Thoughts on Wales beating England to Rugby World Cup knockout stage

Wales beat Fiji to reach Rugby World Cup 2015 knock out stage

Wales beat Fiji to reach Rugby World Cup 2015 knock out stage

In the end, the Group of Death proved nothing of the sort for Wales’s Rugby World Cup dreams. I was privileged to watch the victories over Uruguay and Fiji at the Millennium Stadium – but the real glory was our magnificent victory over England at Twickenham last weekend.

I still expected England to beat Australia – they have a good record against the Wallabies – but the hosts were woeful, going down to their worst ever defeat at HQ to Australia. Stuart Lancaster’s obsessive tinkering crashed England’s world cup chariot after just 16 days.

I’m thrilled that Wales are through. It’s extraordinary that a team so decimated with injuries should have the power to overcome tough opponents in England and Fiji. It speaks volumes for team spirit and their extraordinary coach, Warren Gatland, who has now plotted three wins at Twickenham in eight seasons. Australia will be tougher opponents, but that’s no longer a must-win match.

I’m also sorry that England are out. They didn’t deserve to progress, but the tournament is diminished by the host’s departure from their own party. And millions of England fans including many friends are feeling the intense pain of a premature exit. Blame the crazy decision to make the draw almost three years before the opening ceremony. Back in 2012, Wales slipped down the world rankings because we lost an extra autumn international to the Wallabies. As a result, the authorities placed four of the nations ranked in the top 10 on the eve of the tournament – Wales, Australia, England and Fiji – in the same group. Let’s hope they learn the lesson.

Meanwhile, the Welsh party continues!

Cymru am byth!

Cymru am byth!

When Hereford United FC were watched by 35,000

Today’s sad news that Hereford United FC has been wound up in the High Court brought back childhood memories. In April 1976, I was one of 35,000 people who watched the team play Cardiff City at Ninian Park in Cardiff. Hereford were leading the old third division and City were placed second. Cardiff won 2-0 that unforgettable evening.

It was one of my favourite Ninian Park memories. I still have the match programme, signed by members of Cardiff City’s promotion team.

I hope Hereford one day rise from the ashes, like former Welsh Cup rival Newport County.

#putoutyourbats in tribute to Phillip Hughes

Tribiute to Australian cricketer Philip Hughes

#putoutyourbats for Philip Hughes

People around the world were deeply shocked by the tragic death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes. He was struck on the neck by a ball on Tuesday and died two days later.

We’ve grown used to seeing batsmen wearing helmets – but Hughes’ helmet didn’t protect him from this freak accident.

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Bill Shankly Red or Dead

I remember the shock of Bill Shankly’s resignation. I was 10 years old. I’d been to just one league football game. (Cardiff City 0-1 West Brom.) Yet even I realised this was an important moment.

My mind went back to that summer 1974 bombshell this week as I read David Peace’s book about Shankly, Red or Dead. Forty years ago. It was the summer I became truly interested in the game. Travelling back from a family holiday in Dunoon, Scotland, I was intrigued by Shoot magazine’s league ladder. I used it to track Carlisle United’s brief spell at the top of the first division. (I recounted this in my blogpost about the closure of Shoot magazine in 2007.) 

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Cardiff City’s surrender to relegation

In the end, it was a relief. Cardiff City surrendered their Premier League status today with another heavy defeat, away to Newcastle United. Owner Vincent Tan’s sacking of manager Malky Mackay in December destroyed the Bluebirds’ hope of securing a second season in the top flight.

Tan thought that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United pedigree would save the day. The opposite has been true: Solskjaer’s team has conceded an alarming number of goals without unduly threatening the opposition. By contrast, Mackay achieved some famous results, including defeating title contenders Manchester City, drawing with Manchester United and beating arch rivals Swansea.

At least we don’t have to worry about second season syndrome…

David Moyes, Frank O’Farrell and Cardiff City

David Moyes was fired as Manchester United manager today. The only surprise was that he lasted as long as he did. What are the chances that he follows in Frank O’Farrell’s footsteps and becomes Cardiff City manager?

Frank O’Farrell, like Moyes, took on mission impossible by following a legend as Man United boss – Matt Busby. He lasted longer than Moyes at Old Trafford, but also inherited a team that was in rapid decline from days of glory. He has described how Busby’s presence at United utterly overshadowed his unhappy time as manager. Moyes found Sir Alex Ferguson far more supportive, but Fergie’s extraordinary legacy of success would have been a formidable burden for anyone who took his place.

O’Farrell went on to become Cardiff City manager the season after losing his job at United. It was a big step down, as the Bluebirds were struggling at the foot of the old second division. He got the job at City days after Jimmy Scoular was fired after Cardiff lost the very first game I ever went to see: at home to West Bromwich Albion on 3 November 1973. (That grim game was the perfect introduction to life as a Cardiff City fan in the 1970s and 80s. My Latin teacher said there was an easy way to remember what nihil meant: it was the number of goals City was likely to score.)

