The masterpiece on the story of Welsh football, Red Dragons by Phil Stead, originally published in 2012, is our choice for the classic of the month.
Red Dragons – The Story of Welsh Football
Red Dragons tells the story of Welsh football since its earliest days in the nineteenth century, and looks at the characters, controversies and developments of the country’s clubs, players, and most importantly, the national team.
When the first edition of this book was published in 2012, Welsh football was at its lowest ebb. Manager Gary Speed had just died in the most tragic of circumstances, the national team was in danger of being swallowed by the Team GB whale, and survival was a more realistic ambition than any notion of success. With growing apathy from clubs, players and supporters, it seemed that the national team was in decline from an already low status.
But that all changed on October 10th 2015 when Wales qualified for the Euro 2016 championships.
But why should we care about the story of Welsh football?
Well, for one, it is a story worth telling. For over 135 years, the Welsh game has struggled to keep its head above water in the face of challenges to its existence at every step.
Not unlike Wales itself, it’s a wonder Welsh football has survived as long as it has. But it has survived, and decades of struggle and misfortune have been peppered with glorious times.
Red Dragons – The Story of Welsh Football tells just that – the astonishing tale of a terrific struggle against the odds and is an important reminder why Welsh football matters.
This compendious volume of 400 pages spans almost a century and a half, from the first-ever international against Scotland in 1876 to the European 2016 qualifications. The game in Wales, however, was in its infancy when compared to its next door neighbour a century and more ago. In the 1890s, the game was so strong in England that they were able to field two different teams against both Wales and Ireland on the same day.
Non-conformist religion tried to stunt its growth and then, when the game found its feet, the best Welsh talent was cherry-picked by rich clubs across the border who guarded their purchases jealously.
International politics drove a chasm through the sport in the early 1990s as Welsh teams fought legal battles against their own association for the right to play in England. Even recently, Cardiff and Swansea considered playing under the banner of the English Football Association. UEFA and FIFA have hampered Welsh chances of tournament success and the eternal battle for status with rugby union has been destructive. The foundation of a British Olympic side, coupled with restlessness amongst FIFA’s members, threatens the very existence of our team.
The book also turns to celebrity footballers, choosing, as the first ever, Billy Meredith of both Manchester City and United. He achieved fame despite the fact that his mother banned him and his brothers from playing football because it ruined their footwear.
Like all sports, soccer was virtually suspended during WW1, only to resurge soon after. In the Cardiff area alone there were 64 applications for the use of the available 12 pitches. Then, in 1927, the FA Cup was won by Cardiff City, a feat regarded as a national victory.
We are led through the years of WW2 and the first World Cups 1949–1959, including the heartbreak of 1958. We are reminded of the barren years of 1960–1969, before enjoying a mini resurgence, only to miss out again in the 1986 World Cup. And so it continued: World Cups, European Cups and disappointment after disappointment as a result of either being just not good enough or through sheer rotten luck.
Events on the field are then overshadowed by the sudden and still unexplained death of manager Gary Speed in 2011. Soccer, again, became just a game. But, once more we are living the dream.
As author Phil Stead put it,
When this book was first published, I joked with the publisher that it would need a second edition when Wales qualified. I didn’t really believe that I would ever get to write that extra chapter. And I definitely didn’t think that I would need to write it just four years later. But here we are, basking in the glow of a thrilling, unanticipated success. And this new chapter was so much easier and so much more enjoyable to research. We have seen something that we never thought we would see.
Now, after an incredible success at the Euro 2016 championships we are left wondering … where will the next chapter take us? The future is a red dragon and its ready to roar…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Phil Stead is a former BBC Wales Sports journalist and regularly appears on television and radio as a football pundit. He has been a sports columnist for the Welsh-language current affairs magazine Golwg for the past three years, and his Welsh football blog Ffwtbol, which receives an average of 3,000 visits per week, was listed in the Guardian’s Top 100 Blogs To Follow. He lives in Felinheli.
Red Dragons – The Story of Welsh Football by Phil Stead (£14.99, Y Lolfa)