Sometimes I used to sit in the Liberty Stadium with my heart pounding in my chest hoping that we would score an equaliser, or a winner or simply hold onto a lead. I used to look around the ground and see thousands of people feeling exactly the same emotion. Grown men shouting encouragement or abuse at one team or another, women close to tears and children looking at their mums and dads wondering what happened to their normally civilised parents…and I used to think to myself, wouldn’t it be better for all of us if we just didn’t care.
For the record I really like a game of football as a casual observer too. With lockdown there have been more live football matches on television than I can ever remember in my life outside of the World Cup opening weeks. For most games I have enjoyed the great passages of skill but in truth for the recorded games I have found myself pressing the fast forward button just to see the goals. When one team had scored I immediately hoped the other team would score an equaliser and there’s nothing better than a come back from being a couple of goals down to keep the viewer interested.
But the thing is, they weren’t my teams, I wasn’t invested in their clubs, history or league position. If they had an ex Swansea player or Welsh international I found myself being a little more involved but when it came to my heart, nothing!!!
This evening 2 of the finest football teams in the world will be competing for the Champions League Cup. I won’t see the game because I’ll be driving back from Wembley. Depending on my mood I’ll either have the radio on or I won’t. If it’s on I’ll be excited for goals, but my pulse probably won’t change that much. Thank goodness for that because by 5pm today I’ll either be an ecstatic, exhausted piece of humanity or a devastated exhausted piece of humanity and there’s nothing I can do to stop it because I do care, because it is important, because it’s my city and my team.
Having said that, todays’ experience will be very different to the Playoff Final of 2011. All week I’ve been trying to work out what has changed, is it me or is it just the circumstances that have brought us to this point.
The journey to the Playoff Final of 2011 started a long time before kick-off. It was the way Roberto Martinez took a team that had played football the same way as most teams played and started a footballing revolution where we literally passed teams off the pitch. Sometimes the opposition came off at the end of the game looking totally bewildered by what had just been visited upon them. I suppose that’s why we all took it so personally when Roberto left.
The following year was ok, but it wasn’t the same. Paulo Sousa always looked stylish in a 3 piece suit and shoes with no socks, but the football wasn’t. From dazzling the opposition with Roberto, we often bored teams into submission by being dull and defensive with Paulo.
Then came the little Irishman, Brendan Rodgers. That season the magic returned along with Leon Britton. It was like Roberto had never left. The passing, the possession. We should have been promoted automatically but somehow just missed out.
I couldn’t go to Nottingham Forest away in the semi final because I had a gig with the Jacks at the Dragon Hotel. I remember standing in front of a TV in lounge 5 mins after kick-off and wondering where Neil Taylor was. I had missed his sending off in the first 2 minutes. The Jacks played 2 sets that night and during our break I managed to catch a bit more of the game even catching Nathan Dyer almost grab a winner. The return leg was out of this world, as I said last week, ending in a moment of pure joy that one rarely experiences in life.
Last Saturday I was lucky to be there for the game against Barnsley. It was the first time I’d been in the stadium for nearly 18 months. With a single ticket I drove to the game, parked up and walked to the stadium on my own. Normally there would have been crowds outside the Railway Inn, so it felt odd to walk past a pub almost silent.
Once inside it was great to see a crowd, to hear Kev Johns on the Tannoy and to wave to people you half recognised behind their masks. The game wasn’t pretty. It was a hard fought ‘arm wrestle’ of a game. A moment of magic from Matt Grimes reminded us of the goal Leon Britton had scored against Nottingham Forest 10 years previously in that other semi-final but in truth this was a game all about character rather than charisma.
I suppose the moment that summed up the difference for me was in the final minutes when the Barnsley goalkeeper came up for a last minute corner, almost a carbon copy of the last minutes of the Nottingham Forest game. In 2011 the ball fell to Darren Pratley who scored from inside his own half. In 2021, with the goal keeper stranded, we collected the ball and smashed it far into the Barnsley half and away into touch.
It might have been a different game but the feeling about the result was the same. Relief, pride and happiness. This is a different type of team to 2011 but they have their own greatness. To see our centre backs, 20 year old boys stand up to that aggressive Barnsley offensive line was in its own way as beautiful as the Stephen Dobbie goal in 2011.
In 2011 it seemed as if the whole city headed east to Wembley. The Evening Post headline read will the last person out of Swansea turn off the lights. The convoy of coaches stretched for miles; the service stations were filled with Jacks. There was a belief that we deserved to be in the Premier league, that as Kev would say from the pitch, ‘This was our day’.
Today I’m going to Wembley on my own. I won’t have been singing and laughing in the coach going up, I won’t be sitting with a party of friends and when it’s all over I’ll be driving back alone after the game. In my mind I’m trying to tell myself to just be pleased to have got to the final. As my mum used to say, ‘he who expects little is rarely disappointed’.
But, but but…I can’t do that.
Now, you might not have any interest in this game, and you might find this all very odd. You might even feel sorry for me. And it’s true, if we lose the pain will be with me for days, weeks even, pain that you will be insulated from by not being interested.
But if we win…you will never know the joy, and what joy.
PS If we lose please do not try to contact me for at least a week Mal x