When Wales take on Denmark in the last 16 of Euro 2020 on Saturday, they will have the backing of what is now a football nation. They will also have the solid support of the school where Ben Davies and Rubin Colwill both started their sporting journey. It was not always like that, though, as Owen Morgan recalls.
The images of Ben Davies and Rubin Colwill in matches, and training, with Wales at Euro 2020 fill me with a strange mixture of burning pride and utter amazement.
As a fellow former pupil of Ysgol Gymraeg Ystalyfera Bro Dur, I am obviously thrilled to see them on such a stage.
But back in 1981, my 14-year-old mind would have been absolutely blown away by the idea of two fellow Ystalyfera boys representing Wales at the finals of a major football tournament.
Two past pupils from what felt to me like Wales’ most rugby-obsessed school selected to play finals football for one of the planet’s most success-starved football nations?
Wales had recently found yet another of their increasingly innovative ways to fall agonisingly short of qualifying for a World Cup – this time Spain ‘82.
Meanwhile, my year’s hapless school football team, at what was then known as Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera, would undoubtedly have been in the throes of a dismal losing streak.
Had the most imaginative Roy of the Rovers story writer come up with the scenario we are currently faced with, it would have instantly been consigned to the waste paper bin as hopelessly far-fetched.
Wales seemed destined not to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1958 having been robbed by a Joe Jordan handball and a Vetch Field floodlight failure in the space of four years.
And there was no sign of salvation on the way via the playing fields of a Welsh language comprehensive school geared solely towards continuing the smooth running conveyor belt of talent from West Wales’ rugby heartlands.
Who could blame the school, I suppose? The nation was still basking in the glory of the 1970s golden era and current pupils, like all action flanker Lyn Jones, would go on to star for Neath, Llanelli and Wales, while others would star for a variety of top West Wales and first class clubs.
During my time at the affectionately named “Gyfun”, rugby was pretty much the only game in town.
Soccer – it was rarely called football for fear of being mistaken for rugby football – was not so much the poor relation but the embarrassing uncle you avoid like the plague at weddings.
There were some fairly obvious clues to soccer’s lowly status at Ystalyfera back then.
Firstly, you weren’t officially allowed to kick a ball – unless it was an oval one – until you were in the fourth form. You either played rugby during the winter or twiddled your thumbs on the touchline.
Any round-ball activity was limited to furtive break-time kickabouts on the tennis courts which were also a haven for the behind-the-bike-shed smokers.
When we were eventually allowed to play organised matches, the school kit consisted of moth-eaten, threadbare shirts from the 1960s.
To play for the school soccer team, you had to bring along your own shorts and socks, which made us look like a poor man’s Barbarians rugby side.
Meanwhile, the school’s First XV were turned out in pristine green and blue hooped shirts each season, with matching socks and crisp white cotton shorts.
The school soccer pitch doubled up as the rugby third XV’s pitch and was positioned next to a water treatment works. In other words, the local sewage plant.
If that wasn’t bad enough – and believe me it was bad when the wind blew in the wrong direction – on the other side of the pitch was a farmer’s field.
Livestock would regularly escape and deposit fresh piles of the bovine version of what was being treated at the water plant.
— Heno 🏴 (@HenoS4C) June 2, 2021
There was also something of a mole infestation, which at least sharpened our dribbling skills.
The “goals” consisted of two planks of wood screwed to the rugby posts about a foot below the rugby crossbars. Obviously, there were no nets.
Meanwhile, the first XV’s pitch was a carefully manicured sward of lush emerald green turf, positioned on the opposite end of the vast playing fields – far from the sewage plant stench.
While the rugby team regularly embarked on foreign tours or were bussed around the rugby-playing schools of Wales and England, our fixture list was limited to say the least.
The most adventurous away trip I experienced was to Neath Farm School – a secure Reformatory School for Boys situated above the town.
When we kicked off, I discovered I was being marked by a particularly menacing looking defender sporting a skinhead, two bluebirds tattooed on either side of his neck and CCFC inked into his huge forearms.
I instantly regretted my decision to wear my distinctive Patrick replica shorts and socks, being sported with some distinction by Swansea City in the old First Division that year!
Although I do remember being complimented after the match on the previously unseen turn of pace I displayed throughout the 90 minutes – and beyond.
Unsurprisingly, with soccer languishing some distance below the chess club on the school’s sporting pecking order, anyone with a vague aptitude for rugby would chance their arm at the oval ball game, even if their first love was soccer, rather than bid for the school’s first – and only – XI.
This left the waifs, strays and die-hard soccer lovers to don the school’s scruffier shirt.
