This article originally appeared in Issue 21 of The Football Pink fanzine
RYAN JONES remembers a young man from Wales who fought in a foreign land for a cause he believed in, and how football has instilled an international outlook in himself.
When I was 5 years old I was always fighting in the playground.
Originally from Plas Madoc near Wrexham, we moved to Swansea when I was little and then back up to Shrewsbury. We stayed in Abertawe (Swansea) long enough for me to pick up a strong accent, so when we arrived in Salop I stuck out like a sore thumb; my sing song accent jarred and there were fisticuffs aplenty.
When I was 5 years old I was aware of the fact that I was from somewhere else.
This can inform your world view in many ways, but for me it imbued me with a deep-rooted sense of injustice for being singled out and a burning desire to fight bullies and stick up for the underdog.
I was an infant internationalist. My first proper matches at Y Cae Ras (The Racecourse Ground, Wrexham) were European nights, but the first actual home game I attended was against QPR in 1982. Apparently they pelted us with coins and my old man sent me to pick them up.
But the game that really stands out from those days, like a giant among the vertically challenged, is without doubt Wrexham vs. Real Zaragoza in 1986. I was 11 years old; sporting Farah slacks, a pair of Adidas Samba trainers and my beloved Nike windcheater. I was a style guru at a tender age. The old man had elected to take me instead of going on the ale with his pals from work, probably due to the fact that I’d given him earache incessantly after missing Mark Hughes’ spectacular goal for Wales against Spain the previous year.
And so, there we were; Father and Son, travelling headlong into the night, back to the Motherland, hyped up and ready; his Nissan Micra straining at the leash as we pulled away from the Gledrid, the borderlands where we’d moved to. The Welsh Marches.
I had an idea of separate cultures coexisting through personal experience and felt the language of the Anglo-Welsh along the border bumping up against the broad Salopian twang of my uncle’s and our mam’s side of the family. We were split almost right down the middle between English and Welsh but neither really. Border folk...different again.
I imagine in my mind's eye the Gledrid as it was before the bypass, spitting distance from the Welsh border, and us bobbing along talking football. My teenage head full of Hip Hop, girls, skateboarding and self-abuse. I was 11 years old, just a year younger than my Taido (Grandfather) when he went down the pit. It is impossible to imagine the impact that something like that must have on your psyche, on your view of people and the world.
Of course, this very experience was fertile ground for the burgeoning Socialist movement a hundred years ago. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to understand the passion that working class people had for political reform; for socialism; for solidarity and internationalism. These things buzzed round in my head as the old man told me about Taido taking the ponies down the mine and walking from the Glyn to Black Park (was there ever a more fitting name?).
I remembered a few years earlier when Taido shouted through from the kitchen: “D’you still shout for the Reds?” I gave our mam a puzzled look and she said, “Dad wants to know if you still support Wrexham.” I replied in the affirmative and he brought through a funny little silk scarf for me that had been tucked away in a drawer for years.
In the Cup Winners’ Cup first round we’d beaten Maltese minnows FC Zurrieq 7-0 on aggregate to earn a ‘glamour’ tie with Real Zaragoza. The first leg was played over at La Romareda where we drew 0-0 with them; Big Jim Steel clacking one against the crossbar. This was an era when most footballers looked like your dad’s mate (especially the further down the leagues you went) and Big Jim was no exception, resplendent with moustache and bubble perm.
And so, on 5 November 1986, European football was set to return to the home of the Welsh game – at the oldest international ground in the world – for the second year on the bounce. The previous season we had beaten FC Porto and then been knocked out by AS Roma who were, at the time, managed by a younger, less tabloid-friendly Sven Goran Eriksson. That night was the ideal bonding opportunity for a father and his sulky, adolescent offspring.
The journey to Cae Ras from where we lived took us through all the local villages, including where my Dad was brought up, so he knocked out a few comedy anecdotes about catapults and horses’ knackers, which I took in my stride. Then, as we approached the Rhos, he started to tell me about a local miner who worked in local collieries and had gone to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Looking back, those nights were always going to work their magic on me. Evening games are always special anyway: the floodlights illuminating our destination from miles away, lighting the way for disciples from far and wide. We parked about a mile away in our usual spot by Belle Vue Park and walked on Bradley Road, past the Fire Station, Wrexham Lager brewery and onto the Mold Road by the art school where the numbers en route to the match increased markedly. The anticipation welled up inside me as I inhaled the smells of the brewery hops and frying burgers; the sounds of the tannoy and the crowd; and the sights, because as we turned onto the Mold Road you could really appreciate this corner of north east Wales being bathed in brilliant light.
In 1937 a collier from Rhosllanerchrugog near Wrexham joined the International Brigade to fight against fascism in Spain. That young man and subject of my dad’s story was Twm Sbaen (Tom Spain although his real name was Tom Jones). He had worked locally in the Hafod, Vauxhall and Bersham collieries. His view of the world was shaped by his experience as a working class miner. This led to him joining the Labour and Communist parties and eventually would see him going to Spain where he would be badly injured in Aragon at the final battle on the River Ebro in July 1938. Twm Sbaen was captured and held captive by Franco’s fascists. Twm was actually kept in prison in Zaragoza and Burgos and was sentenced to death at one point although this was later commuted to 30 years imprisonment. Twm Sbaen was released in 1940 and became a well-respected trade union official until his retirement in 1973.
The game itself overwhelmed me and affirmed my love for Wrexham. We drew 2-2 but Zaragoza advanced courtesy of the away goals rule.
That evening would impact on my world view forever. I’d watched Wrexham take on the might of Real Zaragoza and found out that a young man who worked in the same pits as my Taido (at the same time) felt so strongly about internationalism and socialism that he put his life on the line, leaving home to go and fight against an ideology he totally rejected, in another country. In just a few hours I’d gone from local boy to a new European.
In light of recent events this all feels quite prescient but as we approach a time when we are seeing a rise in far-right activity and hate crime, let’s remember that hundreds of working class men took it upon themselves to break the law (the Government of the day locked people up for trying to get to Spain) and fight alongside their comrades and brothers.
That kind of bravery, that kind of compassion, that kind of solidarity is something that should make us all take stock and wonder just where we are headed as a group of small countries within this United Kingdom.
The word ‘Wales’ is English and means foreigner. The word that we in Wales use to describe our little patch is ‘Cymru’ which comes from the Brythonic word ‘Combrogi’ meaning fellow countrymen. There’s a bit of a difference, isn't there? One implies an otherness, a strangeness; and the other a certain camaraderie, a unity and trust.
The very essence of internationalism.
Wrexham AFC no longer play in European competition because we can’t enter the Welsh Cup due to the fact that we play our football in the English league pyramid. Internationalists then, internationalists now, internationalists always.
RYAN JONES - @Ap15606710