The Welsh national football team’s success in recent years, particularly the euphoria created by reaching the World Cup finals in Qatar in 2022, has created a desire for greater insight into the history of football development in Wales.
In the excellently researched, inspirational and compelling Red Dragons: The Story of Welsh Football, Phil Stead unravels the many lows and occasional highs of football in Wales. Readers in Wrexham and its surrounding areas may be aware that the Football Association of Wales (FAW) was created in a meeting at the Wynnstay Arms in Wrexham on February 2nd, 1876.
Llewelyn Kenrick was prominent in nurturing the development of football in Wales, supported by the Williams Wynn estate in Rhiwabon. The author highlights the experience of Billy Meredith from Chirk, recognised as the outstanding player from 1900 to 1915. He worked as a pony driver down the pits as a young boy of 12.
His mother chastised Manchester City’s gentlemen scouts when they came calling to entice Billy away to play for them. His father said he’d be “better off doing hard but honest work rather than playing football”. Billy went to City since there were no professional clubs in Wales and promoted the popularity of football in other areas.
Wrexham AFC became a founder member of Division Three (North) in 1921, and professional football flourished with Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham, Newport, Aberdare and Merthyr in the Football League. A part-time coach from 1956 was Jimmy Murphy, the Manchester United coach. In the 1960s, the first “manager” was Dave Bowen, also part-time. However, playing for Wales had a limited status and many clubs refused to release players.
When Bowen resigned in 1974, the Welsh FA made the ground breaking decision to appoint Mike Smith as manager. Smith had not played as a professional but possessed the key skills of analysis and motivation. Smith developed a national coaching structure. The next incumbents included Mike England following the failure to appoint Brian Clough.
Terry Yorath was a positive influence who stated he did not want to see the national side full of only partially Welsh people. Then, there were short periods for John Toshack and Mike Smith (again) before Bobby Gould took Wales to rock bottom with his erratic behaviour.
Mark Hughes rejuvenated the Wales squad and supporters, but following failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2006, he moved to Blackburn Rovers. His replacement was John Toshack, who became increasingly isolated by players including Robbie Savage, Gary Speed and John Hartson, and he resigned in 2010. Gary Speed’s appointment in 2011 brought a much-needed fresh approach. He commanded respect at all levels, and the author discusses his tragic death with considerable sensitivity, highlighting the feeling of great shock at the loss of an inspirational leader.
The next appointment was Chris Coleman working with Osian Roberts. The FAW adopted a new motto of ”Gorau Chwarae, Cyd Chwarae” and “Together. Stronger”. The displays, including stand-out performances from Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsay, Williams, Ben Davies and Joe Allen, raised supporter expectations and enthusiasm. The team heralded a golden era of Welsh football as it stepped out of the shadow of rugby union as the Welsh supporters, “Y Wal Goch”, inspired the team with their fervent singing, particularly of “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”.
The author describes the victories over Russia and Belgium to reach the European Championship semi-final. Following the European success, Chris Coleman opted to move to Sunderland as manager on a salary of ￡1 million. Coleman was replaced by Ryan Giggs, who, due to personal issues still pending, resigned and was succeeded by Rob Page. For Wales supporters in Wales and around the globe, Page reached the pinnacle of success by beating Ukraine at the Cardiff City Stadium and qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Phil Stead has shared his Welsh football knowledge as an ardent supporter and an outstanding journalist. He brings the text to life with various photographs and vivid accounts of competitive, sometimes brutal, games. This book is outstanding and makes for compelling reading. Diolch (thanks), Phil.
Title: Red Dragons
Author: Phil Stead
Publisher: Y Lolfa Cyf
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