Moment prowd iawn i’r adran ac i’r Ysgol neithiwr gyda Rubin yn ennill ei cap cyntaf ⚽️🏴 Llongyfarchiadau mawr i ti a dy teulu. Rydym yn balch iawn ohonnot ti 👏🏻 Dyfodol disglair iawn o dy flaen 🌟 #TalentYGY🔵 @YsgolYstalyfera pic.twitter.com/MQZt5aH2UE
— Add.Gorff Ystalyfera (@AddGorffYGYYF) June 3, 2021
Worried that my recollections had been distorted by the passing years, I decided to get them validated by a fellow football playing Gyfun boy in the wake of Davies and Colwill’s roles in Wales’ journey this summer.
Who better to ask than Geraint Rowlands, a former head of sport at S4C and senior executive at BBC Wales?
Rowlands now heads up the Media Atom production company alongside the likes of former Wales and British Lions stars Shane Williams and Mike Phillips, Glamorgan and England cricketer Robert Croft and ultra runner and broadcaster Lowri Morgan.
His network TV credits include BBC Sport’s Six Nations and The Great North Run coverage, host broadcaster for IAAF World Championships, Channel 5 boxing, Sky Sports and ITV Sport.
After contacting him to ask whether his memories tallied with mine, Rowlands said: “Your email got me chuckling and reminiscing for hours last night!”
The talented schoolboy soccer player, who somewhat ironically went on to establish TV rugby staples like Scrum V, Scrum V Live, Y Clwb Rygbi and S4C’s European Cup broadcasts, said: “You were always the second class citizen when it came to sport in Ystalyfera if you wanted to play football.
“You had to play rugby up to form four, so you didn’t even have the choice. Although you had the situation at lunchtime where the only thing people would do was go out to the yard and play football.
“In my year, and the year above me, there were a lot of good players all at the same time. One of the boys, Johnny Williams, went to Leeds United for trials. And he did he did quite well, but he was part of the Baglan Boys Club team.
“That side the year above me actually won the Afan Nedd Cup. They beat the traditional soccer schools.
“Another boy, Ieuan John, went to QPR. So there was always a talent there. But most of the football guys that got on did it through their local clubs.”
Individual success tended to be in spite of the school’s football facilities and ambitions rather than because of them.
“The pitch was always full of cow pats,” recalls Rowlands. “There were no proper markings, the crossbar was just a piece of wood nailed below the rugby bar.
“We did very well to score any goals, actually, because the goals were narrower than they were supposed to be because they were rugby posts.
“I always remember the shirts because they were certainly not all from the same set. Some of them had numbers on, some didn’t.
“Some were like a cotton material, and the others were nylon. So it was like you’d stolen a kit from two different sets. So yeah, we weren’t the best prepared side!”
One thing our joint memories confirmed was an enduring affection for a religious education teacher who used to take football sessions as his second subject.
My abiding memory of Mr Gareth Hopkins was of him standing on a muddy touchline, with his classroom slacks tucked into his socks shouting encouragement to his charges.
Rowlands agreed: “Gareth Hopkins did absolute wonders. My year did quite well and we got to the semi-final of the Afan Nedd Cup where we played Morriston over two legs.
“We won the first leg, which was at home, and then we played at Morriston where they scored two goals and were down on aggregate, 2-1.
“The next thing I remember there was a fracas on the side of the pitch and Hopkins was involved.
“Considering he was a scripture teacher and went on to be a lay preacher, it was a bit of a shock, really!
“We always thought the world of Hopkins because he was the only one who could give a damn about football in the school and he’d always be there smoking his pipe on the side of the pitch.
Dau gyfweliad arall i fynd… Tybed pwy? pic.twitter.com/gb50RREeKL
— Heno 🏴 (@HenoS4C) May 31, 2021
“On this day, he was jumping up and down and shouting at the ref. The Morriston coach went up to him and said ‘are you a teacher because you ought to be ashamed of your behaviour’.
“Hopkins just turned to him and said ‘well that will make two of us’. And they went at each other. So the game was stopped for a period until they’d sorted out their differences!”
Rowlands, like me, also has vivid memories of an away match at the Farm School when Mr Hopkins wasn’t available and one of the rugby teachers escorted the team instead.
“He didn’t get off the bus! He drove the school minibus over, gave us the kit and said ‘there you are boys, pob lwc’! If you need anything I’ll be here!
“But it was like that, it was literally, ‘here you are lads, 11 jerseys, pick your own team and go out and play against whoever you’re playing against, I don’t really mind which position you play in’!
“I think there was more camaraderie maybe in the football because you had to work that much harder to actually just get a game.
“Interesting times, but a lot of fun.”
If anything, Rowlands’ memories were a little sweeter than mine as his year and a few of those before him had actually boasted some talented players – including Rowlands himself.
