I’ve been thinking about what to write in this column after that great season we’ve just had and, coming to the conclusion that our wonderful return to the Championship had been pored over and done to death by other posters, I decided to pen something more personal instead. I want to tell you what being a Jack means to me.
I’ve written in this column before about how I started supporting the Swans, so forgive me if you’ve heard this part already. For those who haven’t, I went to my first match at nine years of age in 1965, taken by my dad, who’d been a supporter since his teens, and who was used to cheering on the legendary names like Medwin, Jones and Allchurch in the great Swans teams of the fifties. The match which kicked off my life-long Swans addiction was against Charlton Athletic. I can remember as clear as day the feeling of excitement as I walked up the final few steps into the upper tier of the old wooden double-decker, clutching my dad’s hand and seeing the brilliant green pitch (quite a contrast to the Port Talbot Borough Council playing fields of the time) laid out below at what seemed like a very remote distance to a nine year old.
All through my school days in Port Talbot, a regular feature of every other Saturday afternoon in the football season was piling into my dad’s old banger estate car, along with a bunch of school-mates on the back seat, and heading off to the Vetch. The heroes of my youth were Herbie Williams, Dai Gwyther, Tony Millington (who lived near us in Baglan) and above all, Brian Evans, the cultured Swans winger and father of our current ‘sponge’ man Ritchie Evans. Following the Swans in those days was a hard road – I remember one Boxing Day match at home to Chester City when we were on the fringe of the promotion places and I turned up full of the joys of Christmas and overflowing with youthful optimism, pockets stuffed with Quality Street nicked from under the tree, only to witness us on the wrong end of a 5-0 thrashing. How times have changed for both clubs!
In those pre-internet (in fact pre-computer) days, hearing the FA Cup draw required bringing the transistor radio into school and listening with an ear-piece on a Monday lunchtime to some old codger in FA Headquarters droning out the details. Then it was off on the supporters’ coach to exotic locations like Oxford City and Weymouth with our hearts in our mouths, hoping we weren’t going to be the cup upset that made the headlines.
Our great rise under Toshack in the late seventies and early eighties coincided with me graduating from Swansea University and starting my working life in the North of England. Living in Cumbria, I didn’t have far to go to witness what is still the greatest memory in my Swans scrap album, the day at Deepdale when our club finally achieved promotion to the top flight in our sixty-ninth year. Magical days, and much of the time the following season we felt as if we were in a dream, as for example when we went to Anfield and saw our beloved Swans take a 2-0 lead against what was then the county’s leading club and a European powerhouse, only to be pegged back to a draw by the final whistle. That was the game, a few days after the death of Shankly, when Toshack came out wearing his old Liverpool shirt as a mark of respect for the great man.
I moved back to Swansea in ’83 and witnessed more turmoil for the Swans as we crashed back down through the divisions, but a new job in the Netherlands in 1989 meant that I was only a spectator from afar for four years, and had to get my Swans news largely second-hand through my father. I returned to the UK in 1992 to live and work in Telford, and managed sporadic visits to the Vetch, usually accompanied by my dad, until he died in 1996. I often wonder what he’d make of the Liberty Stadium, which of course he never lived to see, and the brand of football we play now under Roberto. I know he’d be delighted with both, because for him it would have been a return to who we were in the fifties, a second division side renowned for flair players and great attacking football.
After marriage break-up and job loss, I moved to Hereford in 1998 to re-start my life, and high on the agenda was a commitment to re-kindle my lifelong affiliation with the Swans. I bought my first season ticket for many years and, a year or two later through the miracle of the internet, discovered that there were other expatriate Swans living a stones’ throw away from me in Hereford and Worcester. These guys have become firm friends in the past ten years, and we meet up and travel together for every home game. Living as we do in the Midlands, we manage to get to quite a few away games as well, and these trips are always exciting events for me as I tick off the thirty or so football league grounds I’ve not yet visited.
Since the move to the Liberty, the Globe has become my regular pre-match watering hole, and it’s been another joy to me to meet up again in there with guys I haven’t seen since my teenage years back in Port Talbot, when we worked in summer jobs as janitors in the steelworks, extolling the virtues of Zalpon bog cleaner in our less sober moments. They’re still all barking mad! On top of that, through writing for Dai Smith’s site, I’ve met a whole load of other Jacks, many of them expatriates dotted around the country, who’ve become good friends. They know who they are!
So, as I approach fifty-four years of age, and forty five years of being a Swans supporter, I count my blessings. And one of the main ones is my marvellous ‘second family’, the Jacks. Without demeaning the majority who have always lived in and around Swansea, there really is an extra dimension to being an expatriate Jack. It’s that feeling of still being part of, and inextricably bound to, the community you sprung from, even though you actually live many miles away, and the sense of going home every time you catch the first glimpse of Swansea Bay – as the song says, “way down by the sea”. When you meet someone new socially or at work in some far-flung corner of England, it’s your instant identification badge (“Oh, you’re a Swansea Jack!”). For me, like so many of you, supporting the Swans is a way of life, it’s my main social activity for nine months of the year, it brings me together with so many good friends, it’s a link to my youth and a reminder of the father who’s no longer with me.
Hopes for the future? Well, as it is, I cannot express my gratitude sufficiently to the Directors, to Roberto Martinez and to the players for all they success they’ve brought us in the past two seasons, delivering champagne football to match our outstanding stadium, and earning the plaudits of the football world by playing the game in the right way. In the hard commercial environment of modern football, what they’ve achieved is a minor miracle. But I’m sure the season just gone is not going to be the pinnacle of our achievements. I feel there is more to come, and that El Gaffer will take us all the way to the top tier again in time for the club’s centenary in 2012. I really believe I’m going to witness the second ‘golden age’ of the Swans, and I’m just as excited as that nine year old climbing the rickety steps back in 1965. Bring it on!