‘Swansea ‘til I die’: Nostalgia, identity and family in modern football

My career as a Swans supporter has structured my life. I cannot put it any more strongly. Relationships have come and gone (and the Swans have played a part at times), my career has changed and my life circumstances have altered, but the Swans have been a constant throughout it all. Even though the fortunes of the team have fluctuated wildly over the years I have supported them, the club have always played a huge role in the background of my existence, and have been the thing I have planned my everyday life around. Without the Swans, how would I idle away time on rumours or arguments on forums? How would I plot the months between August and May? What would I do? No idea. Supporting the Swans is a kind of totalising world … My friends, my social life, my moods – all intricately dependent upon the Swans. I celebrate this, rather than bemoan it! STID

Leighton (32)

These words were written as a response to a survey to record fans’ memories of supporting Swansea City FC, a club that after decades of languishing in the lower division joined the game’s elite in the Premier League in 2011. The project was part of the commemoration of the club’s centenary in 2012 and, as this quote illustrates, the themes it raised both extended beyond football itself and also illustrated the powerful role the game has in some people’s lives and perceptions of the world.

Through a series of prompts and open questions people were asked for their memories of supporting the Swans and to reflect on what the club meant to them. What I want to do today is to examine some of the themes that arose, in particular those of nostalgia, identity and family. These are not specific to football in Swansea or Wales but understanding recent and contemporary Welsh culture should not just mean concentrating on those few aspects of cultural life that are unique to Wales. Indeed, one of the most powerful lessons of studying Welsh sport is how Welsh popular culture exists within a wider British and indeed western context. The basic needs, rhythms and concerns of the Welsh are not specific to Wales.

I

Football has a powerful sense of its own history. Supporters boast a strong sense of the traditions and identities of their clubs; many fans hoard old programmes, ticket stubs, scarves and other pieces of memorabilia that signify their club’s history and their personal history of attachment to it. They may not go through these very often but they keep them in shoe boxes, in attics and in the garage, unwilling to throw away relics of a lifetime of commitment. Similarly, videos and books of past triumphs are popular products and often compensate for a lack of present success. Moreover, there is often a strong sense of nostalgia for the past, a past where, in the imagination at least, football culture was somehow better.

What exactly there is nostalgia for is difficult to pinpoint and varies across the generations. For fans whose memories stretch into the early 1960s and beyond, football’s past is perceived as an era when players were working men and the terraces smelt of woodbines and heaved with locals in flat caps who cheered on the boys but knew how to behave. For the next generation, the nostalgia is for a more flamboyant, pre-Premiership era when players were macho stars, and the terraces were packed with noisy young tearaways who liked a ruck with their football, but were essentially good lads at heart who only picked on their own kind.

Nostalgia has clearly become evident at Swansea City in the past few seasons, not so because of the club’s elevation to the Premiership in 2011 but because of the 2005 move to the Liberty Stadium from the Vetch Field, the club’s home since its creation in 1912.

Amongst older fans there is a general welcoming of the new stadium. It is quite simply cleaner, more comfortable and more modern than the Vetch. With better sightlines too, the new stadium offers a superior all-round experience to the middle-aged and older generations. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t had to be adaption for those fans. New routines, new travel routes, new parking places and new drinking places have all had to be developed. The rhythms of people’s Saturdays have changed but the process of change seems to have been relatively painless. Such habits and behaviours may on the surface just seem to be trivial and inconsequential but we should not underestimate the importance of what some historians call the ‘everyday’. If history is about people as much as processes then the ordinary is as important as the extraordinary.

The celebration of the Liberty Stadium is something shared by a younger generation in their teens. For them the Vetch Field is the subject of hazy childhood memories or even just something talked about by older family members. They have grown up in an era of all-seater stadiums, not just for the game’s elite but for any club that aspires to join them.

