I walked from Tregarth to Bangor on an early summer’s evening in 2018. Every doubt and suspicion I’d held about the regime at Bangor City football club had been well and truly confirmed and as I walked down the old A5 and skirted the Rugby Club, I started to wonder. The sun was lowering over the bright green untouched fields and I wondered what it would be like if we just upped and started all over again. Like Mel and Tim. Or Hall and Oates. I wondered if a Bangor football team could play here, wondered if people would come to this little outpost… with a great view… and a bar…
As I walked past Ty Newydd, a sports field that was my second home from before I could remember till the day I packed my bags and moved South, I asked myself questions about what made sport such a defining theme in the lives of those who play, those who watch and those who possess the vision and dynamism to enable the game to be played in the first place. At the gates of the graveyard by the crem, I saluted my Taid. Tregarth Celts, Bangor Athletic. Past Maes G, then past what my Dad called Pygmies Park, then Coll Park and round the corner onto Beach Road. Another ground. My Taid lived in Orme Road, so when I played for Vaynol School there against St Paul’s in 1973, he didn’t have far to walk to watch the game. He stood with his hands in his waistcoat pockets, hat on, tipped back, smiling. St Paul’s murdered us… but back to that nagging question… what defines us?
Familiar faces greeted me in the Tap and Spile, or The Garth Hotel, as it will forever be etched in my memory. We were quickly into our subject for the night. It was a case of everything we predicted having come to pass. There was never a chance that when they, the proven killers of football clubs, came to the city, that we wouldn’t fall. It wasn’t written in the stars – it was written in Barrow, in Chester, in Widnes and we didn’t have to be mystic scholars of destiny to know which way the cards would fall. These weren’t loveable rogues chancing their arm skimming the top – we’ve had them, they came and went – no, this gravy was not only different – it was poison.
Beer has that wonderful effect, if taken, seated, with engaging conversation. Dripmat calculations were made, index fingers jabbed points on sticky tables and as the belief rose in direct proportion to the ale, so too was the question answered. What defines us? This. This defines us. Sitting round the table, recognising that the ties that bind us are beyond the wildest dreams of some carpet-bagging weasels with a bag of cash. Too much history, too many shared madcap journeys to joy, pain and oblivion; the same voice, the same disputes, the moidering, the stories, the tears of laughter; the piss taken, the hands shaken, the ground beneath our feet.
Fast forward through the last rites. As the vampires sucked the life out of Bangor City, I wondered how many conversations like the one we had in the Garth had taken place across our city. I tried. Buckley home. Porthmadog home. That was it for me. Gone. Over. I went to a gig in Pontio. Different people. Same conversation.
In October I was on my way to Ireland. A family trip to Cork via Holyhead. On the way, a stop-off in Bangor yields another green shoot. It’s clear that there have been many, many conversations taking place and the key to all of them seemed to be that there was a growing consensus that it was pointless getting mired in a struggle with a regime that does what it likes, invents its
own narrative and produces large amounts of unaccounted-for cash to underwrite its indeterminate agenda. Company law? The FA of Wales. Blind eyes, unpaid players and an aching and horrible sense of degeneration and loss. The word in many different quarters, was that enough was enough.
It became real. No more down at heel. The movement to place hope and camaraderie into the centre of a new agenda began. The things that define us were being discussed, clarified and solidified into an idea that, in the hands of Citizens who knew exactly what the game has to offer, could, with support, be translated into action. By the spring of 2019, virtually everyone who followed football in Bangor, whether casually or every week, home and away on those monumental trips to Carmarthen or Copenhagen, was saying the same thing. The fans are the club. So wherever the fans are… the club is.
The work involved in creating a football club from scratch, without alienation, without a war, without distraction, in Bangor, in a few months, was colossal. But they did it. I know them and I know how much sacrifice, how much care and how much blood, sweat and tears it took. I remember receiving a text that said the FAW had placed us in the Gwynedd League and how that realisation took some getting used to before I had a word with myself and went back to that evening, walking past Bangor Rugby Club, daydreaming of a time when Bangor football would be a joy to behold.