“I used to play for Pontardawe on the weekends because there was no football in school.
“I did play rugby for the seconds or thirds, never got a look in for the first team, but I had no interest in it
“I just wanted to play football and it was frustrating because there was a time when there was talk of a few scouts watching me.
“I remember I’d change into my football training kit and I’d go over the playing field during games sessions, when everyone else was playing rugby, I used to go and train on my own. I’d take a ball and just have a kick up, basically. But there was nothing official.”
By contrast, it wouldn’t have mattered where I had gone to school or what facilities had been available, I wouldn’t have come within a million miles of playing professional football. However, matching kits, goalposts and a fixture list would have been a start!
The closest my year ever came to winning a match was taking a 1-0 lead against arch rivals Cwmtawe Comprehensive – who featured an energetic youngster named Robert Jones, who went on to have a fairly successful career as a number nine in the oval ball code.
Having endured months of having our humiliating defeats read out to derision and mocking laughter at assembly, while the rugby team seemed to be invited to celebrate their latest triumph on a weekly basis, we started to dream of climbing the steps of the school stage to accept our long sought after acclaim.
This obviously distracted us as we conceded five goals without reply in the final 20 minutes.
The highlight of my soccer career at Gyfun was somehow winning a low-key five-a-side tournament between Swansea Valley schools.
It was played on a Saturday morning so few other schools turned up as their best players would either have been playing for their first XI or local club sides.
Despite being given the rare chance to play in an actual tournament, even then we were a player short, so one of our team’s elder brothers was press-ganged into the side to make up the numbers.
Our rugby-playing ringer won player of the tournament as we chalked up an unprecedented success.
Such was the shock at our victory no-one remembered to pick up the cup or our medals, so when we eventually did make it up onto the assembly stage we were handed empty envelopes instead of medals.
However, things have obviously changed at Ystalyfera with the success of Davies and Colwill proving the point.
Rowlands told me: “Euros, my younger brother who is an art teacher at Ystalyfera, taught both Ben and Rubin and he’s very familiar with them in terms of their football talent.
“There’s a teacher there now, Ioan Bebb, he used to play first class rugby for a few clubs and was on the ground staff at Wolves as well – a fantastic footballer and a great sportsman all-round.
“I think, perhaps, since he’s been there, there’s a greater emphasis on sharing the time between rugby and football.”
Indeed there has.
The aforementioned Mr Bebb is certainly an all-round sportsman. Not only did he play first class rugby and join Wolves, he was also a Wales student rugby league international and a triathlete.
Unsurprisingly Bebb is an advocate of an all-round sporting education and is justifiably proud of his former pupils’ selection – especially when I raise my memories of the school.
“It’s a phenomenal achievement for any school to have two players involved in a major championship,” he said.
“I think I’ve done three or four interviews already. I’ve had Radio One coming into school, so it must be a fairly big story.
“But it’s not like we’ve had a big transformation – that we’ve gone from being a rugby school to being a football school in any shape or form.
“I think it’s just a reflection on the kind of diversity of talent that we’ve got coming through the school in a lot of different sports at the moment.
“The curriculum has obviously changed quite a lot during the last 20 years. I remember back to my time in school, it was very traditional, you did football and rugby during the winter, cricket and athletics in the summer, that was it.
“Obviously, there are opportunities now with basketball, badminton, baseball and all kinds of different activities. So yeah, it has been a big change generally. And I think facilities obviously do make a difference with that.”
The days of no rugby until the fourth year of school have long gone from Ystalyfera, says Bebb.
“What we try and do is have maybe half a term of rugby, half a term of football, half a term of basketball, half a term of something different, maybe badminton, or some kind of racquet sport, with fitness lessons or gymnastics as a separate lesson.
“And obviously, there’s a big change, starting this year, with the new curriculum coming in where health and wellbeing is obviously a major thing.
“Even first years, year seven, are getting theory lessons on diet and fitness and all this kind of stuff. So there has been a massive change even during my time. I’ve been there 26 years now and it’s been a huge difference.”
Asked whether his own diverse sporting background contributed to the particular changes at Ystalyfera, Bebb says: “I think it probably helps.
“I played football and rugby when I was in school, I was quite lucky to be successful in both of those and in athletics while I was in school. And obviously rugby league was something I did in college.
“And that’s something we’ve done very successfully here as well. Another story that will develop in the autumn is the Rugby League World Cup which is in the UK.
“Two of our former pupils, Connor and Curtis Davies will be involved in the Welsh team there as well.
“And the more you delve into it, we’ve got Joe and Hannah Brier doing really well in athletics, and there’s Gwenan Davies as well.
