicians.

Specifically, I recall sending an e-mail out to Alec Dauncey who is an Aberystwyth Town Councillor who at that time was standing as the Welsh Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for Preseli Pembrokeshire where my parents moved back to from south Pembrokeshire in 1999. He had the good grace to reply to my e-mail and we have struck up a good friendship ever since.

I also decided to e-mail Ted Heath. For it was now 2001 and he was retiring from Parliament having been an MP for a remarkable 51 years since the General Election of 1950. I haven't got the text of that e-mail that I sent a decade ago but if I recall correctly, it was in the spirit of grateful thanks for the work that he did with Europe. I also recall rather cheekily asking him, (particularly as the Conservatives were struggling against a popular Tony Blair and New Labour project at the time) why he remained a Conservative and wasn't now alligned with the more moderate and internationalist Liberal Democrats. I must've been in a slightly provocative mood at the time but suffice to say, I never received a reply - which was a great shame!

A Reflection
My sentiments on both Wilson and Heath were summed up neatly at the end of the BBC Four documentary by Lord Donoughue who was Harold Wilson's senior policy advisor between 1974-1976 and remained in that role under Jim Callaghan until his defeat to Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

He therefore had a greater insight into the mind of Harold Wilson than many and yet his startling comment, for one with Labour links, of Wilson was this...

"He wasn't a revolutionary and he wasn't very radical. Ted Heath was much more radical than Harold Willson".

I rest my case.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Goodbye No.4 Cowley St - Will the last person to leave please turn out the lights.

I suppose it was on the cards.

As revealed on Liberal Democrat Voice here on Saturday, the Liberal Democrats are in the middle of confirming a move from its only home since meger in 1988, to a new HQ in the heart of Westminster, this summer.

With the loss of the opposition cushioned 'short money' and with the badly handled news of a change in the campaigns structure of the party in recent weeks, it is not particularly surprising to hear that there will be a change to a new office - one which it must be said, looks set to be in a more modern setting than the one which was laid out over 5 floors in the old HQ.

A New History
But we are looking at a significant change in the history of the Liberal Democrats.

No.4 Cowley St - Liberal Democrat HQ since 1988
The party have been based at No.4 Cowley St since the merger of the old Liberal Party and the SDP in 1988. It was the base of the old SDP who leased the building in the early 1980s whilst the Liberal Party was based in the Natonal Liberal Club.

Now, after some 25+ years as the HQ for either the SDP or the Liberal Democrats, the lights are to be switched off for a final time.

I can only recall visiting Cowley St on one occasion. It was probably sometime around 2004-2006 and it was for a campaigns training course in the Board Room on the first floor (if my memory serves me correctly). It struck me as being a great big town house and yet I was still ever-so-slightly in awe of being there, knowing of the part in liberal and British political history that it represented.

But history can not hold us back. The Conservatives moved from their historic Smith Square HQ in 2004 having been there since 1958. After 3 years in Victoria St, they moved to No.30 Millbank in 2007.

We need a modern HQ and a move to Great George St, within a stones throw of Westminster and opposite the Treasury, will ensure that the party remains at the centre of Westminster political life.

'Bloody Cowley St'  'Bloody George St'
It seems now then that for years to come, the old membership gripes at the on-goings and doings at 'Cowley St' is to be replaced no doubt with the same old complaints at 'George St'.

My best wishes to everyone as they make this historic move.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Ryan Giggs - A Moral Tragedy

Well, only hours after I blogged here yesterday about the superinjunction, John Hemming MP stood up in Parliament and used his Parliamentary Privilege to state the name of the Premier League football player who had used a superinjunction to try and cover a supposed 7 months affair with Imogen Thomas and who also attempted to take his wrath out on the thousands of Twitterers who ridiculed him for trying to do so.

That name it comes as a surprise to no-one, was Ryan Giggs.

No surprise as his name was being bandied about on the internet for days and indeed had made the front cover of Scotland's Sunday Herald.

But in the longer context of the issue, it is a surprise. As I mentioned in my blog post yesterday, I wanted to say a few words on release of his name, to show my dismay at what is an unexpected turn of events.

This is my sorry explanation...

"The Ultimate Football Professional - Ryan Giggs"
These were my own words - the words that I used in a blog post written here back in October to contrast against what I saw as the shameful attitude of Wayne Rooney towards his employees Manchester United.

I wanted to demonstrate that Rooney could well take a leaf out of Giggs' book in how to be a model professional.

