Football and Fashion
The story of how one Welsh fan has seen the rise of his burgeoning casual empire grow in tandem with the on the field success of his team.
With the best will in the world, it would be difficult to equate the former Yugoslav Kingdom of Montenegro with fashion. However, in September 2010 in Podgorica, and as the Welsh football team began their Euro 2012 campaign with a laborious and somewhat typical defeat to dash the hopes of a nation before they had even been dreamt of, one particular Welsh fan was indeed thinking about couture. Not haute, but footy. As he looked around his fellow disappointed and motley dressed collection of supporters, Tim Williams began to wonder why there was no real shared identity amongst the followers of the then lowliest team in the British Isles. The Scots have kilts and pipes, the Irish have Guinness hats and leprechaun beards, whilst the English deck themselves out (erroneously) in Union Jack shorts and (correctly) St George’s flag face paint. Yet Welsh fans seemed to have no such identity.
On his return to Bala in North Wales, Williams began to think how this issue might be (a)dressed. How might the Welsh supporters carry their pride even when the team were failing to deliver on the pitch? How could he produce a particularly Welsh fashion that refused to pander to the stereotypes that epitomise the dress sense of those followers of the oval ball game? His response was to delve into the past and specifically a balmy day in Wrexham in May 1980, when a Welsh team destroyed the (as always) hyped up English team that had been expected to win simply by turning up. The result on the pitch was 4-1 to Wales; thirty years later the result off the field was a t-shirt featuring that team’s line up. The green of the heightened colour grass, when allied with the red and white of the Welsh team’s kit that day made for an iconic t-shirt bearing the legend Better than England.
Williams’ timing was fortuitous. Within six months of the Montenegro defeat, the failures that had epitomised John Toshack’s spell in charge of his country were soon to be banished as a young man with plenty of potential took over; the Gary Speed era was about to begin.
To give Toshack his due, he had begun to blood the youngsters (Gareth Bale played in the Montenegro match) but the game had changed since Toshack’s successful 1980s managerial career and Gary Speed, the consummate professional of the nineties and noughties, was exactly what was needed to move his charges into the modernity of 21st Century football and boost Welsh fortunes in the process. In making twenty year old Aaron Ramsey the Welsh captain Speed was showing his faith in youth although he was savvy enough to keep some of the more experienced of the old guard, such as Craig Bellamy, to help guide the youngsters through the transition stage. This brave new world of Welsh football, was matched by Williams vision for a fashion reflecting this, and like Speed, he was targeting the youth market.
The thriving Welsh music scene found in the fringes and peaks of Wales rather than the cities had begun to develop a distinct fashion as epitomised by the Super Furry Animals. Some might call it Mountain Chic, consisting of necessity and cool. Cagoules, hiking boots (or maybe a good pair of trainers for the week when the sun comes out) and jeans were de-rigueur, as was headwear; bobble hats for the cold and buckets hats for when it rained…well…buckets. Williams got to thinking what could be added to this identity that as yet had failed to catch hold outside of Wales (I haven’t mentioned beards yet and just look how those have taken off in 2015…the Welsh were half a decade ahead). Well, everyone in Wales needs a good hoodie at some point, and so Williams began producing them with a theme designed around Wrexham AFC referencing their promotion charge in 1978. Following the success of these early efforts, Williams began to branch out.
A similar trajectory was evident on the pitch as Gary Speed had begun to make noticeable improvements. His first six months in charge saw the team reach their nadir with a lowest ever FIFA ranking of 117th. But from this point on the team began to grow, firstly in gaining revenge for the defeat that had witnessed Tim Williams’ Eureka moment, with a 2-1 win against Montenegro, before wins against Switzerland at home and Bulgaria away (and a good performance in defeat vs England) saw Wales make a mockery of that ranking. Then on 12th November 2011 we finally saw the real possibilities within this team illustrated in the most spectacular fashion. Speed had quietly revolutionised the playing style of the national team and their newly found mature passing game saw Norway outplayed with some quite lovely football and indeed goals.
Tim Williams, like Wales, was on a roll. Next up were hats. With an eye on the prevailing fashions in the rural interior of Wales Williams produced two superb and classic designs that utilised the traditional colours of the team and flag. Bucket hats come in two colours, home and away if you like, the green, red and white of the flag are topped off with the Welsh Dragon of the football logo and the legend Spirit of ’58. Every Welsh football fan, as well as every piss taking English fan knows the significance of that year. In fact, if anyone has watched Wales play an international match on television they will be able to tell you as it is trotted out every single time by every single commentator, that 1958 was the last time Wales qualified for a major tournament. It is rarely mentioned how well they did, reaching the Quarter Finals and only going out after losing 1-0 to Brazil (and Pele’s first ever goal at the World Cup Finals). The second hat features Wales football colours; red, yellow and green which are based on a fondly remembered Admiral kit of the 1970s, a kit that was similarly but not actually resuscitated as recently as last year. It bears the legend Old Skool. It looks great.
