In Defence of Plastics
Warning! This blog is written by Gareth Taylor with an underlying assumption that Wales will qualify for Euro 2016. Those of a superstitious nature read at their own risk. The author will not accept responsibility for any Gareth Bale injuries, James Collins clangers or unexpected capitulations against Cyprus and Israel. If everything goes horribly wrong in the face of this rather unwise and presumptive approach I am going to blame @RichOwainRobs for being the first to introduce this kind of blind optimistic certainty in the last podcast. I suggest you do the same.
In defence of Plastics…….
My fellow Podcast Pêl-droed contributor, Leon Barton, recently wrote an excellent blog about the prospect of Welsh international football going mainstream. In the blog Leon quite rightly criticised the way Welsh international football has been neglected and marginalised by Welsh authority and establishment figures and institutions. Our current success may or may not begin to chip away at this frustrating reality but this blog is more focused on a related issue that Leon also raised. This issue is the spectre that lurks menacingly everywhere – in the stands at the Cardiff City Stadium, in pubs all over Wales, on social media (not least the Apostle message board) and sometimes even in the Podcast Pêl-droed recording and editing studios. It is the troubling flip side of our success on the pitch, the double-edged sword cutting its way through our hard-earned joy and optimism. I’m talking of course about the growing presence in our midst of those most reviled of figures – the Plastics. For many a dedicated Wales fan, Welsh football “going mainstream” has a more sinister and unwelcome name – “the bandwagon”.
As we approach the crucial September double header, qualification could be sealed with a home win against Israel in front of a sell-out crowd. But where were all these bandwagoners for the Azerbaijan game this time ten years ago, when we had no hope of qualifying, right? Well, to be honest they were probably in the Millennium Stadium since nearly 37,000 turned up for that game, two years after the Russians broke our hearts and at the end of a pretty miserable campaign. However it is undoubtedly true that we have suffered a pretty miserable fall in attendances during the subsequent decade and also that Welsh football was pretty much only being enjoyed (or endured) by our core support right up until the bandwagon recently rolled back into town. How should we feel about this? Angry that they are riding the coat tails of our recent success? Resentful that they haven’t demonstrated unceasing loyalty to the cause during the barren decade we now seem to be emerging from?
I say no. In this blog I’m going to take a somewhat controversial position. The team’s success and the return of the Plastics is not a double edged sword. Rather, the soon to be realised hopes and dreams of our long-suffering core support is the yang to the bandwagon’s yin. Two seemingly opposite but, in fact, complementary forces that cannot exist without each other. With no background in Chinese philosophy I sought out Wikipedia’s confirmation that this comparison was appropriate for my purposes. I quickly learned that:
“Yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive….. Yang, by contrast, is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive”
Perfect. But however “cold, wet and passive” the bandwagon may be, it is an inevitable and even necessary part of our success. Welsh qualification for Euro 2016 cannot remain “hard, fast, solid or focused” without it. Failing at the last hurdle 12 years ago bought us another two years of big crowds even as our retreat into uncompetitive insignificance became more and more starkly apparent. Qualification for Euro 2016 and a sustained period of success beyond that could lock in such a growth of support much more permanently along with the revenues and media spotlight that should and hopefully will entail. The atmosphere against Belgium in June was fantastic; if this is what the bandwagon brings then I’ll take it, even if it means enduring a few ill-considered tweets arguing for a return to the Millennium Stadium.
— Welshy (@Welsh_Gooner) July 26, 2015
Is it time for Wales to use the Millennium Stadium again or what?!? @FAWales
— Josh➰ (@Stiw1234) June 15, 2015
— James Martin (@Jamesmartinlfc) June 12, 2015
— Rhian Morris (@6782ff2da58b4f1) June 11, 2015
And even if the bandwagoners don’t stick, is it really something that should frustrate and anger us to quite the level it does? Is such an expectation of diehardedness in others reasonable just because we choose it for ourselves? I want to make the case that it is time to extend a welcoming hand of acceptance, perhaps even friendship, to the Plastics. But I also want us to think about what it means to be a hard-core fan and perhaps even ask ourselves whether sometimes we can be a little bit more self-righteous than is really justified.
Let’s return momentarily to Leon’s blog and specifically his discussion of the, sadly, ubiquitous falsehood that football is not very popular in Wales. Leon identified something perhaps more akin to the truth – that football is more of a large subculture. I know what he means but I think the weakness in this explanation is that it applies a somewhat undeserved sense of cool to following Welsh football. Are we really the Super Furry Animals to rugby’s Stereophonics; ‘You Love Us’ to the oval ball’s Total Eclipse of the Heart? The average hard-core Welsh football fan would like to think so. But in thinking so we begin to lay the foundations for our resentment of any daffodil hat wearing Johnny-come latelys undermining our sense of cool and authenticity. More on that later.
