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An Away Fan in Disguise - Bristol City vs Swansea City. Ashton Gate, 29/10/22

Bristol City vs Swansea October 2022

As I hand my ticket over to the steward for inspection, I try not to say too much. I try to say nothing, actually. I don’t have a strong Welsh accent, a product of years living in Asia, teaching English to children, flattening any trace of singsong inflection from my speech. (But this is a thing reported on in contrasting ways; English people think I sound Welsh, Welsh people think I sound English. I don’t think I sound quite like either.)  

 

 

The steward looks at my ticket and tells me to go to the Landsdown stand, just ahead. I nod. Maybe I’m being too cautious here. It’s not like this is the 1980s. Football hooliganism has generally declined, and it’s not like Swansea are rivals of Bristol in any real sense.  

 

I’m here because I was gifted free tickets (on request) through a contact at the Robins foundation, an educational centre connected to BCFC. I’m here, as a Swansea fan, with three free tickets to sit in the Landsown stand of Ashton Gate, with the home fans. I feel like I’m some kind of undercover reporter, but really I’m just here to watch football.  

 

I’m keeping quiet, even though the atmosphere is not exactly fraught with tension as I leave the steward and walk through the crowds, congregated to imbibe pre-match beers and hotdogs. They all seem pretty calm, so perhaps my apprehension here is undue. Still, it might be different if I’d walked through with my Swansea shirt on (from 15-16, the beginning of their downfall as a Premier League solid), chanting in my half Welsh half not accent.  

 

I enter the turnstile and climb something like twenty sets of stairs to get to my seat, just two rows away from the roof of the stadium, just in front of the media. As I said, I’ve been gifted three tickets to the game, but have come by myself, a result of having few friends and fewer interested in football. I’m generally fine with it, but feel a little uncomfortable about having two seats either side of me vacant. It feels doubly wrong: first coming here in disguise, second taking up extra room. I could use either seat for concessions, but hotdogs are £6.50.  

 

The Swansea fans are to my left, in the Atyeo stand, maybe a couple thousand of them. They’re in emphatic voice, with Welsh flags draped around. This is the first time I’ve attended a live game of my team in eight years, the last time being a Europe Ligue group game in 2014. Before that, it was a three year gap, with my last attendance coming at the play-off final at Wembley, 2011, in golden times.  

 

That season I’d managed to make it to a fair few games throughout, but that promotion, significant and historic though it was, made it borderline impossible to get tickets to league games. This isn’t to make excuses (well, maybe it is a bit), but combined with me being out of the country for much of the interim period, that’s the reason I’ve missed out on so many live games. So this is a treat, one I intend to enjoy, and enjoy with my mouth firmly shut and my facial expression decidedly neutral.  

 

As the stadium fills and the teams come out, there’s still not many fans around me. Up here it’s mostly families, and me. Lots of empty seats, which is probably for the best. 

 

The game starts and Bristol nearly score inside four seconds as a cross flashes past the goal and just needs a foot to tap it in. The noise of disappointment is loud around me. I get a flashback to a time, twenty or so years ago, when, as a child, my dad and I went to the old Wembley stadium to watch Man United and Arsenal in the charity shield.  

 

The only tickets he could get were in the Arsenal end, and as a passionate ten-year-old whose favourite player was Solskjaer, I accepted this as a small sacrifice to make. My dad’s advice was: if Arsenal score, don’t look sad. I’m keeping this advice in my mind as Bristol start the game looking to pounce on any slip of possession by Swansea and launch an attack. The game takes this shape pretty early on and stays that way: Swansea passing it around, Bristol looking for the transition.  

 

For the first quarter of the game, it feels like the only way someone will score is by the other team making a mistake. Swansea have adopted, like so many teams since Conte’s championship winning season with Chelsea in 2017, the 3-4-3 formation. Many teams seem to do it now without really considering if they have the weapons to make it work. It’s a formation that relies heavily on full-back athleticism, and clever, controlled dribblers who can find tiny pockets of space and operate, look for pinhole passes. It would be harsh (particularly on Ollie Cooper, whose movement and initiative in the early stages impresses me) to say that Swansea are completely lacking in those areas, but they seem to be too often without good attacking options unless someone is prepared to attempt a pinpoint pass over the top, which, evidently, no one is. 

