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PRINCIPALITY OR PRINCIPLES – A FAN’S VIEW OF MOVING BACK TO THE ‘RUGBY STADIUM’

wales spain principality cardiff

I remember the days when Wales were briefly lauded as the best supported team in Europe, helped largely by cut-price ticketing during the Mark Hughes era.

Those games were played at the Millennium Stadium, a cavernous bowl purposely implanted within the heart of our nation’s bustling capital.

When the three-tiered theatre was packed to the rafters with 74k fans the atmosphere was white hot.

When it was less than half empty the church of noise became a sedentary library with less chirping than an aviary. And don’t get me started on those vuvuzelas.

So, when it was announced that Wales would return to the now rebranded Principality Stadium it was met with a fair degree of outcry and hostility.

Howls of derision could be heard tumbling down from all parts of Wales with many accusing the FAW of selling out to essentially, erm, try and sell out what has long been considered the home of the country’s national rugby side. 

But the Cardiff City Stadium has been instrumental for our round ball heroes during their transition from laughing stock to French fancies.  

The last time Dragons replaced feathers on fan’s shirts at the national stadium was on March 26, 2011 when almost 69,000 fans watched new manager Gary Speed’s men humbled 0-2 by England.

Fabio Capello’s lot ensured a Gareth Bale-less Wales failed to register a single shot on target.

Ched Evans replaced Steve Morison just after the hour. Anyone who dares complain about Vokes and Co in the present day should repeat that sentence out loud. Ched 4 Steve 4eva is carved into a tree somewhere..probably.

However, let’s not lose sight of the fact the Millennium Stadium has bore witness to some memorable Welsh performances – the 2-1 humbling of Italy and a Robert Earnshaw treble giving thousands of kilt-wearing Scots another reason to be intravenously fed Buckfast for days after their 4-0 mauling. Nobody was complaining about the atmosphere or postcode then.

wales spain principality minute silence
A minute silence was held in the memory of those who died in the flash flooding in Majorca and the Tsunami in Malaysia – Image: Influential Photography

In their infinite wisdom the FAW felt now the time was right for a return along the sub-two mile Ninian Park Road route from the CCS to an iconic venue which forms part of Cardiff’s skyline. And lest we forget, they are tasked with making money to support the game financially right down to the grassroots. So what’s so bad about trying to make more of it?

At the time of the announcement FAW supremo Jonathan Ford said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for our supporters to see a great team and world class players.”

At first I thought he was talking about Ramsey, HRK (RIR – Rest In Retirement) and Joseph Allen, but it turned out he was banging on about the Spanish, because they too are pretty good at the good ol’ kick-a-bouts.

He went on: “We want to provide everyone with the opportunity of watching the game and playing at the Principality Stadium enables us to do so.”

So does Sgorio Jonathan.  

But he has a point. Having the opportunity to watch your nation should not mean being vetted like you wish to join some sort of exclusive backstreet club. Sort of, ‘you can only come in if you were on the terraces in the pouring rain in (insert awkwardly obscure eastern European country here) back in 19-whenever-but-must-certainly-start-with-a-19-to-weed-out-the-snowflake-millenials!’

wales spain national anthem
Wales v Spain, International Football Friendly, National Stadium of Wales, 11/10/18: Wales fans sing the anthem – Image: Influential Photography

Just because you and I have been there through the good and the bad doesn’t mean we should deny prospective new fans the chance of being part of this wonderful subculture.

As for ‘plastics’? This is a spectator sport, they are everywhere. Even more so in Wales if you want to be pedantic about it as scores of Welshmen, women and children follow the fortunes of a raft of north-west England-based Premier League sides.  Maybe that’s why Sergio Ramos was booed like the pantomime villain? Can’t remember him ever doing anything or even having the opportunity to slight a Welsh club or international side. I may be wrong.

Wales earned the right to be on the big stage in France in sublime stadia such as Bordeaux and Lille, so why should it be any different back home?

Some fans boycotted the Spain game in protest, an empty gesture that changed nothing but a few numbers on the end of the admirable 50,232 attendance.

I’m pretty sure the players won’t have lost too much sleep because Harri, Gwyn, Dafydd (yes I’m being purposely stereotypical) and such like chose to stay at home wearing their bucket hats on their sofas instead of in the stands.

I too thought twice about attending, delaying my ticket purchase until absolutely necessary. I had to mull over eating into my bereft annual leave quota for taking a day off to watch what amounted to an exhibition match, or an International Challenge Match as it was officially billed.

