Going to my first Swansea match in 16 months renewed my appetite for football | Elis James
There was a point during the first lockdown, when I’d daydream about becoming a “yes man”. I’d think to myself: “I got too sucked into the rat race, man. If this thing has taught me anything, it’s that life is about experiences. I’ve spent too much time on my phone. As soon as I’m able to I’ll say yes to that bungee jump. I’ll say yes to that National Trust dry-stone walling course. Life is lived on the margins so I’ll take up kickboxing and enter a dialogue with pain.”
As you can imagine, this nettle‑grasping lasted about 30 seconds into restrictions being lifted (realistically, why would I want to learn a skill that’s mainly relevant in the Peak District or get my head kicked off my body?), but the one thing I have approached with renewed vigour is football.
As I walked to the away end at the Madejski Stadium on Tuesday night, for a fixture that would stir the blood of any football fan (Reading v Swansea City in the first round of the Carabao Cup), I adopted the traditional football fans’ strut, a walk reserved exclusively for attending games and one so purposeful it would look insane at soft play or if you were buying a pot plant from Homebase.
I hadn’t been to a football match since the Swans lost 1-0 against Fulham at Craven Cottage in February 2020, and as I walked to the ground I experienced the same sharpening of the senses I have felt at every sporting event since I began attending games in 1988. I looked up at our fans, singing “YOUR SUPPORT, YOUR SUPPORT, YOUR SUPPORT IS FUCKING SHIT!” and with contented sigh thought: “Aaah … this feels like home.” Our supporters sang a sarcastic version of “Three Lions” (with occasional cartoon blubbing gestures), Reading fans responded with a lusty rendition of God Save The Queen and sang that we wished we were Eng-er-lish, to which we did wanker signs. It truly is the beautiful game.
Matchday behaviour felt like easing into an old pair of slippers. I hadn’t signified an opposition miss with outstretched arms for 16 months, but it all came back, a comforting muscle memory. Those outstretched arms combined with ironic cheer were effortless, like an old heavyweight world champion shadow boxing on a chat show, 40 years after they were last king of the ring. It felt good to boo a Reading player’s every touch for 30 minutes, despite missing the original transgression because I was Googling Swansea’s Jake Bidwell to see how many caps he got for England Under‑19s (3). I loved shouting “USE IT”, a sentence which under careful examination is revealed to mean absolutely nothing.
For Swansea’s second goal, a Ben Cabango header midway through the second half, I became momentarily senseless, leaving my seat to run down the stairs towards the advertising hoardings, before thinking: “You’re 41 in November and Reading have seven teenagers in their side because of a transfer embargo, is this reasonable?”
I love the first week of the new season because, unless your club is very unlucky, things haven’t gone wrong yet. My enthusiasm was helped by Reading’s weakened team of course, but watching your side cruise to a 3-0 win on a warm summer’s evening can have an absurd impact on your expectation levels. It was only Russell Martin’s second game in charge of Swansea, so it was nice to see his new ideas unfold, shakily at times like a baby deer taking its first steps (thankfully wild animals only have predators to contend with during these crucial first few hours, and not men in replica shirts shouting “WANKER! WANKER! WANKER!”). It was interesting to get a feel for how our fans see Martin’s appointment, but in person and away from the distorting environment of social media.
Oddly for a club that has spent the majority of my lifetime in the lower divisions, a significant proportion of our supporters value an attractive playing style over success. Do fans of other clubs say things such as, “I can handle us losing and finishing in mid-table if we play the right way”? It might have been a representative sample of the six or seven people I talked to at full-time, but Swansea’s reputation for having a fanbase that values aesthetic, progressive, and entertaining football over almost everything else was borne out by the conversations I had on Tuesday.
The fans of most Championship clubs value hard work, effort, and success on the pitch. We have slightly loftier ambitions in our part of South Wales. Despite reaching two consecutive play-offs, Steve Cooper’s style of play was never universally popular among Swansea supporters, a difficult thing for people unconnected to the club to imagine. But I’ve met older fans who reminisce about the attractive football the club played in the 1950s, before Swansea had city status and when the BBC could make the April Fools joke that spaghetti grew on trees in Switzerland believable to millions. “The Swansea Way” goes back further than Roberto Martínez’s appointment in 2007 for some of our fans. It predates BBC Two.
As Reading’s teenagers were swept aside by a Swansea team that played like 1982 Brazil, I was sore from my own footballing exploits, having played that afternoon. I’ve loved playing since I was very young, occupying that middle ground of being on a totally different planet to a professional but garnering enough experience over the past 35 years to look fairly competent on the condition that I’m put under absolutely zero pressure. (I probably look my best during the 10 minutes or so before the game starts, idly kicking the ball into the net as the other players do those stretches that were discredited in the 1980s and talk about their weekends.) But even a kickabout now feels magical.
Swansea had around 860 fans at Reading, so the concourses were uncrowded and the stand felt safe. For thousands of vulnerable fans this isn’t the case, but the option for supporters to watch 3pm kick‑offs on iFollow or their club-hosted alternative has been withdrawn by the EFL, claiming it’s to protect attendances and the interests of their broadcast partners, which feels deeply unfair at a time when so many still feel uneasy. Playing football outdoors feels safe. Bungee jumping can wait, but playing and watching football were a normal part of my routine until last year. I will never take them for granted again.