And where did we go to open our account? Where did we go to score our first goal, to demonstrate on one sublime day that a club is fans and players, not cynicism and bitterness? We went to the home of FC United of Manchester. We gathered early, we drank and we moidered, we received a truly unforgettable welcome from brilliant hosts and lost 12-1 but when that single goal was scored, it simply underlined that the identity that had gone to ground, dragged down by the weight of separation, had resurfaced with a purpose. No-one who witnessed those celebrations could have doubted it.
The approach of 2020 gives us cause to pause and take stock. We’re six months old but we’ve got a hundred and forty four years of history to draw from and judging by the numbers of kids attending matches AND playing for the club, there IS a future. The fact that we now receive the odd shot fired from snipers outside the city suggests that we have made it onto the radar. Rivals are only rivals if they fear you, after all…
And in the end, it was at another outpost where we found a home. Another great view. A place long familiar to me. Just up the Strait from the crumbling circus of Nantporth, Treborth was the place where Roy Rees taught us much about fitness (those banks, Christ… ) and then control, movement and space. My Dad ran the place in the 80s (when he wasn’t coaching in America with Roy) and I grew up less than a mile away in Penrhos. Before Ysbyty Gwynedd was built, there was gorse and a patch of grass next to Bryn Ogwen, where the hospital now stands. Although we had Vaynol School’s slopey pitch down our end, we sometimes gathered up there for a game. One of the older lads organised us – I wonder if he remembers…
What we see on the field from the players is the product of hard work – theirs and that of Mel Jones and his staff. There are no shortcuts to winning games and whilst there have been one-sided encounters against some league opposition, there have also been some fireworks. Any ideas that progress would be irresistible were put firmly back in their box against an excellent Nefyn side who took some breaking down and came to Treborth not just to compete or have a go but to win. 1876 prevailed but for players and fans alike, it was a valuable lesson in earning the right to play. And then there was the Welsh Cup. The win against Penycae had everything (literally) and in defeat to Ruthin, the team showed real quality against opposition who merited huge respect. The football from both sides would have graced the highest domestic level. Away at Llanrwst there was no quarter given by the well organised hosts who gave a timely reminder that we are in a pyramid for a reason and that a simple game-plan on a heavy pitch can sometimes pay dividends. In every game, though, the emphasis on a collective effort has shone through and some of the football has been top drawer.
Off the field, the tireless work of volunteers and the generous support of highly respected and valued sponsors has created a productive environment for football development, from the first team to the youth sections and has encouraged an obvious pride in the shirt. The idea of development is fundamental to the values we subscribe to. Improving every player, from the youngest to the oldest (no names mentioned!) and enjoying the game should be at the heart of everything we stand for.
Without question, the experience of being part of Bangor 1876’s journey has surpassed many wild dreams. I won’t single out players for praise because on the evidence that I’ve witnessed, each and every one of them has made a vital contribution to the team. We’re back to things that define us, back to the absolute nuts and bolts of what the game means as a spectacle and as a focus for the community.
It seems as though cup competitions have dominated the autumn and it’s been strange getting accustomed to the administrative priorities of grassroots football. I know that there were rumblings of discontent in certain quarters when we were ‘parachuted’ into the league but the welcomes we’ve received at away games have, in my experience anyway, been warm and friendly and lets face it, the numbers at grassroots level make a difference. For me, living far away, it’s a challenge dealing with the monthly release of fixtures but I go when I can and when I can’t, like many other expat fans, I’m attached to Twitter for that couple of hours, quietly clenching my fist when a goal goes in. As it stands we’re second in the League with a few games in hand but as every football-cliché scholar knows, there’s a long way to go.
I’ll be there on Saturday. Last time this year for me. With ten minutes to go, whatever the score is and however much legs are tiring (mine included) I’ll hear that mantra clear as bell from Dylan Williams in the technical area. “Move the ball, keep the ball moving!” And they will. As they should.
Aye to that.