I must guote the piece in full...

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Ryan Giggs has played his entire career for one club - the same Manchester United as Wayne Rooney. An unprecedented near 850 appearances over 20 years. He was won more league titles than any other in the history of the game, two European Cups and countless other domestic trophies.

"Yet, off the pitch, he has been an exemplar of good behaviour. Now married with a young family, you'll only see him on the back pages for his exploits on the pitch, not on the front pages of the tabloids for his exploits in a club or in someone's bed.

"For any aspiring young footballer, for dedication and commitment on the pitch and for a level-headedness off it, they need look no further than Ryan Giggs".

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Well, what can I say?! I'm absolutely stunned and flabergasted that I was proven to be wholly incorrect.

Innocent until proven guilty of course but in this case, it would seem that where there's smoke, there's fire. I have no reason to disbelieve Imogen Thomas when she states that she and Giggs had had a 7 month affair and stories here of his previous indiscretions adds to the liklihood that she's telling the truth. Also, the way in which he has tried to smother the affair with the superinjunction and with his crass and incredulous attack on Twitter users leaves a lot to be desired. It is a PR disaster on his part but more importantly, it is a moral tragedy and one which I had not expected. I find it deeply saddening that he could apparently do such a thing to his wife and the mother of his children.

Giggs is a world class player and I hope that he can help lead Manchester United to another European Cup triumph against Barcelona this weekend. I still regard him in the higher most echelon of footballing playing talent that this country has ever witnessed. Nothing will change that. But he has badly tarnished what was otherwise, a brilliant reputation as a footballer and as a role model through these actions.

It makes me wince when I re-read what I confidently wrote of him back in October.

Through his actions, he has in my opinion, blackened the image that was projected to young and aspiring football players as a model to follow. This is possibly the greatest tragedy of all.

How could I have been so wrong?

Monday, 23 May 2011

A Footballer, Imogen Thomas and a Superinjunctional Farce

Peter Black makes a valid point in his blog this morning on the on-going farce that is the current superinjunction debate.

I haven't waded into the debate until now but it is a very sorry state of affairs.

I've blogged of my great admiration for this footballer before in this blog but he and his lawyers have made a right pigs-ear of this situation.

Yesterday's Sunday Herald on the right (with thanks to Andrew Reeves for the photo), clearly shows who we're talking about and of course, it is the worst kept secret at present as thousands of Twitter users pour ridicule over him for his attempt to gag this modern form of communication.

In this modern age as Peter mentions, is there any real future for this old style of judicial censorship? It really is a bizzare position in which we find ourselves when foreign press and even those in Scotland are able to say what the rest of us know and indeed are also saying on the web but the press in England and Wales are still gagged from doing so.

But for me, the greatest shame is for the reputation of one of Britain's greatest ever football players. Once this is resolved and finally made 'public' in the old-fashioned conventional sense, I'll return one final time to explain why I'm so disappointed at his indiscretions considering what I've written about him on this blog in the past.

Please feel free to type his name into my blog's search engine if you want to read that article. I don't really need to tell you his name here do I...

A Cardigan Fit for Jeans

Saturday's Western Mail ran this article about the revival that we here in Cardigan are about to witness in the jeans industry.

Local pioneers
David and Clare Hieatt
David Hieatt, the founder of the howies brand, is looking to tap into the skills of the area by employing at this initial stage, 5 skilled machinists to produce the premium Hiut Jeans denim which he plans to sell at around £150-£200 each and which will be aimed at top markets in London and Japan. He aims to open his new factory in Parc Teifi in July.

The skill base is there because it was barely a decade ago that the Dewhurst factory in Cardigan closed down and with it, went 400 jobs. It was a hammer blow to the local economy and it's taken time for it to recover.

Cardigan's old Dewhurst Factory
As I was quoted as saying in the Western Mail article, this is great news for Cardigan. The talent is there and is waiting to be untapped and it will be great to know that jeans are being produced here in Cardigan once more. It will also be a much needed extra shot in the arm for our local economy and in these challenging times, is a development that is to be greatly welcomed.

As David himself said: "It will be a tiny start-up but Levis started small too!"

Quite right David! Good luck to you in this excellent new venture.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Chelsea's Catch 22 - Will Roman Abramovich Ever Learn?

So, an hour into the close-season and Chelsea sack their manager.

There's little doubt that the decision was made by owner Roman Abramovich.

His quest for instant glory and particularly, glory in Europe, comes at a price - and it's a volley of Chelsea managers who have suffered.