Man United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has seemed totally out of his depth as a premier league manager since succeeding the popular Malky Mackay last December. Cardiff could do worse than to offer Moyes the chance to rebuild his reputation in Wales. For all their troubles this season, City are in better health than in November 1973 when O’Farrell was appointed. And Moyes remains a decent manager, as he showed at Everton.

Newport County back in the Football League

I’m delighted that Newport County are returning to the Football League after 25 years. It completes an unforgettable season for Welsh football, with Swansea winning the League Cup and Cardiff promoted to the Premier League. It’s just a shame that Newport pipped another Welsh club, Wrexham. (Wrexham have some consolation in winning the FA Trophy at Wembley.)

Growing up in South Wales, I was familiar with County’s precarious existence. In 1976, Manchester United played against a South Wales XI at Ninian Park to raise money to save the club from bankruptcy. BBC Wales Today filmed the then County chairman Cyril Rogers playing the piano to sooth the tension of fighting for the club’s existence. The campaign succeeded, and just five years later County narrowly lost a European Cup Winners Cup quarter final against Carl Zeiss Jena. But it was a mere stay of execution: Newport lost their league status in 1988 and went bust the following year. It’s little short of a miracle that the club has now regained league status.

The big question: has any other playoff to enter the Football League been contested by two former quarter finalists from a European competition? (Wrexham also narrowly lost a European Cup Winners Cup quarter final, to Anderlecht in 1975/76.)

Cardiff City, Premier League

Cardiff City are in the Premier League. Over 50 years since relegation from the old first division, we are once again in our neighbour’s football top flight. It’s also 86 years almost to the week since City became the only club from outside England to win the FA Cup.

Almost a year ago, I blogged my criticism for Cardiff City’s Malaysian owners’ decision to change the club red.  That reaction now seems churlish. Red looks like City’s lucky colour. And we should thank the Bluebirds’ Malaysian owners for helping the team make history.

Dad, watching Cardiff City reach third FA Cup final

Dad, watching Cardiff City reach third FA Cup final, April 2008

Our family has spent many hours cheering on Cardiff City. My father, Bob Skinner, took me to my first City game almost 40 years ago. (Against West Brom, on 3 November 1973 – we lost 1-0.) He was born within a goal kick of West Ham’s ground, which meant I grew up with affection for both clubs. (By coincidence, West Ham adopted a City song, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’.) Family loyalties were stretched when we went to West Ham to see City in November 1979, but Cardiff lost 3-0. West Ham did well against the three Welsh teams in the old second division that autumn.

Five years ago, we watched City win an FA Cup semi final against Barnsley to reach a Wembley cup final for the first time since 1927. Another breakthrough in City’s renaissance. We should pay tribute to then manager Dave Jones for that revival.

Cardiff join Swansea in the Premier League. It’s the first time Wales has had two clubs in the top flight. A special moment.

Six Nations Champions: Wales smash England

Six Nations Champions

Six Nations Champions

England entered Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on the brink of winning a grand slam. They left with their dreams in tatters after Wales destroyed the old enemy * in one of the finest displays ever from a Welsh team.

A Welsh victory seemed likely after England’s deeply unconvincing victory over Italy last Sunday. But few could have imagined that we’d win by a 27 point margin.

Wales may not have won a grand slam today. (The opening half against Ireland ensured that wasn’t to be.) But it felt as good as a slam: our most convincing win ever against England; the first time we have retained the championship since 1979; and the most enthralling game in years.

The only disappointment? I didn’t have any Brains SA in the house to toast an amazing victory.

Cymru am byth!

* Note to English wife and friends: ‘old enemy’ is a term of endearment. We’re the best of friends and neighbours. We forgive you for Edward I, the imposed act of union, the Welsh Not and much more…

PS: credit to BBC Wales for its witty rebranding of BBC One (below) to mark our famous victory….

BBC Won Wales

BBC Won Wales

Remembering Tony Greig and Christopher Martin-Jenkins

Cricket lost two legends as 2012 gave way to 2013. First Tony Greig, the South Africa-born 1970s England captain. As if that wasn’t enough, within three days the voice of cricket, BBC commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins lost his battle against cancer.

Both featured heavily in my 1970s teenage holidays. Cricket was the sound track to my summer, courtesy of the BBC’s Test Match Special (TMS) and I loved Tony Greig’s confident style and sense of humour. I was enthralled in the hot summer of 1976 by his wonderful partnership with Alan Knott in the Leeds test against the West Indies. (Both scored 116.) It was the highlight of a disappointing series for England, and I remember listening to the latest collapse on the radio as we enjoyed the heatwave at Tintagel.

Greig looked foolish after his boastful claim that his team would make the West Indies grovel. (Although a 3-0 series defeat looked good compared with the 1984 whitewash.) Yet Greig’s sense of humour won friends, as his team mate and friend Mike Selvey explained in a Guardian tribute.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins (CMJ) was the voice of reason in the often chaotic TMS commentary box. As the years went by, his authority grew and it’s not unreasonable to argue that he was cricket’s greatest reporter – on air and in print.

They’ll both be sadly missed.