But first, to the daffodil heads, dragon hats and all other signs of plasticity. Who exactly are the people riding this bandwagon? To my mind the most eternal truth of football is that any phenomena within the game worth analysing can be rigidly listed and ranked for little purpose other than the self-satisfaction of the author. So here is a list of Plastic types who at least some Wales fans would consider constituent members of the bandwagon in order of least to most despised:
- 1. The Prodigal Sons. Former regulars, perhaps even tournament ticket holders, who had become disillusioned but are now returning. Let’s say they weren’t one of the 13,356 who saw the 2-0 win over Lichtenstein at the Millennium Stadium in 2008, and continued to have a few years off after that. In years gone by they did their shifts in the stands during some of the relentlessly bleak periods for our national team but nevertheless have since left themselves open to the question, “Where were you when we played Montenegro in front of 8000 people in 2011?” These Prodigal Sons picked up on the new sense of hope early on and were almost certainly at the Bosnia game. Many will have bought their first tournament ticket for a few campaigns this time round. I imagine only the most exacting of hard-core Welsh fans would have turned them away
- 2. The Kids. First campaign youngsters are currently attending in bigger numbers than would normally be the case because of our relative success and the Bale effect. As with the Prodigal Sons I would guess that only the most hard hearted of Welsh football puritans would reject the assimilation of this group. However I suspect there are a few who will want to be reassured that the 8 year old with the cardboard clacker in the row behind is planning to attend all home games between now and their first day at secondary school (Bale or no Bale) in order to justify the patience being afforded to their incessant clacking
- 3. The Occasional Fans. This group are actually rarely mentioned in discussions of plasticism despite arguably being the biggest single group of Plastics currently attending matches. I suspect this is because they defy the black and white criteria by which Plastics are often condemned. They’ve been to some Wales home games in the last few years (perhaps less than half) and watched the rest on TV. They probably usually care a bit more about their club. Many quite like rugby, watch the Six Nations and even go to the odd rugby match at the Millennium Stadium. They are more likely to attend during good times but will be up for going along during darker times if it’s a Friday or Saturday match and one of their occasional fan mates suggests it. Most of the Occasional Fans went to the Bosnia game and many will have subsequently bought half-tournament tickets
- 4. The Event Junkies. The Event Junkie is probably the type of person most commonly referred to during angry discussions about plastic fans. A definition of this group is hard as it contains certain troublesome sub-groups but I think the average Event Junkie can be agreed by all to like a big occasion be it football or rugby. The best of their kind know quite a bit about sport but have other interests too. They watch Match of the Day but aren’t that bothered about Welsh club sides. Their knowledge of Welsh footballing trivia is limited. Many tried to get tickets for the Belgium game, a few succeeded. They are the group who prompt the hard-core fan to ask the “where were you when” type questions in tones of righteous indignation. However, most are generally ok folk although beware the dangerous individuals within their midst…..
- 4a. The Event Junkie Max. A significant, sometimes loud, but also smaller than often imagined sub group within the wider Event Junkie community. To qualify for this classification at least two of the following things must be true:
- They go to Six Nations games or watch them in the pub but never attend club rugby or football matches.
- They would happily paint their faces or wear a daffodil hat.
- Match day is at least as much about getting out for a few drinks as it is about the sport.
- Their understanding of anything beyond the basics of football is very limited. They’ve probably heard of about three of the current Wales team.
- They took to social media to moan that the Belgium game should have been played at the Millennium Stadium when they failed to get a ticket.
These people really get the blood boiling for your average hard-core Wales fan and it may be the case that they can never really find a welcoming home amongst our support. But this is a blog of hope and optimism and seeing the best in even the most wretched amongst us so I will not yet rule it out.