Since he took charge at Stamford Bridge in 2003, he has presided over 6 managers (not including Ray Wilkins). Of these, 5 have been or have effectively been sacked.

Claudio Ranieri - Sacked
José Mourinho - Left by 'Mutual Consent' (basically, he was Sacked)
Avram Grant - Sacked
Luiz Felipe Scolari - Sacked
Ray Wilkins (Caretaker Manager)
Guus Hiddink (Caretaker Manager) - Left by Mutual Consent
Carlo Ancelotti - Sacked

During this 8 year period and for the previous 17 before that, Manchester United have only had the one manager. In almost 25 remarkable years, Alex Ferguson has taken his Old Trafford outfit to unprecedented success. The 12th league title that his team lifted today during this period moved them above Liverpool with their 19th English league title. They have won 2 European Cups in that period and hope to add to that next Saturday when they play Barcelona in the Champions League Final in Wembley.

This success has come from continuity and from supporting a manager over time.

Chelsea's Catch 22
In José Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea have been led in recent years by some of the best managers in the world.

There are only so many of these real, world-class potential managers left.

Carlo Ancelotti - You're Fired

But as much as Chelsea fans will probably be frustrated at this latest unwarranted sacking, as a fan said on Radio 5 Live's Alan Green 'phone-in this evening (before the announcement was made), the problem that they have is that they do not want Abramovich to leave because if he did get bored of this little hobby of his and walked away with all of his money, what next for Chelsea?

In a Premier League where big money is increasingly prevalent, Chelsea fans are likely to be willing to put up with Abramovich's eccentricities for as long as he keeps bank-rolling them. That is the sadness of the situation.

Rome wasn't built in a day Roman and the sooner you learn that (if you ever will) the better for Chelsea FC.

I Guess That's Why They Call It The (Birmingham City) Blues!

What a Relegation Sunday!

I've been glued to Radio 5 Live and Final Score on the Red Button as the biggest last day Premier League rollercoaster ride in years came to a disbelieving conclusion!

During the course of the afternoon, Blackpool, Wigan, Wolves and Birmingham fans all saw the sword of damocles hang over their heads.

But at the final whistle, it is brave and plucky Blackpool who have been releagted along with Carling Cup winners Birmingham City!

I'm an Aston Villa fan and how, after the season that we've had did we ever finish as high up as 9th I'll never know! Indeed, I blogged here earlier this season of my worries for Villa's place in the top flight of English football.

It was compounded by Birmingham's victory in the Carling Cup at Wembley with the European competition that comes with it next year. But now, how I bet the Blues in England's second city would swap that trophy for safety and a place in the Premier League next season!

So, as an Aston Villa fan, an ode to those poor Birmingham City fans who are now looking at Championship football next season.

From that Watford fan Elton John, 'I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues'.

Goodbye Birningham City! Enjoy your run in Europe next year as you travel to the likes of Doncaster, Barnsley and Brighton in the Championship!

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Wombles of Wimbledon AFC! Back in the League!

It is a footballing fairytale!

The community club that fought back after seeing their club sold to a town, miles away, are back in the football league!

Wimbledon FC were founded in 1889 but were only promoted to the Football League in 1977 and incredibly managed to reach the top-flight of Enlgish football within just 9 years. They then caused probably the greatest shock in the FA Cup Final history by beating the mighty Liverpool in 1988. In doing so they became only the second club to have won the FA Amateur Cup as well as the FA Cup proper having won the former in 1962-1963.

They kept their place in the old First Division / Premier League until 2000.

They played at Plough Lane until 1991 and then had to ground-share with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.

Controversially, they were granted permission to move 56 miles away to Milton Keynes in 2002 after the FA allowed them to move from their spiritual London home. Wimbledon moved in September 2003, and became Milton Keynes Dons in June 2004.

Disenchanted members of the old club refused to accept the move and formed AFC Wimbledon and became affiliated to both the London and Surrey Football Associations and entered the Premier Division of the Combined Counties League. With community support, they have moved up the league ladder in an incredible fashion.

Today, they completed a wonderful story by earning their 5th promotion in 9 years by beating Luton Town on penalties in the Conference Play-Off Final. In doing so, they confirmed their return to the Football League which had all but banished them from existence when the FA allowed that contentious move back in 2002.

With the MK Dons now only one division above them, it can now surely be only a matter of time before this fiercest of rivalries is met head-to-head on the football field.

