CLOUDS OF DARKNESS, CLOUDS OF DESPAIR: KEEPING A WEATHER EYE ON SWANSEA CITY
By Huw Bowen
Perhaps it is because the Swan, by nature, lives in a watery home; perhaps it is because Alan Curtis once walked on the stuff; or perhaps it is because Harry Griffiths and John Toshack performed the most unlikely miracle and turned the murkiest of waters into the sweetest tasting wine. Whatever the reason, Swansea City are, in my mind, always to be associated with close encounters of the very wettest kind. To put it at its most simple: think Swans, think rain; think Vetch, think clouds of darkness and despair.
I am sure that I am not alone in taking a view of the Swans which charts the club’s fortunes over the last thirty years or so within terms of reference marked out by weather patterns and atmospheric conditions in South West Wales, the rain capital of Britain. Others of course have sought their explanations and patterns elsewhere. I remember one fanzine article which argued with great conviction that the team’s league position always bore an exact correlation to the meat content of the pasties on sale at the Vetch (bring back the bakers Davies of Mumbles, all is forgiven); and there are those who suggest that the lamentable performance of successive generations of PA announcers lies at the very heart of all the club’s problems over the years. But I have long taken the view that any follower of Swansea Town or City is quite capable, like me, of having water on the brain. This is because our snapshot images and memories of the Vetch Field are more often than not shaped by recollections of long-forgotten games played out against a background provided by damp, dismal, windswept days and nights. Drizzle drifts past floodlight pylons across a quagmire pitch and into the faces of the poor deluded fools who sit in the East stand in the mistaken belief that they are somehow going to find shelter from the elements. Water cascades down the dolls’ house roof of the Centre Stand, falling past broken guttering and eventually forming glistening pools on the red shale running track. On the pitch, white shirts turn brown, and would-be tacklers slither from the turf and into advertising hoardings. The Vetch, living up to its name, slowly becomes a muddy, churned-up vegetable patch. And all the time, silently and out of sight, the puddle that always forms between the gateposts at the exit from the North Bank grows into an enormous lake which lies ready to claim hundreds more shuffling, grumbling victims who have not yet mastered the art of the thirty-foot leap from a standing start.
No doubt I look back through mist-tinted glasses, but the only break in this thirty-year rainy season came when the Swans were taking flight in Division One and game after game seemed to be played out before shirt-sleeved crowds in warm conditions and glorious sunshine. Alan Curtis destroyed Leeds in cricketing weather; Robbie James advanced on a retreating Spurs defence on a balmy late-Summer evening; and Gary Stanley launched a thirty-yard missile of a shot into the Manchester City net in the bright Spring sun. Maybe I have now wallowed in the nostalgia brought about by too many video re-runs of ‘Swansea City: The Golden Years’, but I am convinced that not a drop of rain fell on South West Wales between August 1981 and May 1982. Tosh even fixed the weather. Golden Years and golden days, but then someone switched the lights off again.
Contrast all this with times before and since, and think of Hull City, Rotherham United, Workington Town, and Doncaster Rovers. The storm clouds gather in the mind, the outlook darkens, and it begins to rain. To the surface rise mildewed memories of bleak days, with little entertainment, false dawns and no hope. For me the Vetch Field has become a theatre of wet dreams (no crude pun intended), and an even wetter reality. The games that stick in the memory are those which have been played out against a dark background of hail, snow, and torrential rain, and at times the only missing climatic ingredients are Wagnerian thunder and lightning above Townhill. Such fixtures that are perhaps easiest to recall are some of the biggest post-Toshack occasions: the Bournemouth ‘re-birth’ game of 1986; the West Brom play-off match; and most recently of course the West Ham Cup replay. All were viewed through a watery curtain. But there are hundreds of others – routine league fixtures – lurking in the recesses of all of our minds. Conjure them up for yourself and see! The away day, too, is now routinely an open-terraced, feet-numbing, rain-sodden, point-less experience which defies rational explanation to family, friends, and colleagues. Deeply etched on my soul is 6-0 hammering on a glistening, sodden pitch on a dismal Darlington day when, 4 or 5-0 down at half time, we were awarded a penalty only for Colin Pascoe to put the ball not only over the bar but out of the ground as well. Only last season a 4-1 reverse in driving rain at Cambridge was partially enlivened by the fact that there was so much mud on offer for players and spectators alike that Tony Bird felt obliged to present some of it to a linesman from a range of ten yards or more. And Hartlepool, Hartlepool, Hartlepool. If only I could sing with some conviction of the Swans: ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey’. Unfortunately, I can’t ever quite bring myself to do it.