“Gwenan has got a contract with the Central Sparks in the women’s cricket league. She’s a full time professional and doing really well, too.
“So, in all kinds of directions we have people going on to do wonderful things.
“Going back to my time, I was very fortunate I wasn’t pigeon-holed into being just a rugby player or just a football player. I was able to play both and enjoy both right up until I was 18.
“And I think Ben Davies is a good example of that. Obviously, he was with the Swans from quite a young age but he represented the school rugby team right up until under 16s in year 11 when he finished.
“He played outside-half for the school team that got to the Welsh Cup final at under 14 and I think it was the quarter-final at under 16.
“He was a good cricketer with Ynysygerwn up until the time that he signed full-time with the Swans.
“He was a role model in that he wasn’t somebody who was only a footballer and only committed to one sport, he was a multi-talented sportsman, who was obviously very good in school as well.
“He’s a perfect role model for students who are here now to look up to.”
Of course, Davies had already starred at one European Championships in 2016, but for fellow Gyfun boy Colwill this is a new experience.
Bebb says: “I was fortunate I came across Rubin even before he came to our school. As a 10-year-old he was with Cardiff City, but he was also training with the Pontardawe Academy because his father, Richard, was coaching there.
“My son was involved in the same team and trained with Rubin up until about 15. When I came across him at 10 people were saying ‘oh he’s coming up to your school next year and he’s the best player of his age in Wales’.
“You’re naturally sceptical, but it was pretty obvious straightaway that he had all the skills and he developed the physicality and physical confidence, which really gave me the impression that he was going to be something special.
“I haven’t seen him for a couple of years now but I think most people who have seen him up close have appreciated that he’s become a man very quickly. Even standing next to someone like Kieffer Moore he doesn’t look small.
“He’s got a baby face, but he’s got the physique of a man. He’s really created an impression on Mick McCarthy at Cardiff in a very short space of time and obviously on the Wales coaches.
“I think most people thought he was taken out to Portugal as part of the training squad for experience, but he’s obviously done enough to warrant his place in the squad.”
Davies and Colwill’s school experience couldn’t have been further from my own and other football mad youngsters who grew up in other rugby-centric areas.
Bebb says: “I think the situation you described with no football being played was fairly common in a lot of South Wales schools back at that time.
“I went to school in Aberystwyth, which maybe was probably more of a football town.
Da iawn chi. Newyddion bendigedig. 👏👏👏👏 https://t.co/k8A0ikAb2A
— Ystalyfera – Bro Dur (@YsgolYstalyfera) May 31, 2021
“But, as it happened, the school that I went to in Penglais, I can’t remember having any football lessons, because the two teachers I had were both very rugby orientated.
“And ironically, our school team in the sixth form won the Welsh Cup, which at the time was a massive story similar to this.
“It was totally unexpected because our PE teacher was also head coach of the Wales under-18s rugby team and he frowned upon football.
“It was all to do with what we were doing outside school. So it’s a fairly similar story with a lot of schools. But I think there has been a big change towards the diversity of curriculum over the last 10 years and it’s had a big effect.”
Another factor back in the 1970s and early 80s was that most Welsh speakers tended to gravitate toward rugby, with few making it in top level football.
Goalkeeper Dai Davies was one of the exceptions to the rule back then, but now there are a number of Welsh speakers in the Welsh squad such as Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, as well as Colwill and Davies.
Bebb says: “It’s wonderful to see. It was nice to see Joe Allen being interviewed in Welsh the other night, especially for pupils from a Welsh school.
“It’s great to see in the Welsh rugby team as well, to see that tradition has continued – there’s always a high percentage of Welsh speakers in rugby.
“But it’s a little bit more unexpected when you see it in the football team. It was good to hear Rubin interviewed recently and a couple of questions being asked in Welsh. He’s maintained his language and he spoke very well to be fair to him.”
Asked about seeing two of his former pupils with Wales at a major tournament, Bebb says: “It’s an incredibly proud feeling.
“The first international that I taught was probably Tavis Knoyle who played rugby for Wales about 10 years ago now. And that was an amazing feeling.
“To be fair, I see Tavis quite a lot and he’s always credited me for the contribution I made to his career.
“So, you do feel enormous pride when you’ve helped shape people. When you see people going on to have this kind of success, it really does make you proud.”
So perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so surprised that there are two fellow “Gyfun boys” in the current Wales football squad.
And, if in some way us Ystalyfera footballing trailblazers helped pave the way for their success, then all those hammerings and being chased around a field by a tattooed Cardiff City fan won’t have been in vain.
Da iawn Ben a Rubin, a da iawn Ysgol Gymraeg Ystalyfera Bro Dur!