Well done to the Wombles, to the Crazy Gang, to the Dons - you're back in the league and anyone who loves football, will be all the more delighted to see it.

Plaid Cymru Leadership: Who's Next?

Two of the main repercussions of the Welsh Assembly elections on May 5th was the demise of the leaderships of the Welsh Conservatives in the Assembly and of Plaid Cymru.

For the former, Nick Bourne was ejected from the Assembly due to a quirk in its electoral system. By winning an additional constituency in the Mid & West Wales region (Montgomeryshire from the Welsh Liberal Democrats) and holding onto the Pemrbokeshire seats it already held against expectation, Nick Bourne lost his regional seat.

Ieuan Wyn Jones
For Plaid Cymru on the other hand, long-time leader and out-going Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones announced his intention to stand down as leader during this Assembly term after his party suffered their worst ever Assembly election result in which they slipped back to 11 seats and more symbolically, behind the Conservatives in number of seats. He stated that he was intending to stand down as leader during this term anyway and there's no reason why we should not believe him - after all, he has been leader since 2001 and is currently 62. But to his dismay, he'll be standing down amidst an electoral slump as opposed to the electoral success he'd have hoped.

Who's Next?
For the Welsh Conservative Assembly Group, a straight fight between Andrew R.T.Davies AM and Nick Ramsey AM. The winner will become the new Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.

For Plaid Cymru, it isn't so straightforward.

To begin with, Ieuan Wyn Jones is not intending to stand down immediately but instead, after a post-election analysis on what went wrong for his party.

In the meantime, many names are being bandied around as possible replacements.

Dafydd Ellis-Thomas, the out-going Speaker of the Senedd and former leader of the party, has put his name forward as a candidate. Ceredigion's AM Elin Jones has stated that she is considering her options and newly elected Mid & West Wales Regional AM and former Ceredigion MP Simon Thomas is said to be a favourite. The same can be said for newly elected North Wales Regional AM Llyr Huws Griffiths. Out-going Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones is another name being touted due to having had Ministerial experience in the out-going administration as is the case with Elin Jones. Finally, many speak of Jocelyn Davies, the South East Wales Regional AM and out-going Deputy Minister for Housing as a plausible possibility.

But Who?!
So it's not as if Plaid Cymru are short of potential candidates. But who should they elect?

Well clearly, my views are those of someone who is not a member of Plaid Cymru (and is not likely to be one either!), but taking my Welsh Liberal Democrat hat off for a moment and looking in from the outside, I have some genuine thoughts on the matter.

Plaid Cymru are clearly going to want the most able candidate to take on the mantle in the years ahead. That's only right.

Looking at experience, Dafydd Ellis-Thomas as a former leader and Elin Jones and Alun Ffred Jones as former Ministers are the most likely candidates with the latter having also been a past leader of Gwynedd County Council. Jocelyn Davies also moves into this group with Deputy Ministerial experience. Simon Thomas and Llyr Huws Griffiths are spoken of as leading lights in the Plaid Cymru cause but will the fact that they are newly elected to the Assembly work against them? Quite possibly.

But presuming that all were equal, how should Plaid Cymru members decide amongst the contenders?

I see one particular issue that Plaid may consider a current obstacle if they are going to reach out to new voters who have never voted or particularly considered voting for them before - a propensity to choose its leaders from its linguistic heartlands.

A Little Plaid Cymru History...
Since World War II, Plaid Cymru's leaders have all come from its linguistic heartlands.

In 1945, Gwynfor Evans became leader of Plaid Cymru - a position he would hold for 36 years until 1981. Whilst he was born in south Wales, he represented the old constituency of Carmarthen as Plaid Cymru's first ever MP between 1966-1970 and (October) 1974-1979.

Dafydd Wigley and Dafydd Ellis-Thomas
His successor was Dafydd Wigley who led his party between 1981-1984 and 1991-2000 and who was the MP for Caernarfon between 1974-2001. In between his two spells at the helm came the above-mentioned Dafydd Ellis-Thomas who was the MP for the Meirionnydd / Meirionnydd Nant Conwy Westminster seat between 1974-1992.

Ieuan Wyn Jones took over from Dafydd Wigley in early 2001. He has been the MP (1987-2001) and AM (1999-Present) for Anglesey but stood down as President of the Party following the poor 2003 Assembly election results. He was re-elected as Assembly Group Leader but was replaced as Party President by Gwynedd Councillor and popular Welsh folk musician Dafydd Iwan. This split of party leadership however came to a tearful end and in 2010, Iwan was replaced by MEP Jill Evans as Party President. But by now, this position has become more ceremonial with the Assembly Group Leader now the de-facto 'face' of the party.