For another generation, those who grew up going to the Vetch but whose legs are still young enough to happily stand for two hours in the cold there is a more divided view of the change. There is a memory that while the terraces could be noisy, full, fun and electric, they could also be cold, sparse and aggressive. Some of this generation show the pragmatism of football fans, where there is a willingness to sacrifice tradition and history in the name of progress. As one 31-year-old fan put it, the move to the Liberty was ‘a step back in experience, but a massive step forward for the club as a whole’. Such fans accept that new a stadium was inevitable in the modern game, a necessary change to bring higher revenues, attract better players and assist the club’s move up the leagues. The fact that in less than a decade the club has moved from nearly falling out of the professional league structure altogether to residing in the top division with the game’s elite provides a vindication of that view, a confirmation that more has been gained on the pitch than has been lost off it. And ultimately football is a game about success. Results matter.

Even though there is awareness of the danger of a rose-tinted view of the past, this generation still tend to think that much has been lost. Sitting down in stadia means not being able to choose who you are with; groups of friends used to standing together are now dispersed across the Liberty. Some feel this has brought a loss of atmosphere as the singers are dispersed and sitting itself makes people more reserved, less likely to shout and let forth. People are also aware that the change is illustrative of a wider shift in football culture, where the game has somehow lost something of its soul. A 39 year old reflected, ‘The matchday experience is not what it was – queuing for ten minutes for a plastic pint doesn’t appeal to me. The Liberty experience is much more corporate. Overpriced beer/food etc. You shouldn’t serve French fries at a football match.’

The sense of loss can be quite profound, illustrating the depth of feeling some have for the club and for football. A 47-year-old reflected:

I loved the Vetch it was OURS. I loved the smell of the turf and the liniment, tobacco & booze, 3 inches of piss on the floor of the bogs, the swearing, shouting, singing & fighting. The Liberty’s only ok in a bland 21st century, Sky TV obsessed way. I hate the fans in front of me constantly on their smartphones, texting, chatting & playing bloody games when they should be getting behind the team. I can’t stand vacant eyed kids slopping down overpriced shitty junk food and pawing at Dad (or worse Mum) to go and get them fizzy drinks. The view’s good though.

Even those less emotional about this can have the feeling that something is not quite right. A 33-year-old said of the new matchday experience: ‘doesn’t feel like the club I loved as much. Feels like I’m cheating on my slightly backward underachieving Mrs with her better looking, high flying sister.’ Even a 21 year old could say: ‘I feel it doesn’t have the same special feel as going to the Vetch and smelling the burger vans and hearing Daydream Believer playing with the North Bank singing. Being at the Vetch was just simply more entertaining than the Liberty (the quality of football is much better these days though)’.

Yet these feelings cannot be interpreted in a straight forward fashion. Some of the longing for the Vetch is mixed up with the experience of men looking back fondly on their own youth, a time of fewer responsibilities, of more drinking and hanging out with mates. They will also fade with time. One 23-year-old remembered of the Vetch ‘you could feel the history within its walls’. Now, as the Liberty stadium ages, it is becoming associated with more and more new memories, especially as the club as moved up the leagues. The Liberty is getting its own history, moments, that on the pitch at least, even exceed what happened at the Vetch.

Nostalgia is a common condition in post-industrial societies such as Britain and a reaction to dislocating and unwelcome changes. For many Swansea fans, nostalgia is also furthered by a sense that the club is no longer theirs so much. For non-season ticket holders getting into matches is now very difficult. The resentment of this amongst lifelong fans is compounded by a sense that the tickets are being taken up by what is termed ‘plastics’, fans who are only there because of the club’s recent success and who will disappear again should the club get relegated. There are fans who have been attending regularly all their lives, for decades, yet were unable to see a single game last season in what was perhaps the club’s most successful year. It is little wonder then that there is a nostalgia for a past, when you could just turn up, when you were one of a select few, when your support mattered and couldn’t just be replaced by someone else in the queue for tickets. The club has defined much of such people’s lives. They now feel cast aside and their pride in the club’s achievements is tinged by a sense that they have had little thanks for helping make sure that the club exists at all.

It maybe that online surveys of the type employed by this project over represent the extent of nostalgia. Those willing to reflect on their experiences through writing are perhaps those who tend to dwell on these things, whereas other fans are just more content than their club is now doing well. But, whatever the case, there is an important point here about how the present shapes our view of the past that always need to be remembered in oral history. Studying the club’s history at a time of unprecedented success is unavoidably going to colour how people remember that club’s past.