- 5. The Celebrities. A small group that really make some people angry, mostly because they will apparently be “first on the plane to France.” If some posts on Apostle are to be believed then there are so many undeserving celebrities due to be first on the plane that I’m quite worried about the crush at the departure gate. This is a hard group to define as membership has no simple criteria other than celebrity status. However the couple of Apostle threads on this matter I could stomach have seen fit, with varying degrees of evidence, to denounce (among others): Griff Rhys Jones, Rob Brydon, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Ellis, Neil Kinnock, Stephen Kinnock, Ruth Jones, Ian Rush, Gareth Edwards, Carwyn Jones, lots of other unspecified AMs, Max Boyce, Lisa Rogers and Robbie Savage. Strangely I find that none of these people make me that angry in the context of Welsh football (ok, I suppose Savage does) and this group is far too small for me to concern myself with. This blog is about a much bigger picture
- 6. The Scornmongers. Have you got a mate who never wants to go to Welsh football games because “Wales are crap”? More likely he’s not a mate but an acquaintance. Some annoying guy in your office. Does he always laugh at you because of your loyalty and devotion and make sarcastic comments about the team? Then one day did he ask you how to get tickets for the Belgium game? Well this group is him
- 7. Those Beyond Redemption? A bit like the Scornmongers but these people go further. They might say, “I support Wales in rugby and England in football because Wales are crap.” A pretty heinous crime and ok, we are now getting to the point where my message of inclusion becomes a really tough sell. An admission at this point- I’ve never met anyone like this. I believe they exist because lots of people tell me they do but I don’t know any. If this blog doesn’t convince you because you have met lots of people like this then I’ll leave you alone with my sympathy and understanding
Leon’s aforementioned blog was wonderfully steeped in another eternal truth of football i.e. that any discussion worth having can be beautifully enhanced by pop-culture metaphors. And so in his blog the resentment felt by many of the die-hards to some of the groups mentioned above was likened to when a band you’ve loved through their raw, commercially unsuccessful, sweaty club phase sells out. Eventually they release their breakthrough album and acquire legions of new fans who see them for the first time in the CIA and don’t know any of the old songs. A wonderful comparison in many ways but with one flaw for our purposes. When you’re part of a crowd of 200 watching an exciting new band you love in some sweaty underground club it is a vital, compelling, energising experience. Can you say the same of the times we have watched our equally beloved team with 15,000 (sometimes fewer, sometimes much fewer) other fans mid-way through another already abortive qualification campaign?
After your favourite band’s seminal album that propelled them into the mainstream, and attracted a bandwagon following, what happened? They lost it didn’t they? They released a series of increasingly dull and lazy albums whilst playing soulless arena or stadium gigs with shit sound and expensive beer (all of which surely deserved the resentment of the die-hard fans). But now think about these similarly mainstream, bandwagonesque times for Welsh football. Do you feel like Gareth Bale’s lead guitar riffs are about to become stale and predictable? Are Ash’s vocals starting to struggle in a way they never would have three albums…. sorry, qualification campaigns ago? Does it seem like Joe Allen is only going to turn up to drum at one match in three whilst the band’s manager (let’s call him Brendan Rogers) makes some questionable excuse about a wrist injury? If I was being mean the jury might still be out on that last one but you get the idea.
Cutting to the quick of this incredibly self-indulgent metaphor I think my point is that the bandwagon comes along only when Welsh football is at its artistic and technical peak and disappears when that is lost. The comparable bands will continue to churn out hits from 20 years ago to sell-out crowds however much of a pale reflection of their former selves they become. I suppose we could always have a full house by inviting Ian Rush to come and re-enact his goal against Germany in 1991 every year but that seems somewhat fanciful and I don’t think Guido Buchwald and Jurgen Kohler are available. All of which means we’re stuck in a scenario where the culmination of our long-held dreams necessarily goes hand in hand with the emergence of many thousands of people who beg the question, ‘Where were you when we played shit footballing nation in front of embarrassingly small number of fans?’ I wonder if, put brutally, we just need to get over it.
But then again I’m not trying say that the genuinely felt concerns of committed supporters about how the Plastics might potentially alter our fan culture should be ignored. So in light of all this how should we deal with the Occasional Fans, the Event Junkies and the Scornmongers? I have a suggestion, but before we get to that, let me try and convince you by offering up one more hard truth. And this is the hardest truth of them all. What of the coolness of the Welsh football subculture? I’m afraid it doesn’t exist. I hate to be the one to say it but the Plastics didn’t go to games when we were shit because those of us who did are a bit weird. The Plastics are the normal ones.
