By Harry Corish
Having witnessed Wales’ final match before the World Cup on Sunday night, Red Wall members are now turning their attention to the tournament itself. For some, that means a trip into the unknown in Qatar, while the majority will be watching from home. Whether they are in Doha, or at the fan festivals planned here, policing, stewarding and the general atmosphere created among fans will determine whether the experiences are memorable for the right reasons. Harry Corish went to Sunday’s Poland match as a fan and says there were worrying signs.
Wales’ 1-0 defeat against Poland was marred by inadequate policing and unsavoury scenes in the crowd. The joyous bubble of the match day experience at a Wales international was well and truly burst, as scenes off the pitch left a bitter taste in the mouth.
Both teams were fighting to avoid relegation from League A. Wales needed to beat Poland by two goals, to jump ahead of their visitors on the night, in what was supposed to be an electric and huge night of football.
Fans old enough to remember the fateful night of 1993 where a Welsh fan sadly lost his life at the National Stadium were reminded of the tragedy, as inadequate policing allowed Polish away fans to set off several flares and a firework, right next to the family stand.
The evening got off to a strange start. Those who made it for the ‘Welsh Football Fans For Independence March’ were met with an unusual emptiness when they arrived at Wommanby street. While there was a decent turnout, there was a noticeable drop off of numbers compared to previous editions.
The usual raucous atmosphere and camaraderie felt quite subdued, as the fans made their way to the stadium. The walk was brisk and seemed to pass by a lot quicker than usual, with the usual colourful scenes and chanting toned down.
Some context behind this:
It was the first march since the World Cup Play-Off match against Ukraine. That was a match which saw a sudden change to aggressive policing tactics, despite no incidents having been recorded in the history of the pre match ritual.
In recent years alongside a culture change within the FAW, the Welsh football fans have become known for their good behaviour and camaraderie, a huge contrast to the majority of football fans see around Europe.
Welsh football fans’ good behaviour has been well documented. In 2017 Wales football fans were ranked as the fourth best-behaved fans in Europe, and scenes like bucket collections when travelling abroad and fans cleaning up the streets in Belgium are only some of the good work the Red Wall have produced in recent years.
The Red Wall pride themselves upon upholding key principles and are often seen self-policing themselves if any issues do arrive. All this makes the decision of the South Wales Police to adopt a heavy-handed approach at the Ukraine game seem strange.
The sudden presence and the use of video recording equipment that day from the police has now seemed to have its desired effect by scaring off football fans from attending the much loved pre-match ritual.
The police presence was notable walking through the centre of Cardiff. The lack of a hustle and bustle down Womanby street highlighted the fact that fans were worried of run ins with the police.
There were no real issues walking to the stadium thankfully, but the walk was hollow and did not have that same feel to it after being tainted by overzealous policing a few months ago.
Once in the stadium, the atmosphere was buzzing, as the light show awakened the atmosphere alongside the Zombie Nation staple.
However, frustration was in the air from the beginning. Polish fans were still chanting during the beginning of ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’, fortunately it was drowned out and away fans were left dumbfounded by yet another mesmerising acapella rendition of the Welsh National Anthem.
The game got off to a bright start, Wales enjoyed the best of the opening 10 minutes, before Poland began to impose their game onto a young Welsh side.
There was a smattering of Polish fans dotted around the home end. Most, I assume, were like the father and son I was sat near to, who had moved to Wales and were enjoying the match with a few Welsh friends from their local area.
Took this pic which clearly shows the firework/rocket that was launched shortly after Swiderski’s goal.
Many fans have understandably made comparisons to the tragedy in 1993. Security checks were clearly inadequate/non-existent in the away end. pic.twitter.com/VxAkB4AUR1
— Ian Mitchelmore (@IanMitchelmore) September 26, 2022
No issues were brought up throughout the first half, neither Welsh fans, nor stewards batted an eye lid, which should be the case.
The match was much like any other game at half time, nothing out of the ordinary. But the atmosphere suddenly morphed into something I have not witnessed before.
Poland striker Karol Swiderski scored the game’s opener in the 58th minute, and a fog, metaphorically and physically engulfed the stadium. There is never usually an issue when the opposition score, but with Polish fans so close to the home supporters, the red mist began to roll over.
Behind us to our left, a Welsh fan had taken umbridge to the Polish celebrations. Rather than carrying on watching the game, fans began to look around and spectate these petulant outbursts. Several more Welsh fans began to berate Polish fans after seeing the example being set, despite there being no issues for the previous hour.
The whole atmosphere had now soured with threats and insults from both sides building towards that unsettling moment at some club grounds which normally boils over into violence, either inside or outside the ground.
Meanwhile, the Polish away fans who were enjoying their team’s goal, began to light flares and set off a firework in the stand adjacent to the family stand, which would cause flashbacks to a very dark night in Welsh football in 1993.
How they had smuggled the pyrotechnic products into the stadium, is something I am sure will be investigated. But after the way Welsh fans have been treated in the last few months by South Wales Police, allowing this to go unchecked among visiting fans is nothing short of a disgrace.
The atmosphere in the crowd was toxic and a culture of complacency and police mishandling, plus ineffective stewarding, had led to things finally boiling over.
It took away all the attention from the spectacle on the pitch. For the first time for many years, it was not an atmosphere to be savoured at the Cardiff City Stadium.
Nurturing and protecting the Red Wall atmosphere has taken years.
But it’s a fragile beauty and only time will tell if it can now withstand what may lay ahead in Qatar.