Rather than football matches, the last few Swansea–Cardiff City derbies looked like military operations.
On the day of the first historic South Wales derby in the Premier League, a 3 November 2013 game at Cardiff, all things followed a careful timetable. 12pm: some 2,200 Swans supporters meet up at the Liberty Stadium, with police. 12.30: departure.
Police escort 47 buses on the road to Cardiff. Estimated time of arrival: one hour later – the only allowed stops are the ones that were planned beforehand. During the game, police separate the two sets of supporters, in the stadium, but also on the M4 highway between the two towns. End of the match: back to Swansea, still with police. There is only one goal: avoid any contact.
It’s the mechanics of bubble trips, the only way away fans have been allowed to watch the match since 1997.
We haven’t walked the streets of each other’s ground for 15 years. People say the police are ruining it; they’re not. I don’t stick up for the police usually but they’re preventing a bloodbath,”
Annis Abraham, a reformed hooligan and 41-year-long Cardiff season-ticket holder, told The Guardian before the 2013 match.
The South Wales derby is notorious everywhere in Britain for the images of violence it brought with itself during its history.
In 1988 at the old Swansea Vetch Stadium, fights between supporters escalated on the streets, and for a group of fans, it went on to the Swansea beach. Some Swans supporters pushe a small group of Cardiff fans into the sea. There are then different versions on how the story ended, but from that day “Swim away” has been one of the favourite chants of the Swansea side – sung while mimicking breaststrokes.In 1991 police arrested 39 fans. The same year, former Swansea goalkeeper Roger Freestone said he found £65 worth of coins in his goal mouth, all thrown at him in only one half. But the harshest violence occurred in 1993: at Cardiff‘s old “Ninian Park”, Swans supporters eradicated stadium seats to throw them against home fans, who took to the pitch to confront the rivals.
The episode is remembered as “The battle of Ninian Park”: from then on, there will be no more meet-ups between opposing fan bases. For four years, attending away games was simply banned.
Then, in 1997, “bubble trips” began.
Hatred isn’t a tough enough word,”
said Andy Legg, one of 31 players to have played with both teams, to The Guardian. But if all the hatred between two towns 40 miles away from each other, sharing a strong sense of Welsh identity, seems odd, it’s even more unreal to think that it wasn’t always like that. In the first years, since the first 1912 game, there was hardly any rivalry. A story has it that in 1927 hundreds of Swansea supporters travelled to Wembley to support Cardiff City against Arsenal in an FA Cup final.
The 1980s, the years the hatred turned toxic, were the years of Margaret Thatcher‘s drive against miners – and mine were an important part of the Welsh economy. There was unemployment, protests, strikes.
From then on Swansea–Cardiff City, Swans–Bluebirds, ceased being a rivalry like many others.
Tensions ranged from sports to politics, from the economy to Welsh culture. On one side there there’s Cardiff, the capital, a city at the same time more English and more international, richer, prettier and that has gradually become the centre of Wales.
For years, it got all the funding and the spotlights thrown this way of the border. On the other side, Swansea isn’t much smaller, and it’s a much older city than Cardiff: its people feel on the same level as Cardiff, but treated as younger cousins.
A good example is the Senedd building, the Welsh Assembly started in 2001. Swansea had been very vocal about wanting to host the institution, while Cardiff had been lukewarm at best. But for some reason, Cardiff was chosen as host city.
Swansea got a brand new swimming pool.
In Swansea, football has a sense of revenge.
Myreg, a Swans fan and Welsh nationalist, says it’s not just about being finally the better football side in Wales – for years, Cardiff City was the one. It’s about roots.
What’s Welsh in Cardiff City?”
he asks a friend Bluebirds supporter in provocation. Cardiff City‘s owner is a Malaysian billionair, Vincent Tan.
Swansea, on the other hand, was bought by a group of local businessmen and fans in 2002. The Swans have a website, merchandise and kits in Welsh, while Cardiff City don’t seem to push the language very hard. For fans like Myreg, this is important.
I wasn’t into football, then at an even on Wales and Welsh, there was a stand of the FA Wales, and one by Swansea City,”
Cardiff City weren’t there. I walked to the FAW stand and bought a top. Then I saw the Swansea stall and approached it. I wasn’t going to buy anything, then I saw it: a black top, with a white stripe and a swan in the centre of it, and it was in Welsh. I bought it. And I became a Swansea fan.”
Today, at least until now, history and tensions stay off the pitch, something authorities are probably thankful for.
The last South Wales derby coincides with the last Premier League match between the two clubs – on 8th February 2014 in Swansea, Swans beat Bluebirds 3-0. But Swansea are at the bottom of the league now, and if they’re relegated, there may be a South Wales derby in the Championship next season. Contacted by MondoFutbol, the Football Association didn’t comment on whether the practice of “bubble trips” will continue, or whether fans will be left free.
But for now the South Wales derby, the rivalry and the toxicity remain nothing more than a hypothesis.
For now, history remains history.
Photo ©Jon Candy
Cover Photo ©Getty Images