 

Then, as predicted, a Swansea slip leads to an opening for Bristol, which Conway takes well, putting the home team in front. Everyone around me jumps up and cheers, and I clap accordingly. I try to look pleased. I’m genuinely accepting; this is the third time in around ten minutes that a careless Swansea pass has given Bristol an opening, so it’s not surprising.  

 

The game settles down again, and the first half goes on, the singing around me much louder. Bristol have it set up the way they like it now; Swansea can and will pass the ball around with little to no real intent, the Robins can sit, wait for their moment, and pounce.  

 

A different kind of battle then ensues in the stands. From my left, I hear the Swansea fans singing the Welsh national anthem, and they’re surprisingly good at making themselves heard when they’re outnumbered like this. But then coming back at them, from the other end, I hear the English national anthem. 

 

There’s been a marked rise in Welsh nationalism over the last decade or so, with a recent independence march in Cardiff numbering ten thousand or so participants. There’s a tension here. There’s the tense fact of Swansea (and Cardiff, Newport, Wrexham) being Welsh teams that play and always have played in English leagues. (Is there another team, anywhere, that plays its league football outside of its own nation?) From my seat, where I keep firmly quiet, I chalk this battle of national anthems down to standard football fan hostility rather than anything profoundly political.  

 

I think if someone pointed out to Swansea fans that a good number of their squad are English, or to both teams that a good number of their squad are from different places altogether, they might not know what to say. But still, being Welsh, I can understand the emotional, personal place a want for independence might come from, but we are better together, and most discerning people would agree.  

 

The second half starts in much the same way the first went on. Swansea pass around, Bristol wait. I’m impressed with Swans captain Matt Grimes, who looks the most complete midfielder on the pitch. He’s always an option, always knows the pass to play, and just about never makes a mistake. No wonder he’s captain, in what so far has been a very promising campaign, where Swansea are in the play-off places. It goes to show how my perspective has shifted; historically Swansea even being in the second tier of league football would be considered mighty impressive, but now, still in the wake of their relegation, I’m hoping for more, hoping for a real team to come together and make a push for promotion and sustained presence in the Premier League once again.  

 

It’s nice to see three former Swansea managers doing well there now, Steve Davis, Graham Potter and Brendan Rodgers, evidence of the fine managerial recruitment process the club have maintained. Russell Martin now appears to be keeping that trend going, as coming into the game today, his team are 4th, after beating Cardiff for the third game running, something no other manage in history has managed. The half plods on. Swansea have all the ball but create little. This was more or less the same the last time I went to see them, actually.  

 

There’s a kid in front of me, he must be around ten years old. He seems to be by himself. He’s almost as entertaining as the game. It’s clear he’s watched a lot of football on TV in his life. He’s standing upright, moving around the empty seats, jumping up and down, gesticulating like Klopp, directing the play. He’s observed and embodied the body language of managers. I think one day he’ll be a manager himself. Still, don’t know where his parents are. 

 

Ollie Cooper comes off, replaced by Ntcham. I’d have preferred it if Cundle or Obafemi went off instead, as neither of them have looked like causing much trouble, but then after ten minutes it’s clear Ntcham has an intent about him which has been lacking in his team-mates, particularly in that space between midfield an attack. He looks alive and full of menace. He soon finds two chances to shoot, the second one after squirming away from tight marking and playing a clever cross-field pass, but is wasteful as the return finds him on the edge of the area.  

 

But shortly later, a clearance from a corner finds its way to him, on the edge of the box again. With the determination of a player who knows he’s missed two chances, he hits on the half volley, clean and pure, and a slight deflection takes it into the bottom corner. The Swansea fans to my left fill the stadium with their voices, and I remain quiet. I nod in agreement with the groans of discontent around me. I think about throwing my hands up in dramatic disappointment but think that would be going too far. Ntcham acrobatically celebrates, and the game is poised. The final passage, all the momentum with Swansea. 

 

They have more intent around their play now, and move the ball around much more meaningfully. The stadium is tense. I am silent. Fortunately, both for Bristol fans and for me having to remain passive and neutral, the most entertaining thing that happens between now and the end of the match is Oko-Flex having his shorts pulled down and his underpants on show as the result of a cynical foul.  

 

The game plays out and ends as a draw, with no real chances made at either end. I leave, looking appropriately pleased/displeased with my team’s 1-1 draw. It’s probably for the best that it was a draw, both for how the teams were evenly matched, and for my sense of calm when leaving the stadium. One thing I’m for sure – I’m not letting eight years pass before the next time I see my team.  

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