I was nine years old when I first sensed that other people thought there was something seriously wrong with me.
Every other Saturday I would leave the house wearing my prized black and white Swans scarf. Heading for Vetch Field, I would also clutch a wooden rattle, carefully inscribed with the words ‘Herbie is the Greatest’. Yes, Herbie Williams really was that good.
But ‘going down the Vetch’ with my mate Nick was no easy operation. This was because always lying in wait for me was my nemesis, Great-Uncle Bertie, who had single-handedly defeated Hitler and still wore his old 53rd Welsh Division beret to prove it.
He seemed to spend his whole life leaning on the gate of his house next door, smoking his pipe and waiting for me to appear. On first catching sight of me he would spring into action and gleefully bellow at the top of his voice, ‘What are you doing wasting your money on that bloody lot? Give it to me instead. You must be a bloody idiot!’ And so on. Crushed, I would slink away to the bus stop, with his hoots of derision ringing in my ears.
And it got worse. My irritating little sister soon picked up on this, so much so that to this very day she still refers to me as ‘The Moron’. This is nice, especially as I am now fifty-three and she is no longer quite so irritating. I’m sure she doesn’t really mean it; or at least I hope she doesn’t.
But they had a point. In the early 1970s The Swans were in Division Three before things took a marked turn for the worse, and relegation was soon followed by near-bankruptcy. Swans fans were treated as though they were members of a leper colony, and as with all leper colonies our numbers dwindled away every year.
Things were so bad that even I started to enjoy listening to Barclay James Harvest, a prog-rock band who specialised in doom-laden anthems about death and suicide.
After the all-too-brief dizzying rise and fall of the Swans during the Toshack era, normal service was resumed. Mockery and misery were served up in large doses as the penniless Swans lurched around the lower leagues like a drunken pantomime clown with his foot stuck in a bucket of custard.
But I still went to the games, through thin and thinner, even though I had now ‘grown up’ and moved far away from Swansea.
So why did I do it? Why did a man who was seemingly sane and sensible [Check this, please. Ed] get up on a Saturday morning, ignore all other available entertainment options, and then drive 250 miles to Hartlepool. Only to be rewarded with yet another dismal defeat for the men in white or, by now, some hideous orange and blue away kit.
I concede that it is very odd, not least because my personal list of Swans-related humiliations is an extremely long one, which should have persuaded me to throw in the towel.
There was the 6-0 hammering at Darlington, after which a police horse stepped on my foot. This truly dreadful day-out begs many questions, the most notable of which is why on earth two police horses were required to control a crowd of 2,621.
Then there was the incident with the Macclesfield mascot ‘Roary the Lion’, a heated altercation which almost ended in fisticuffs involving several other respectable members of the community (you know who you are).
And, worst of all, there was the 1-0 defeat at Boston, after which the Swans slumped to the very bottom of the Football League for the first time ever. If that wasn’t bad enough I was booked for speeding on the way home, fleeing from the scene of the crime, as it were. This meant that by the end of September 2002 I had more points on my driving licence than the Swans had on the board in the league table.
The only other time I have been stopped for speeding was on my way to a game against Scarborough. When I explained where I was going to the officer, his deaden response was ‘Then speeding really isn’t necessary is it, sir?’
Of course, along with these agonies there were occasional ecstasies, which perhaps made it all worthwhile. Great goals, unlikely comebacks, giants slayed, and even promotions.
But it was also about something else. A sense of identity and belonging laced with the dark humour that emerges from within groups of people when they are conscripted into ultimately futile tasks. This produces vivid memories, not only of goals and players, but also comedy moments, wise-cracks, and perfectly delivered one-liners.
A single example will suffice.
On one occasion a rag-bag collection of academics, pseudo-intellectuals, and other social misfits were gathered together in a small, grumbling huddle on the freezing terraces on the ‘away end’ at Rotherham. Peter Stead , who in his own eyes at least is the greatest manager the Swans have never had, nodded in the direction of the nearest other Swans fan who was standing by himself about thirty yards away. ‘Do you know who that is?’ ‘No. Who?’ ‘The Professor of Moral Philosophy at UCLA’. After that, it somehow didn’t seem to matter that the Swans lost 4-0.
But , of course, it’s all very different now. The Swans, once the modern-day equivalent of Fred Karno’s Circus Army, have become the hottest ticket in town. They have also come to epitomise what every fan would want their football club to be.
They are a ‘people’s club’, run by fans with the fans, and without a here-today, gone-tomorrow foreign owner (yet). They are a team that plays in a magnificently stylish and creative way. The players appear to be decent and humble, without any big-time Charlies amongst them. And the manager, the Great Dane, is class act.
This suits us down to the ground, because Swansea people are modest people; indeed they are often far too modest for their own good. So there is no dim-witted boasting about being ‘bigger than Barcelona’ or indeed anyone else. But the sweet irony of it all is that many onlookers now seem to believe that in fact the Swans have become the new Barcelona.
So, looking back to the time when small groups of Swans fans trailed around the country like the remnants of a badly beaten rabble army, who could possibly have believed that this would ever happen? I certainly didn’t.
In fact, as a historian by trade I am certain of only one thing in life and that is that nothing is inevitable. In the not-too distant future there might well be a time when the Swans again have to sample the delights of lower league football. Please God, forbid that such a terrible thing should ever happen. But if it is does, one thing is for sure: I’ll be there. Because for some strange, unfathomable reason it’s in my DNA.
So, Great Uncle Bertie, wherever you might be, put that in your pipe and smoke it! And, as for you Sis, no, you can’t have a ticket for Wembley!
Huw Bowen is Professor of Modern History at Swansea University and currently lives on Cloud Nine.