It was not always like this. Earliest memories of Swansea Town and the Vetch Field conjure up images of vivid colours, brightness, action, speed and, above all, a rich green pitch. Catching a first glimpse of the seemingly expansive playing surface, with the tinny strains of ‘The Woody Woodpecker Song’ playing in the background, was a defining, almost breath taking-moment, and even now the sight of the pitch still has the capacity to quicken the pulse and raise expectations at ten to three on a Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, however, the colour and brightness did not last. They first disappeared, temporarily, during the late sixties when the straw bales stored, quite bizarrely and recklessly, underneath the North Bank caught fire and smoke billowed across the ground, obscuring pitch and stands alike. The crowd, cheerfully unaware that they were now standing on top of a potential towering inferno, provided an appropriate accompanying chorus of ‘Swansea Town is burning down’. But the clouds closed in permanently a short time later when I seemed to enter into a completely unfamiliar bleak world. This was not yet the long dark tunnel of adolescence in which inexplicable things happened such as the exchange of two hundred Swans programmes for a couple of Barclay James Harvest albums (no excuses, but this was the early 70s when strange things happened to all of us). Rather this was a glamour-free world of lower division soccer entirely devoid of any colour and light.
The entry into this black hole occurred in March 1970 when, touched by promotion fever, I attended a midweek fixture against the late, lamented Bradford Park Avenue. What was unusual about this occasion (a 5-0 victory with Herbie Williams scoring a hat-trick) was that I did not sit in my usual spot on the low wall that runs in front of the North Bank. Instead, an accompanying uncle took me for the first time into the upper tier of the Double Decker stand, where spectators sat on bench seats and stamped their feet on a worryingly shaky wooden floor. This produced the disorientation that always accompanies such a move away from familiar spectating territory, but it also gave me my first ‘aerial’ view of a pitch which had been saturated by the constant heavy rain which continued to sweep in from the sea during the game. Having been used to watching proceedings from a position level with, or even below, the playing surface, and always finding myself looking up into the bright floodlights, it came as something of a shock to realise that things were not as they had always seemed. The centre of the pitch itself resembled a swamp, with patches of mud joining together large pools of standing water. In fact the only evidence of any grass at all was to be found on the flanks patrolled by Carl Slee and Vic Gomersall (who surely must have possessed the deepest chest and thickest thighs of any of the players who have ever turned out at the Vetch). The proceedings were played out in a murky semi-darkness that was so gloomy that it was easy, indeed fascinating, to watch the near-constant lighting and re-lighting of matches and cigarettes by fans standing on the North Bank.
Although I was to return to my position on the North Bank for the next match, the effect of that visit to the Double Decker was to remain with me long after details of the game itself disappeared from view. Against the prevailing seventies trend, the Vetch was transformed from a colour set into black and white, and it is the watery, monochrome images that are now fixed in my mind. A few shafts of brightness are to be found, such as the pre-season friendly against Accra Hearts of Oak or some of the grotesque and garish programme cover designs and team strips that have been put before us over the years. But, 1981-2 apart, these are insignificant exceptions to the general rule which suggests that if you adopt the Swans as your team you must also prepare to take on the weather and the forces of darkness which can combine to do some very funny things to your mind.
It would be reassuring to believe that these dark Swansea clouds at least had some sort of silver lining within them. But they appear to have a Silver Shield instead and, as close observers of the Vetch Field barometer will tell you, this is not quite the same thing. Oh well, it seems like rain again.
This story was first published in Keith Haynes (ed.), Come on Cymru 2000!: New Football Writing from Wales (2000) and is reproduced with permission of the author.