Great writers have described rain. Poets and in particular, songwriters, have extolled its virtues and metaphorised its miseries. One can’t stand it, it keeps falling on my head, it is purple, here it comes again, singing in it, it’s in my heart… the lot. Well I’ll tell you something. You could have gathered Ann Peebles, David and Bacharach, Prince, The Eurythmics, Freed and Brown, Boudleaux and Felice Bryant at Treborth on Saturday and their collective efforts wouldn’t have got within a monsoon of what fell out of that sky. At times it rained so hard that The Britannia Bridge disappeared from view. If Arthur Hamilton had been there he could have written a variation of his multiple hit and called it Cry Me The Menai Straits. Wet enough for you? Then we’ll begin.
It’s only spotting when Jo drops me off by The Antelope. I stride briskly towards the botanical gardens. How many football fans stride through botanical gardens, past rare trees and patches of non-native shrubs on their way to home games? A car stops and the lady inside offers me a lift. Jan is from Manchester, lived in Buckinghamshire and now resides on Anglesey. She supports Bangor 1876. I live in Buckinghamshire. Fancy that. We chat for the five minutes it takes to drive to the ground and it is clear that she is squarely behind everything about the club. Do we talk about the weather? No, we talk about football.
In the pavilion (how many football fans go to a pavilion?) Pete Jones of this parish draws my attention to a group of students on an adjacent pitch. They are, according to him, playing Quidditch. Whatever they’re doing, they’ve managed to churn up a patch of ground to the extent that it resembles the corner of a field where wet cows jostle for the right to give doleful looks to passers-by. I’m doubtful because I’m not sure how the snitch works in this zany university sport. I wonder if some third years kept a straight face at Freshers Fair and a group impressionable youngsters from boarding school signed up in the hopes of bringing their under-the-covers Rowling-reads to life. Regardless, they remain firmly on the ground, ankle deep in mud, ploughing circles in the unlikely shadow of an American football goal. If there is a snitch – do they use a drone? – it probably retired to the groundsman’s hut half an hour ago… to dry off.
The Rain Song is in my list of top ten Led Zeppelin favourites. Numerous lines have resonated throughout my life because good songwriting has that power. I think of our recent football history and “I cursed the gloom that set upon us… ” followed by the realisation that “these are the seasons of emotion and like the wind they rise and fall – this is the wonder of devotion, I see the torch we all must hold… ” Here, Quidditch to the left of me, moiderers to the right, amongst the gathering crowd of 1876 devotees, the last lines remind us that the things that are worth having are not attained without setbacks – “upon us all, a little rain must fall… ”
I sample a Conwy Brewery Rampart Ale, chat easily with the faithful and then make my way pitch-side. The string section of drizzle is tuning up as the horns and woodwind and percussion take their positions in the pit. Those discordant squeaks and random irritations fill the air, until instrument by instrument, the full orchestra prepares. Pete’s umbrella is much envied as the game kicks off. This is The Welsh Cup. The trophy knows it’s way to Bangor. Times may have changed. But. This is the Welsh Cup.
Penycae are a good side. They are more streetwise than Huggy Bear (young readers look it up), more dramatic than Corrie and their purply-pink clad keeper wears a hipster beard and a haircut that looks like the barber forgot what he was doing when he went out for a fag and then came back in and finished it by quickly by razoring around a shoebox placed on the keeper’s head. On a night out in Wrexham, the lad in goal probably looks like a Netflix god but here in the rain, as any vestige of sculpting product runs down the side of his face, his ‘look’ is somewhat diminished. The smiling referee brandishes yellow cards at blue shirts as the visitors roll around on the floor like true professionals. Helped to their feet, they gingerly try out their legs before sprinting away like light-footed gazelles. (Gordon Lightfoot’s Rainy Day People is now playing in my head… )
They score first and celebrate wildly, urging each other to be strong and look after the ball. They don’t. Within a few minutes they concede a penalty and the lead is erased by the nerveless Jamie Petrie. So much for the urgings. Pete’s umbrella bobs and weaves with a life of its own as the rain intensifies. The weather’s rehearsal is almost complete…
Our final pass goes astray too often. This is a young team. The old heads cajole and remonstrate, encourage and demonstrate but the temptation to elaborate when the simple pass will do, is all too often where things break down. The intention to play properly and creatively, though, is to be cherished and the learning curve against a good side like this is welcome and will be a great lesson. This, FC United of Manchester aside, is the hardest test yet.
There are ball boys and girls stationed around the pitch. They wear waterproof tops over their football kits and crouch by the perimeter fences, lashed by the cruel rain, core temperatures dropping by the minute. It’s clear that it’s not a happy position to be in and when a stray shot trickles close to one of the sodden children, he chooses to stay perfectly still, having presumably found a position where the rain can’t trickle down his neck. The keeper fetches the ball and I assume, checks for signs of movement. A forlorn hooded head twitches and the goal kick is taken. At half-time it’s one apiece and in the distance, the Quidditch match has ended. I decide against another beer as this will necessitate a trek to the facilities both now and later in the second half.
Second half. Penycae score again. A great finish. The ball boys and girls have deserted their posts, electing to play their own game in the fenced off, all-weather square next to what is becoming known as Moiderers Corner. The main event continues in the teeming rain but as a metaphor for everything that is brilliant about Bangor 1876, the sideshow in the ‘cage’ is heartwarming. All in club shirts, the kids are as absorbed in their game as we are in the drama unfolding in the first round of a competition that has given Bangor football people so many wonderful memories.