So, since 1945, all of Plaid Cymru's leaders have come from the liguistic heartlands of Wales - regions that on the whole are strong supporters of the party. For the past 30 years since 1981, they have all come from north west Wales.
If Plaid Cymru want to branch out and attract new members and if all other matters are equal, should they not consider looking at potential candidates who come from those areas which they are yet to fully cultivate?

They would probably have done so had Helen Mary Jones the out-going Deputy Leader of the Assembly Group, not lost her Llanelli seat to Labour by just 80 votes. She had been a favourite to take over as leader (and indeed she outpolled Ieuan Wyn Jones on first preference votes when she stood against him as group leader in 2003 but lost after transfers). As a female English-born Welsh learner based in south Wales, she would have broken the mould of past Plaid Cymru leaders but that is now by-the-by.

Jocelyn Davies
 But if Plaid Cymru want to extend their support out to the 70+% of Wales' population that doesn't speak Welsh, why not appoint a leader that comes from those areas or who even, dare it be said, doesn't speak Welsh?

The fact that the likes of Jocelyn Davies who doesn't speak Welsh are being touted as potential future leaders must show that there are some within the party who consider this a legitimate way forward.

It's one for Plaid Cymru members to ponder in the months ahead. It'll be interesting to see what they decide.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The BBC - Bringing Us Sunshine since 1922

I've always been a keen fan of the BBC as I mentioned previously in this blog here.

Like with any institution, it has had its fair share of ups and downs over the years but its most recent trailer, to me, manages to epitomise in 60 seconds, all that is great about the BBC.

It manages to combine the rich heritage of the BBC with the modern programming of today.

Beginning with the legendary '4291' clip from One Foot in the Grave, we then move forward into the Morecambe & Wise signature tune 'Bring Me Sunshine' with the imaginary twist of seeing our modern day BBC heroes mouthing those famous words sang by the immortal Eric and Ernie some 40 years earlier.

It's a great BBC trailer and most importantly, it made me smile and reminded me why I love the BBC so much.

It brought me sunshine so, job done!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Master of Political Cartoon Satire - The Independent's Dave Brown

I'm a big fan of political satire. Be it Spitting Image or Yes Minister, there's something oddly enjoyable for me in seeing our political leaders being sent up. Is it because I'm in politics? Maybe, I don't know, but it certainly amuses me.

Nothing does so much more than Dave Brown's wonderfully satirical daily cartoons in The Independent. He began working with The Sunday Times in 1989 and moved onto The Independent in 1996 and he's been there ever since. I read it regularly and his daily cartoons alongside the Editorial rarely fail to amuse me.

So I felt that I should pay my own little tribute to this, one of our country's finest political cartoon satirists.

We begin at the very present. In yesterday's Independent (18th May 2011), Brown gave this depiction of Queen Elizabeth II as she began her first ever visit to the Republic of Ireland...

Going back a bit further to November 2007, here's then PM Gordon Brown with Richard Branson and then in a fantastic Laurel and Hardy parody, it's GB with his Darling.

We now cross the Atlantic to the race for the Democratic candidature for the White House back in January 2008. Here, Obama is seen sprinting away from Hillary Clinton who is being held back by her husband Bill!

Meanwhile from the same period in France, a brilliant parody of Beauty and the Beast with President Sarkozy and Carla Bruni!

Back in the US of A, here's President Bush with his own take on justice, and on the Beach Boys...

Also, the race to succeed Bush became that bit clearer as Obama finally outgunned Clinton in their Democratic Party dogfight!

Speaking of dogs, in November 2008, Obama won the Presidential election and everyone wanted to congratulate him! In January 2009 he officially took charge...

As 2010 approached, so did the British General Election...

...and suddenly, there was a new kid on the block called Nick Clegg...

Before we knew it, we had a hung parliament, a new coalition, a new politics and a new target for the cartoonists and satirists...

Post-election, the world carried on and whilst Tony Blair released his memoirs, Labour chose a new leader...

Meanwhile, with the on-set of 2011,  economic woes in Europe and growing discontents in the Arab world brought new challenges...

Before we knew it, Obama was facing troubles as well himself. What of birth certificates and death certificates...

To conclude my homage to this prime political cartoonist, here's today's special and it is of course of Justice Minister Ken Clarke...