There’s an anniversary looming . . . and not just 10 weeks since we last saw any football. A significant milestone waits just ahead for those who spent many memorable afternoons and evenings at Swansea’s Vetch Field, such as Owen Morgan.
When I read on Twitter the other day that it’s 15 years since Swansea City played their last league match at Vetch Field, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I know most of us are struggling to know what day of the week it is and just how long we’ve now been in lockdown, but FIFTEEN years since Adrian Forbes scored the winner against Shrewsbury?
Where has all the time gone?
May 11 will mark the 15th anniversary of the very last game at the grand old stadium – when the Swans beat Wrexham to win the FAW Premier Cup.
Although the time seems to have flown, it’s fair to say a lot has happened since the curtain was brought down on 93 years of action at the Vetch.
Since the move to the Liberty Stadium, there has been promotion, relegation, a lengthy Premier League adventure, a European campaign, a League Cup triumph and hundreds of unforgettable memories.
The Vetch’s successor has certainly enjoyed an action-packed first decade and a half.
It’s been a case of “the King is dead, long live the King”.
But despite the success that has been enjoyed at the Liberty Stadium, with all its mod cons, there was still a definite pang of nostalgia for the old Vetch when I heard about the anniversary.
The first time I set foot in the ground was for a Fourth Division match against Bournemouth back in March 1978.
A pretty anonymous encounter watched by a crowd of just 7,500, the game was won by a solitary Kevin Moore goal.
But despite the modest surroundings and standard of play, I was well and truly hooked.
You could never describe the Vetch as the most attractive ground in the world, but I thought it was wonderful and I couldn’t wait to go back.
My first few visits were with my older sister’s boyfriend who took me to his usual spot in the middle of the North Bank.
This didn’t provide the best of views for an 11-year-old, especially when the ground was packed to the rafters – like the night when 24,335 crammed in to watch the League Cup tie against Spurs in 1978.
We took up our usual spot standing on the North Bank that night. When I say standing, I’m not sure my feet actually touched the floor for most of the match. I felt like a tightly packed sardine in the belly of the huge terrace.
Despite being suspended a couple of inches off the ground for the majority of the game, I only have a couple of visual memories from the match – aside from the backs of people’s heads.
I saw Spurs’ newly-arrived Argentinean World Cup winner Osvaldo Ardiles being “challenged” by former Liverpool hard man Tommy Smith.
I suppose that’s not entirely accurate. I saw Ardiles soar into the air after the late great Tommy welcomed him to Wales, but I didn’t actually see what must have been a thunderous impact.
I also remember seeing Spurs keeper Barrie Daines pulling off a spectacular save during a rare glimpse of the action as John Toshack’s third division Swans held First Division Spurs to a 2-2 draw, which they would follow up with a memorable 3-1 win at White Hart Lane.
When I started going to the Vetch with my pals, we tried other – less crowded – parts of the ground which might offer a clearer view of the pitch.
First of all was the East Terrace, which was more of a sloping hill with railway sleepers laid across it.
We used to lean against the advertising hoardings behind the goal, so close you could virtually reach out and touch the back of the net.
You almost felt you were part of the action standing there, and sometimes you were when a wayward cross or shot flew into the crowd.
We used to try and look out for ourselves on some of the old news footage of the time. But there was no HD television back in those days. You could barely make out the players on the flickering TV screens, let alone faces in the crowd.
We also tried the small terraced section of the wing stand and the terrace below the large Double Decker stand at the west end of the ground.
For one Welsh Cup tie against Shrewsbury, we managed to sneak into the top tier of the Double Decker.
Never again. I have never been good with heights and when I stepped out of the tunnel and into the stand I thought I’d stumbled out onto the north face of the Eiger.
How people used to sit up there without ropes, crampons and oxygen masks, I will never know. Surely, Health and Safety would never allow a stand to be built that steep these days – and out of wood, too.
I spent 10 minutes up there clinging to my seat before managing to crawl to the exit and back down the stairs to watch the rest of the match on terra firma.
But wherever we stood, our gaze was always drawn to the North Bank, that huge mass of people, which seemed to move, breath, gasp and cheer almost as one – especially when the Swans scored.
My eyes used to dart instantly from the ball hitting the net to the North Bank in order to see the forest of arms sprout up simultaneously to celebrate the goal. It was a remarkable sight when the terrace was full.
We eventually gave in to the lure of the North Bank and took up a spot leaning on the wall above one of the two large entrance tunnels onto the terrace. But you had to get there early to bags your spot.
This meant a Saturday routine that was run with all the precision of a military manoeuvre. We used to catch the 11.30am 123 service bus from the Amman Valley, joined by all the old ladies with their pull along shopping trolleys.
On arrival at the Quadrant bus terminal, the first port of call would be WH Smith for a look at the football magazines and books.
If we were feeling particularly brave and there were no staff around, we’d have a furtive flick through the Joy of Sex, or comedy collections like “A Hundred and One Uses for a Dead Cat”.
I’m not sure which used to make us giggle the most. Fair play, we were only about 12 or 13 at the time.
Then it was a choice of a quick look in a sports shop, which meant a dash up High Street to Linnard Sports or Edwards; or a browse in a record shop – there wouldn’t be time to do both.
