Welcome to the Wonderful World of Wales Away

With UEFA’s announcement this month that Welsh football fans will once again be (legally) allowed to attend away matches, October’s trip to Prague has officially been given the green light.

In reality, this doesn’t really change anything for me; my flights and hotel have already been paid for, so I was always going to go, anyway.

What it does mean, though, is that not only there will be an actual Wales end at the Sinobo Stadium in four weeks’ time, but that me – and thousands of others – will be able to stand in it. And, given some of UEFA’s treatment of Welsh fans in 2021, this is a victory in itself.

It also means that, as I’ll be writing about it, now is a good time to introduce you to the wonderful world of Wales Away.

Wales Away: A State of Mind

From a groundhopping perspective, following your national team away from home is a great opportunity to see new grounds, especially if you’re in a country that has a decent lower league scene. Sometimes this can even throw up some anomalies; for instance, Wales’ away trip to Scotland in 2013 coincided with Rangers’ one-season stint in the Scottish fourth tier, meaning that I was able to tick off a full Ibrox the morning after the international game.

From a cultural point of view, though, Wales Away is about more than travelling to far-flung locations.

Indeed, in a wonderful pre-Euros piece for The Guardian, the Welsh comedian and podcaster Elis James described it as a “bilingual counterculture”, a terraced collective of bold reds, bucket hats, and “the sort of obscure Adidas trainers you see in coffee-table books”.

Like the most dynamic countercultures, there’s substance beyond the style, too. Despite being coined “the best kept social secret in Wales”, this isn’t just an exclusive club for football posers and social commentators.

As Mark Ainsbury – a true OG of the “movement” – says in James’ piece, Wales Away is a “state of mind, not the state of a football team”, which is a mantra that has been truly scrutinised over the previous three decades. After all, you don’t repeatedly travel to places like Chisinau or Tbilisi – and see your team lose – just to go against the grain.

Wales fans in Bordeaux in 2016.

In recent years, of course, Wales Away has evolved. It’s no longer a ragtag assortment of well-travelled acolytes, intent on ignoring the actual football in search of a good time. That football, for all intents and purposes, is now pretty good, resulting in more fans attending games, an emergent phenomenon that the Football Association of Wales (FAW) marketing team has dubbed the “Red Wall”.

Which isn’t to say that familiar faces get lost in the crowd. Without any prior warning, I’ve bumped into former school colleagues, football acquaintances, and other friends on the various terraces and bars of Europe; I even ran into my uncle once. When my dad is with me, it’s impossible to walk into any bar without someone he knows from 40+ years of local football shouting his name.

But it’s not all been smooth sailing. As numbers and interest have grown, numerous problems have arisen. For one thing, the FAW and their liaison teams have struggled to scale the personal touch that previously personified much of their fan-facing work, leading to growing criticism from more seasoned fans.

A competitive element has been introduced to the procurement of tickets, too, which has alienated some supporters. For instance, prior to Euro 2016, match tickets were subject to a qualification system based on the purchase of a “season ticket” in qualifying. Some fans didn’t actually attend all of these games but were still able to secure tournament tickets at the expense of others.

And then, as with all things in the modern world, there are the divisions bubbling beneath the surface. The concept of “Together Stronger” was introduced in the 2010s not just as a catchy slogan, but as an attempt to eradicate the toxic presence of the Cardiff / Swansea rivalry at Wales matches. That campaign has, for the most part, been successful, but the seeds of another source of division are now starting to take its place: the conversation around Welsh independence.

Regardless of your stance on this debate – and, incidentally, I am a cautious proponent – it’s important to understand that others feel differently. Within the “Red Wall”, we are all supporters of the Welsh football team first and foremost, and it’s hugely counter-productive to alienate or “go after” those that do not support independence. After all, for a movement that prides itself on its inclusivity, diversity, and tolerance, why should those with a different idea of what Welsh identity should look like be shunned?

However, within the bigger picture, these are ultimately teething problems – the kind faced by any movement when numbers and opinions start to swell.

Memories of the Red Wall

My actual Wales Away experience is relatively thin on the ground, especially when compared to those pioneers of the 90s that braved visa issues, internal hooliganism, and the occasional Kalashnikov.

In fact, despite attending home games since 1998, my first away trip wasn’t until the aforementioned jaunt to Scotland in 2013, a game that will live in the memory not just for Jonny Williams’ international debut, but for the relentless sleet and bone-shaking cold that blanketed Hampden for ninety minutes straight.

View from the GSP away end in Cyprus, 2015.

Next up was a crucial 1-0 qualifying win in Cyprus two years later, a game that wasn’t technically an away trip for me as I was stationed on the island at the time. This was also the first of many visits to the GSP stadium in Nicosia but, to date, the only one where I’ve stood in the away end.

Then there was the first match of the European Championships against Slovakia in Bordeaux, as pivotal an I-was-there moment in Welsh football history as Cardiff’s victory over Real Madrid in 1971. This – and, indeed, the follow up against England in Lens – deserves its own separate article, so I’ll save those stories for a later date.

Which leaves the Republic of Ireland in March 2017 as my last Wales Away trip, a gruelling 0-0 draw in a disappointingly unlikeable stadium.

There have been near misses since then, of course; plans changing due to work, children, or airlines going bust. I came very close to pulling the trigger and travelling to Amsterdam for Wales’ round of 16 thrashing by Denmark at Euro 2020, but was eventually dissuaded by post-return quarantine regulations (and the fact that the cheapest ticket I could find was £250).

But Prague will hopefully be the real deal, a return to foreign stadiums unhampered by endless restrictions or remote inaccessibility. According to the Czech government, capacity limits have now been removed at football matches, meaning as close a return to footballing normality as possible. That’s exciting, and it’s not something I want to miss.

So, as the old miners’ song goes, I’ll be there. For the first time in what seems like a long time, I won’t be the only one, either. Wales Away – and, indeed, football in general – is back.