Field of dreams: Why football's coming home - to Wales

Swansea City are the first Welsh football club to make it into the Premier League. As kick-off beckons, Jasper Rees explores what it will mean for the country

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The Independent Football

Earlier this year I stood with Michael Sheen on the beach at Port Talbot. A thespian son of the old steel town, like Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton, Sheen was preparing his Easter epic, a triumphant three-day work of street theatre called The Passion of Port Talbot. Thin rain spat in our faces. We looked down the coast to Swansea and, beyond that, the near side of the Gower.

"Is Swansea going to be in the play, Michael?" I asked.

"No, for once Port Talbot is in the spotlight," Sheen said with feeling, "and the bright lights of Swansea will be in the background."

From the strand in Port Talbot, the second city of Wales – important enough to have been flattened in the Blitz – does indeed look something like a throbbing metropolis. International ferries pull in and out past the headland. Tallish buildings jostle on the crowded shore. It's just possible, though, that it won't look so big and mighty to fans brought this way by the Barclays Premier League.

In May, Swansea City became the first Welsh football club to join the elite division of English football. To ready themselves for the start of the season, on a recent Saturday they played a warm-up match against the best that the neighbourhood has to offer: Afan Lido. Pretty soon, they'll know exactly how Afan Lido feels. In a wonderfully apt introduction to their new environment, the Swans' first fixture is against Manchester City. Where one City is owned by an oil trillionaire, the other City is 20 per cent owned by its fans. One of those fans is Jim White, a Swansea-born season ticket holder, now resident in Somerset and running an e-mail marketing software business.

"About 10 years ago, Swansea City was having a difficult time," he explains. "It had not been run well financially. The supporters trust, along with a number of local businessmen, came together to take the club back. We invested about £200,000. We are now the third largest shareholder and have a seat on the board. When I go to Man City it's going to be quite weird."

Without doing the precise sums, it's not wide of the mark to say that the sheik-backed Manchester City, being richer than Croesus (not to mention than Manchester United), are nigh on wealthier than Wales itself. So it may be away, but the game will bring home to the club's fans (and, to be frank, the players) just how steep a mountain they will be climbing this season. They will have financial assistance. For the lowlier clubs coming up from the servants' quarters to join the aristocrats, it's a bit like being one of the poorer members of the Euro. The Premiership throws money at you – 40 million quid – mostly courtesy of BSkyB. Swansea have just gone and broken their own transfer record: £3.5m for Danny Graham (no I've never heard of him either, coming as he did from Watford). It sounds a lot. But it's possibly no more than Man City shell out each week on broccoli and leg waxes.

I'm coming at this historic event with a couple of hats on. My father grew up down the road in Carmarthen, was sent to board in England at the age of eight and never really returned. On Boxing Day, following Christmas Day at my grandparents, we used to visit cousins in posh, non-pebble-dashed Swansea. Then, as we left the Severn Bridge and accelerated back into England, my father would urge us to cheer. I could never quite see what Wales had done wrong. I grew up being told I was English, but always feeling somehow Welsh.

A Welsh club in the Premiership is apt to stir the loins of those of us with Welsh blood. However, I will confess that when I did a five-year tour of duty as a football reporter for The Independent on Sunday, I never gave Welsh club football a second thought. There were only three professional clubs – Newport County dropped through a plughole out of the Football League some time in the Jurassic era, leaving Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham to paddle in the professional shallows.

For many years Welsh football usually troubled the newspaper headline-writers thanks to its more violent fans. Swansea did have a brief moment in the old First Division about 30 years ago. If memory serves, their squad mainly consisted of old crocks pensioned off from Liverpool's reserves. They lasted two seasons before returning whence they had come.

So 13 August will be a big moment for Swansea, and for Welsh football. But also for Wales and Welsh identity. The Swans will be carrying a heavier sackload of hopes and dreams than any other club, because a Welsh presence in the Premiership becomes the latest act in the longest-running rivalry – the oldest local derby, if you will – in the history of this island.

People will find this hard to credit, but once upon a time it was the Welsh who ruled hereabouts. Before the Romans came and saw and slaughtered a fearsome army of druids on Ynys Mon (nowadays known as Anglesey: the isle of the Angles), before the Johnny-come-lately language imported by the Angles and the Saxons, the inhabitants of the place we call England were, in effect, Welsh speakers.

Edward I downsized a country into a principality; the Tudors may have had a Welsh surname, but that didn't stop Henry VIII's Act of Union from legislating the indigenous language, and with it national identity, into the margins. For nearly four centuries after the Reformation, the Welsh had no means of getting their own back. When William Webb Ellis picked up a football and ran with it, a game was invented which, once it had migrated over the border along the Valleys of the South Wales coalfield, became an ideal conduit for brawny, hard-bitten Welshmen to legitimately thump their English overlords.

The newly adopted national sport offered the Welsh a symbol around which a country without its own institutions could gather. It's notable even now that anyone with a smidge of Celtic blood parlays it up into full-blown ethnic identity when the Six Nations comes around every winter. Anything not to have to support the insufferable princelings of England.

But if rugby rapidly became a defining facet of Welsh identity, what of football? The national team is pretty much hopeless and, give or take the odd flutter, always has been. Having Ryan Giggs declare for Wales never really helped. So Wales football fans have the faint look of an oxymoron. It's like English ski jumpers. Or Jamaican bobsleighers. What exactly do they stand for beyond a lost cause?

And that, of course, is what confers on Swansea City a very particular kind of Welshness. When they take on Chelsea and Man U, Arsenal and Liverpool, they will be representing a Wales that sticks up for itself in the face of overwhelming odds. So long as the likes of Swansea City tilts its lance at England, the spirit of Welsh resistance lives on. The English may not like it, but to the rest of the world it will be a very attractive image.

"They can build a brand for Wales," says Jim White. "There was a Japanese film crew that came to Swansea a couple of weeks ago. Fans from all over the world have started to follow Swansea. It puts Wales on the map for sure. It's going to be good for the local economy. It's good for a period of time and ... the club and the area and Wales as a whole has to capitalise on that."

But how long have they got? Can the Swans possibly win enough football matches against 19 English clubs to stay for another year? All Wales (apart from Cardiff City fans) will hope so.

'Bred of Heaven: One Man's Quest to Reclaim his Welsh Roots', by Jasper Rees, is published by Profile