Soon we would be off to Macari’s fish bar for our pre-match meal of rissole and chips, which we would eat as we made the short walk to the ground.
Once inside, it was a race to our coveted vantage point, where we could enjoy a view uninterrupted by bobbing bobble hats and scarves.
As we got older – and taller – we graduated to the rear of the terrace, where you could add to the atmosphere by kicking the corrugated metal sheets right at the back of the structure – in the days before it was cordoned off for safety reasons.
On particularly cold match days, if we had enough money left, we would afford ourselves a half-time treat – a cup of vegetable soup.
Now when I say soup that is a fairly loose description of what was served up. It had the colour and consistency of dishwater, with a handful of nondescript green leaves floating on top.
But it tasted wonderful. Dylan Thomas described Swansea as an ugly, lovely town, well, in that ugly lovely town you used to be able to buy suspicious, delicious soup.
I don’t know what was in it, but it used to hit the spot – especially during a freezing cold night game.
Ah, night games at the Vetch. They were my favourite. They meant an even more hectic dash down to Swansea after school and an even bigger one back to the Quadrant after the game.
In those days, evening kick-offs usually finished around 9.15pm and the last bus back to the Amman Valley was at 9.30pm, so there was no time to hang around after the game, especially if there was a big crowd and a crush to get out of the North Bank exits.
But it was worth it. Floodlit matches had an atmosphere all of their own.
In fact, there were some absolute crackers against the likes of arch-rivals Watford back in the late Seventies, when the two clubs were fighting out their own private race to get to the top flight first.
The floodlights used to create an electric atmosphere – barring power cuts, of course!
Swansea City’s first 11 for a game against Bradford in 1995, with a 17 year old Frank Lampard making his debut. pic.twitter.com/wYjDDUGvqL
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) December 14, 2014
There was that infamous night in 1981 when Wales played Iceland in a vital World Cup qualifier at the Vetch and the floodlights failed.
As we stood in the darkness with play having been halted, one wag on the North Bank urged everyone to put their hands in the air, because, as he pointed out: “Many hands make light work!”
However, the enforced delay meant we had to leave the ground before the end of the match in order to catch our bus.
When we left, Wales were leading 2-1 and we spent the journey back to the Amman Valley trying to plan how a gang of 14-year-olds were going to find their way to Spain the following summer.
Little did we know our dreams would be dashed. In those days before the internet, 24-hour sports channels and mobile phones, I didn’t find out until the following morning that Iceland had equalised to force a 2-2 draw which dealt a fatal blow to Wales’ World Cup hopes.
Not my happiest Vetch Field memory, but it was the kind of quirky night which was typical of the quirky old stadium.
However, there were plenty of happier playing memories from my Vetch days, especially the Swans’ unrivalled rise through the Football League under player-manager Toshack in the 1970s, clicked over into the 1980s.
That debut season in the First Division – just a few years after having to apply for re-election to the Football League – will always be my favourite, even in light of the club’s success over the past decade.
During the 1981-82 season the Vetch witnessed some remarkable results as the Swans recorded a top six finish having topped the table on more than one occasion:
- 5-1 opening day thrashing of Leeds United
- 2-1 triumph over reigning English Champions Aston Villa, who would go on to win the European Cup against Bayern Munich at the end of the season
- 2-0 success over reigning European Champions and League Cup holders Liverpool, who were on their way to winning the 1981-82 league title
- 2-1 win over FA Cup holders Tottenham Hotspur
- 2-0 win over Manchester United
- 2-0 win over Manchester City
- 2-0 win over Arsenal
For a teenager who had watched his first Swansea City match in the Fourth Division just over three years earlier, these were truly remarkable times.
However, probably the most important match I watched at the Vetch came in 2003 when Swansea were literally fighting for their survival in the last game of the season against Hull City.
Defeat would have meant relegation from the Football League and considering the club’s precarious financial state at the time, quite possibly total extinction as a professional outfit.
I can still clearly remember the almost unbearable tension during the days leading up to the match.
And it was multiplied tenfold as I took my place on a packed North Bank, directly underneath one of the holes in the ageing roof. On a rain-swept South Wales afternoon, it wasn’t the driest place to be, but the most comforting on such an uncertain day.
But the constant dripping from above was the last thing on my mind as, along with almost 10,000 other Swans fans, I headed every ball, slid into every tackle and shouted my support until I was hoarse.
I’d never experienced an atmosphere like that before and I’ve never experienced one since. Every single tackle and throw-in won by the Swans was cheered to the rafters as if they were goals.
And the goals? Well, let’s just say I wasn’t so much worried about the holes in the North Bank roof, I was more concerned about the structure being completely lifted off!
With the score at 3-2 to the Swans I remember screaming: “Not from there, James! Not from there!” as James Thomas shaped up for the long-range chip that eventually floated serenely over the Hull keeper’s head and into the net for his match-winning hat-trick.
The goal sparked an explosion of relief and delight the like of which I’d never experienced before . . . or since.
I don’t miss the indescribably unsanitary North Bank toilets, the leaky roof, or the crumbling terraces, but neither will I forget the wonderful memories from that ugly, lovely ground in the ugly, lovely town.