Halfway through the second forty-five the Raingod Symphony Orchestra is in full swing. It is now, to coin a phrase, absolutely fucking pissing down. The players on both sides continue to work like their respective ancestors – quarrymen and coalminers – grinding it out. The ref keeps booking them. Perhaps his forebears were clerks? Penycae slow the game down at every opportunity (they would, wouldn’t they?) and 1876 keep knocking on the door. The last time I was this soaked, Pete Jones and I were scaling the east ridge of Yr Elen, 3000 feet up in a Carneddau in near-zero visibility. Today, his umbrella gives him the advantage and my six-foot-plus frame banishes me to the mercies of the relentless cascade.
The kids keep playing. In the ‘cage’ and on the pitch. The kids drink beer behind the goal. The big kids keep their fingers crossed in Moiderers Corner and bigger kids still drink beer on the slate bank outside the pavilion. Some pray silently and then… and then… some begin to give voice to their prayers and for the first time at our adopted home, the songs begin. There are less than ten minutes left to pull the game out of, if not the fire… maybe the drowning pool. Then there are five. Then there is one. And then, as the second-hand whirrs through added time and the symphony of precipitation enters its final movement, Penycae concede a corner. I’m willing the taker to stick it in the air above the hipster keeper. He’s not the biggest and he hasn’t been tested.
I scored the goal in a one nil win against Swansea University in a UW quarter-final on the far pitch in Ffriddoedd in 1982. Roy Rees winked at me and cuffed me on the back of my head as I walked off. I felt ten feet tall. As if to prove that there is nothing new in the universe, Matthew Lock scores exactly the same goal 37 years later. He is alone, virtually on the goal line at the far post and as the ball loops to him, he pivots his body and deflects the ball into the net. The rain immediately stops, a shaft of bright sunlight bathes the ground and the gods decree that there will extra-time. Ok, it didn’t stop raining and there was no sunbeam but I had you going for a second…
Joyous scenes on the bank, beer flies behind the goal and even when Penycae take the lead with another excellent finish, the singing just carries on. Once (it seems a lifetime ago but it wasn’t… ) in a Welsh Cup semi-final at Rhyl, as the ruination of the old club was almost complete, we sang in defiance of the Nomads six goals, sang to remind players and coaches and ‘owners’ that it it we who will always possess the spirit of Bangor football and now we sing because we seized the day, we made this and the lads in blue, straining every sinew out on the pitch, know it. What a team.
1876 stick at it. “Move the ball, keep moving the ball” is the shout from the technical area and the ball is duly moved. In a melee surrounding a ball into the box, we are awarded a penalty. The singing is momentarily paused but then resumes as Jamie Petrie spots the ball. He’s a good footballer with a sweet touch and he scores penalties for fun. As the ball rests in the corner, we know he’s going to be taking another one… or at least we assume he will.
And then the final whistle blows. 3-3. Penalties. This epic has cost those in attendance £2 each. The electricity required to dry my clothes afterwards will probably cost more. The skies are unrelenting. Down it comes. We gather behind the railway-end goal but the action, it turns out, will take place at the far end. If that’s the choice of Penycae, it’s definitely the wrong one. I know this because there is a football law that says anything that tries to water down (!) the drama is a ticket to failure. Les Pegler informs me that Leon Jones WILL save two penalties. On what basis this prediction is made, I have no idea but it comforts me through the difficult moments before doom is met.
When Johnno hits the bar with the first penalty, I experience a weird kind of pang. He is such an important player, such a talisman, that for a split second, doubt, that wet comfort-blanket of the pessimist, lies heavy on my hope. Leon Jones saves one. I look at Les Pegler. It’s on and then… we miss and they score. There are three each left. Les and the highly talented Dylan Williams score whilst Penycae score and miss… or was it miss and score? My head has now gone. Moiderers Corner cannot look… but it does. The kids in the cage, like the rain, carry on regardless – it’s as though somewhere in the wind they heard “move the ball, move the ball”…
Jamie Petrie will score. Jamie Petrie scores pens for fun. Jamie Petrie scores and I know, I KNOW that the pressure on the lad in yellow, who trudges towards the spot is something he will not have experienced before. He strikes the ball towards the top left corner of the goal as we look. Leon Jones, in slow-mo, turns to watch it rise. My glasses, like a windscreen between intermittent wipes, blur the trajectory, until suddenly, the ball flies upwards on a wild arc and bounces out of harms way. He’s hit the bar.
It’s still raining as we celebrate. Lost voices scrape out ragged, throaty chants and raw hands applaud every player from both sides as they return to the pavilion. This is a community of souls who believe that there is more to this game than cynicism, exploitation, dishonesty and dodgy dealing. After some emotional milestones, this was the first ‘epic’ in the regeneration of Bangor’s football history. That it came in the first round of the Welsh Cup was fitting. That it took place in torrential rain with barely any cover for the fans was testament to the affection in which the the team and the concept of Bangor 1876 are held.
Chatting with a few friends outside the steaming pavilion, I realise that I’m cold. A mam retrieves her children from ‘the cage’ fearing hypothermia but they appear none the worse for their frenetic, extended run-around in the rain. Jo has exchanged the delights of Menai Bridge for The Antelope car park so I say my farewells and warm myself, jogging past the cars on the narrow lane to the pub that was nearest to where I grew up.
“That must have been some game?” she says…
“It was” I understate… and then… ”it was more than that – it was a piece of history.”