II

The project has also revealed some trends in the history of the club that run counter to assumptions about the nature of football fandom. For all the talk of the tribal and unconditional loyalty of fans, of being Swansea ‘til I die as the song goes, attendances have ebbed and flowed according to fortunes on the pitch. Some fans like to talk in these terms: ‘SCFC is like a family member to me. I was at the Vetch with crowds of 3000, I’m there now in the premiership, and if we went back to League 2 with crowds of 3000 I’d still be there.’ They talk of how, to quote one 44-year-old, ‘The Swans always have been and always will be part of who I am’.

But others, when reflecting on their lives, articulate how their interest and attendance has fluctuated according to family and financial circumstances and the performances of the team. Having young children in particular has taken men and women away from watching. Going away to college or working weekend shifts are other factors that hit attendance. Fewer admitted to not going when the team was not well, no doubt because loyalty is generally regarded as an important quality in football fandom, but average attendance patterns clearly show how significant these shifts have been.

One of the defining features of Swansea fandom is the relationship with rival club Cardiff City. Yet the intense and sometimes violent rivalry between the Swans and Cardiff seems rather different when placed alongside the memories of people from the 1940s, 50 and 60s of watching both clubs. This was partly about seeking entertainment, with some fans being willing to travel across south Wales to see whichever of the two clubs had the most attractive fixtures or was playing the best football. Indeed, in 1952 the manager of the club even asked the league if home games could be scheduled when 1st division Cardiff City were away because he feared fans would prefer watching the better standard of football forty miles away.

Those fans most likely to watch both clubs were not from Swansea but the south Wales valleys. Transport links did mean there were natural catchment areas for both football clubs but the spread of working-class car ownership in the 1950s and 60s and the associated improvements in roads brought more flexibility in people’s choices over which teams to support.

Such behaviour declined significantly from the late 1960s when in the face of the rise of the televised game loyalty to a single club became a significant feature of fan culture amongst smaller clubs across the UK. Moreover, alongside this, regional rivalries replaced regional identities. Many Cardiff and Swansea fans thus began wanting the other to lose and even singing about hating one another. This does not mean a common Welsh identity lost all relevance. It still helps explain the hatred that can be found, with football being intermingled with a sense of resentment over the Welsh Cardiff-centric media and government. Other fans, meanwhile, continue to want to see Cardiff doing well, but just not as well as Swansea. Indeed, throughout the post-war period fans have seen the club as representing Wales against English opponents.

There does not appear to be any clear correlation between ‘hating’ Cardiff and coming from Swansea. Nor do those fans who replied to the survey who are not from Swansea itself appear to talk about their loyalty to the club in less powerful terms that those from the city. Yet the civic importance of the game is still very clear and many fans articulate that they support the club because they are from Swansea. A 45-year-old put it simply: ‘Swansea is my city therefore the Swans are my club’. Indeed, even people with little interest in the game have been expressing pride that their city’s club is now playing in the world’s most watched league.

Those who have left the city to live elsewhere also use the club as a way of both physically and psychologically keeping in touch with their roots, whether that’s through using visits to games as reasons to visit family or symbolically through using their support to express their roots in an alien environment. As a 59-year-old man living abroad said: ‘Once a Jack always a Jack!’

Football’s place as part of the civic identity of towns and cities is, of course, unsurprising. After all, most teams are actually named after the place where they are situated. When Swansea was granted city status in 1971 the football club immediately changed its name from Swansea Town to Swansea City. Clubs are also part of the urban landscape. Until the modern redevelopments of the last two decades, most stadia were situated, quite deliberately, in the heart of residential areas in order to make it easy for fans to attend games without the cost and time of travel that might put them off. This meant that crowds pouring to games along narrow streets were unavoidable and the game became part of everyone in the area’s lives, whether they liked it or not. For children, a football ground could be part of their urban playground and the survey revealed many memories of children sneaking in to have kick-arounds on non-match days.