Normal people do not start to plan their next three years’ holidays around trips to Georgia and Moldova almost immediately after the publication of the World Cup qualifying fixtures. Normal people do not sit in the upstairs room of a pub on a Tuesday night recording niche podcasts that only a few hundred other weirdos will listen to. Normal people do not know when and against whom Paul Mardon won his only Welsh cap (October 1995 coming on for Steve Jenkins in a 2-1 home defeat to Germany). Normal people do not know any of the answers to the Podcast Pêl-droed Cwis. Normal people do not read and contribute to Apostle threads about whether Chris Maxwell should be at least third choice keeper (he should), whether it’s worth giving Marley Watkins a run-out in a friendly (it isn’t) or whether Jonny Williams would be a good fit for some upper mid table Spanish team (not bothered either way). Normal people certainly don’t waste any time reading or writing blogs like this because, well, because there’s loads of really good stuff on TV.
Most of all normal people are not interested in watching us play Armenia on a wet Tuesday evening when qualification is already mathematically impossible whether it be in the CCS, the Millennium Stadium, the Liberty, the Racecourse or anywhere else. Normal people have other interests. They have busy working lives which means they are too tired to go out on a school night to watch a tepid performance against Bulgaria or Finland. They have partners who don’t think a tournament ticket is a more important expense than that weekend away they’ve been promised for three years but never received. They have children who want to have the family holiday in Euro Disney and not Serbia. As I discussed earlier the bandwagon encompasses a huge variety of different characters whose crimes vary in severity but who ultimately are mostly just normal people.
So who wants to be normal? Not me and I suspect not you either. I love watching Wales and when we qualify, at that moment, it will be the realisation of a lifelong dream. It will be better because I stared blankly at a load of empty seats and five Slovakia goals in 2006. I’ll shed a tear because my first live game was heartbreak against Romania in 1993 and I’ve put time, money and a fairly sizeable part of my soul into waiting for each subsequent nearly moment. When it happens (and I’m predicting at home to Israel will be THE night) it will be even more special because I’ve only enjoyed one other nearly moment in the intervening 22 years but many more Moldovas, Cypruses, Vinnie Joneses, Ben Thatchers, Bobby Goulds and suspicious injury withdrawals.
My faith that one day it would happen is about to be rewarded. But like others of my faith I was once mocked for my beliefs by those who are now seek to follow the same calling. But I can let go of the mockery I received, forgive those responsible and say unto them, ‘Do you now see? Come, join us, for therein lie the promised lands of Lens, Bordeaux and Marseille.’ If we choose we can let go of our anger and play a role in turning Occasional Fans into Core Fans, Event Junkies into Welsh Football Junkies and Scornmongers into Enlightened Converts. I shall leave you to judge whether any are truly beyond redemption.
For some more devout than I the rewards of our qualification will be even greater. I haven’t been to Azerbaijan or Ukraine or even Italy or Germany. I imagine the few thousand ultra-weirdos who have done all that and more will explode with joy upon qualification, their life purpose having been fulfilled (although I hope not as I wouldn’t want them to miss the tournament itself). No passengers of the bandwagon will experience what they experience or understand the significance of where we are, in the way core supporters do. But if they’re showing greater interest in why we do what we do, don’t reject them. And don’t grant them the power to diminish your experience of the next ten months because you’ve earned some unencumbered joy but also because I really don’t think they got on board the bandwagon with such sinister motives.
The Plastics will still have a great time next June and that’s fine by me. During Euro 2016 pubs throughout Wales will be full and towns and cities will be buzzing. Welsh football shirts will be everywhere. A generation of young people will be exposed to something that none of us ever were in our childhood and it will be a formative experience for many of them. But none of the Plastics will feel it in quite as profound a way as the weird few thousand who have dedicated so much more of themselves to the cause over the years. The knowledge of that should be enough for our anger at the bandwagon to dissipate. Even more than that, I say we talk to the Plastics. If you like you can explain politely why you don’t like daffodil hats. But let us also encourage, educate and nurture them if we can. Hell, I say we all hug a Plastic.
If I don’t manage to get a ticket for a Wales game in France I want Cardiff City Centre to be as busy and as excited as possible. I want it to be full of plastics. I want to see if I can persuade some to get a tournament ticket for the World Cup Qualifiers. I want to explain why a return to the Millennium Stadium is not the no-brainer some Event Junkies might think. I want to tell them about the exciting possibilities for the future of Welsh football and encourage them to be a part of it. I might even cheekily point them in the direction of this website and the podcast. And when Iceland score a last minute equaliser to knock us out in the group stages I want to drunkenly tell them to keep the faith and go to the next meaningless friendly even after Lewin Nyatanga and Craig Morgan have earned recalls due to the number of injury withdrawals. I want to assure them in another 25 years it will definitely all have been worth it; they might even have some Plastics of their own to worry about by then.