My uncertainty was certainly not borne out of an inferiority complex with bricks and mortar or a chip on my shoulder about moving back in to the home of the ‘egg’ (Joe Allen was once the poster boy for Chicken & Egg magazine lest we forget).

More about the stadium later.

So, what of the day itself?

I asked my travelling companion how he felt to be watching Wales back at the MillStad, sorry, Principality.

“I’m not really bothered to be honest.  The CCS is grand with a brilliant atmosphere but playing in a bigger stadium with a bigger crowd can sometimes make teams want to come out and play better rather than shutting up shop.” These would soon become prophetic words.

Shorn of Gareth Bale due to injury (he was only ever going to play 45 minutes maximum even if he was declared fit) and Paul Dummett (the haters will love that one already!) Ryan Giggs watched his men (and boys) ship two cheap goals inside 20 minutes.

The visitors were like sharks –  fast, snappy, predatory and hungry for more.

Under a closed roof it was open season for Spain. They grabbed their third with ease before Wales gave us something to shout about after 35 minutes –  a corner which came to nothing.

Sam Vokes had a glimpse of goal as Wales finally enjoyed some possession, but it was the small pocket of Spanish fans who were waving their yellow and red balloons in delight as the referee signalled for half time.

Muted applause rang out, I dare say more in appreciation of Spain’s cut-throat approach to a shop window occasion.

wales spain gareth bale golden boot
Wales v Spain, International Football Friendly, National Stadium of Wales, 11/10/18: Wales’ Gareth Bale receives golden boot for becoming Wales’ all time top goalscorer – Image: Influential Photography

Viva Gareth Bale added to his muscle fatigue by accepting the golden boot trophy at half time, a nice but understated gong for hitting 30 goals for Wales with the Top Bun replacing ‘tastic ‘tache’ Ian Rush as the country’s strike king.

An actual King replaced our midfield maestro with Andy replacing a crocked Ethan Ampadu just five minutes into the restart.

It took us just under an hour to test Spain’s replacement goalkeeper.

Fans were so bored they used their phone ‘torches’ to turn the stadium into a giant intermittent led Christmas decoration or a Coldplay gig.

Great for the kids I guess and at least it wasn’t a Mexican wave.

With 20 minutes left Wales constructed their best move of the game.

The soon to be unemployed Aaron Ramsey brilliantly turned his man and fed David Brooks. He centred for Vokes but he was thwarted by a textbook tackle.

Spain then went and won a corner and Marc Bartra was given the airspace of South Wales to head in their fourth goal.

But let’s be honest –  this could have been played on a ploughed field and the result would have been the same.

Spain are different gravy –  it just so happens there was an extra 20k to witness their brilliance and that of David Brooks, who was the only player to emerge with any credit for the hosts.

He was electric down the right and provided a sublime cross for Vokes to head in a late consolation.

But back to the elephant in the very big room.  

A line which wrapped up celebrated dark comedy The League Of Gentlemen perfectly sums up my personal view on the stadium saga:

‘you can’t go back… but you can visit’.

Wales, players and fans alike are at their happiest at the CCS – it’s compact, hostile and suits the needs for those fully indoctrinated in the Together Stronger mantra.

The National Stadium is undoubtedly still a wonderful arena in which to showcase the best players Wales has to offer.  That usually means pitting our wits their against football’s big hitters – Brazil, Argentina, Germany and, case in point, Spain.

But for the gripes to subside there simply has to be a near-full house to produce a fervent atmosphere that the players can feed off and give them that extra lift.

That was not the case against Spain.  

Is it a work in progress? No because we’ve already been there and done it.

Will Wales play there again in future?  Possibly. It merely provides an option to include new audiences and maximise commercial opportunities which, for a non-profit organisation, is important to develop the game.

The bigger issue here and now isn’t about where Wales actually play their games, but how they play them.  

Successive defeats is not an ideal confidence builder going into Nations League action.

Denmark were smart, Spain were slick.  

Ireland will be seething and seeking revenge.

Giggs needs his men to produce the goods or there will be little danger of even the CCS selling out for next month’s game against Denmark.

Tim Edwards is definitely not Tim Williams, despite the editor of this website getting his name confused on multiple occasions, for which he is deeply sorry. Tim and Tim are two separate people and can often be found in the same awkwardly obscure eastern European country, or local bar, at the same time. Tim Edwards is also @fearlessidzine on Twitter.

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