The new modern Liberty stadium is still part of the urban landscape and its crowds (and their cars) have made football part of the lives of a new part of the city. But the stadium is not interwoven into a residential area in the same way the Liberty was. It stands on the edge of town, on a redeveloped industrial site, closer to large modern retail units than people’s homes. But, in that, the council-built stadium is also a marker of the changes and developments of what was once an industrial city with a clear identity based on copper but is now a service-based city, dependent on the public sector and multinational companies based elsewhere. Football remains a symbol of civic identity.

III

Change is often unsettling for people. That is most obviously true of personal upheaval but it also applies to the world around them. Historians sometimes forget that people witness long-term rather than just short-term changes. Sociologists in Swansea the 1960s were discussing how old people were bewildered by how much life had changed in their lifetimes. Even today there can be considerable unease at the general direction of society, with discomfort about everything from climate change, technological revolution to immigration and crime.

Football too has changed but it also offers a powerful source of continuity for people, a link to their past, to their roots and their youth. A 49 year old reflected, ‘Once it’s in your blood it don’t leave. If you are a true Jack you are married for life. It’s like having children. You love your children irrespective of what they do, you love the Swans through good and bad.’ A 50 year-old concluded, ‘I’ve still got the same feeling on match days as when I was a boy’. It is also a source of continuity which they are sure will still be there in the future. As one fan put it, ‘You can change jobs, move house, change wives, even change sex nowadays – but you can’t change the football club you support’.

This sense of continuity and security is exacerbated because of the relationship between football and family. Some men remember how being taken by their fathers as a child in the 1950s was some sort of coming of age ritual, an acknowledgment they were now big enough to be with the men rather than left at home with the female family members. Although most fans graduated from going with their parents to going with friends in their teens, there is a reoccurring pattern of people returning to viewing with their parents as they get older and take great pride in passing on support to their children.

Another 46 year old remarked: ‘All the family are involved. Wife, 2 kids, brother, nephew, mother and father all have season tickets. Main topic of conversation!!’ In other words, football helps bind some families together. This is particularly important because it is family that offers an important source of support and happiness in a modern world that many found unsettling and unhappy. Family remains at the core of what makes society and how people perceive the world and live their lives. The words of one 43-year-old fan show this better than I can.

My dad was a big supporter like myself. He died in 2011, before he could have a smile about us being in the premiership. I remember crying at Wembley after we had beaten Reading 4-2 because the only person I wanted to share my elation with was my dad, and he wasn’t here anymore. He left me a mint copy of Swansea vs Preston at Villa Park, semi final of the FA cup 1964. It seems quite apt that Swansea’s first Prem away win was at Villa Park, and I was there. I looked up to the sky and just smiled. I think my dad knew why.

IV

Whether your team is winning or losing, football is a game of emotions and of stories, and not all of these are related to what happens on the pitch, especially during your team’s lean times. The survey for this project produced a collection of memories of goals, fights, drinking, jokes, funny sights and characters. Most of the stories were remembered because they evoked emotions, whether that was happiness, pride, anger, frustration or laughter. Some no doubt had grown and been polished in the re-tellings. They were often fragmented, undated and chronological-less. But this does not mean they matter any the less. Stories help structure our understanding of both our individual and collective past. It is football’s ability to create stories and memories that lies at the heart of its cultural importance. It is these stories that define the game’s contribution to individual and collective identities.

But not all people have the same memories. The experience of listening to a match on poor radio reception is obviously rather different to actually being at the game. But even where people are at the same match, their experience will vary according to who they are with, where in the ground they are, how much they have had to drink and why they are there. In this, we run into one of the fundamental points about the past: collective experiences are also individualized. Yet the collective experience of being at the football is more powerful than the shared experience of millions watching the same television programme in millions of different homes. Football is a game watched in crowds and that creates a powerful sense of literally being part of something bigger in a way that is not often replicated. The scale of football can be very powerful and that is part of its drama and attraction. But even for those not there, those who find out the results from friends or from the paper, or whose interest does not extend far beyond extending wondering what mood a husband will be when he returns home, football is still part of the shared cultural milieu of interests, loyalties and memories that binds families, communities and even nations together.

By Martin Johnes (Swansea University). Written in 2013.

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Filed under 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, fans, vetch

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