The bobble hat is a stunner. It is scarlet red with two rows of yellow and green breaking it up, highlighted by a daffodil yellow bobble at the peak. Finally the letters and numbers; SO58, no need to trot the full name out; those who need to know will know by now. Those who don’t do not need to know.
Seeing a crowd full of these on winter’s evening as Wales bid to qualify for Euro 2016 will be a sight to behold. Holland have their orange shirts, Wales have their bobble hats. Incidentally, the fashion may have begun sometime earlier as this author recalls attending a match between Shrewsbury and Rhyl over the border at Gay Meadow, and seeing the Rhyl contingent disembark, each to a man wearing a headrest cover on their head that had been en masse liberated from the coaches…before proceeding to swirl them above their heads chanting “Wooly hats, wooly hats, wooly hats…” ad-infinitum throughout the game.
Williams’ clothes now had an identity, Spirit of 58, and a look of their own. What else might the discerning Welsh football fan need? Well, I have seen some of the scariest looking, shaven headed, massively built football fans poring and cooing over pin badges associated with their favourite team. It is a part of the casual thing. No replica kits when a small badge will suffice. Williams cleverly created a character, wrapped up for winter and looking not unlike Gruff Rhys of the aforementioned Super Furry Animals, that incorporates both the fashion and the support for the team. Hell, why not create a summer dude whilst he’s at it? And so character number two appeared, and like his more hirsute predecessor found his way onto a new SO58 t-shirt.
Meanwhile tragedy had struck the Welsh football team. Having seen his team named the best climbers in FIFA’s World ratings, Gary Speed, the proud Welshman responsible for the magnificent resurgence of his nation’s footballing fortunes, inexplicably took his own life at the tender age of 42. The world of football was rocked when the news was announced on the 27th November just a fortnight after his team had thrilled his home country with the manner of play against Norway. Wales went into shock, and suddenly football did not seem so important anymore. Depression, a cruel and debilitating affliction, was given as the official reason for Gary Speed’s dreadful decision but that didn’t prevent ugly rumours swirling around social media. Needless to say, it is unlikely that we will ever know what was going through Speed’s mind that night, but his loss was felt way beyond his family and friends who naturally felt it the keenest. It is without doubt the saddest chapter in Welsh football history.
Nevertheless, the football world stops for little and so it was in Wales as Chris Coleman was appointed as Speed’s replacement and seemed to be endeavouring to undo all of his friend’s previous good work. In retrospect, the psychological damage created by Gary Speed’s tragic death, especially upon the younger members of the squad, must have been hugely unsettling and the results showed it as Wales finished fifth in a group of six, just above Macedonia. And so, as Gary Speed had two years previously, Wales had to regroup and start again. It felt like Wales’ poor performances ran alongside an understandable mourning process but then in 2014 the atmosphere surrounding the Welsh team changed. Instead of grieving over the death of their former manager the Welsh team has appeared to embrace his memory as a catalyst to progress. Chris Coleman, much maligned in his first two years as coach seemed to recognise this and he sought out Roger Speed, Gary’s father, to talk to the team before games. This regrouping has seen a sensational improvement as Coleman has shown he is a shrewd manager and has really grown into the role. He knows what the nation wants and appears to see it his duty to drive the team on to qualification, and in doing so cement Gary Speed’s legacy as well as his own. Wales are also fortunate to have Gareth Bale, a superstar galactico who unlike the principality’s last world class player actually wants to play for his country. In midfield the technically superb Aaron Ramsey pulls the strings whilst Ashley Williams who has succeeded Ramsey as captain is an inspirational rock-like presence at the back. That’s not a bad spine.
Allied to the football resurgence, the music scene is once more flourishing in Wales. Spearheaded by the return of the Super Furry Animals (all massive football fans),other bands such as Zefur Wolves, Yucatan, Carw, and Gwenno amongst many, many more (https://soundcloud.com/asoundreaction ) have all embraced the Super Furries’ ‘experimental whist never forgetting the tune is king’ approach to their craft and have created some breathtaking music.
Wales is on the up once more.
Back in Bala, with the team’s improvement in fortune, Tim Williams began to plot how to give his fellow Welshmen further identity with which to begin the assault on Euro 2016. Incorporating a nod to Northern Soul iconoclasm his designs reflect the new found pride in the national football team. Mugs emblazoned with the Welsh FA logo and legendary football rebel (and adopted Welshman) Robin Friday started to appear. Robin and the previous two anonymous SO58 characters adorn key rings, whilst polo shirts and t-shirts with unique designs (Independent Football Nation incorporates the outline of the country and THAT 70s kit, whilst Welsh Football Heads has the summer character dressed for a rave, defiantly waiting to be entertained) are being proudly worn across Europe.
Perhaps the final and most obvious creation based out of necessity (as anyone who has driven around rural Wales will know, the most overpowering smell of the countryside is not fresh air as other counties know it, as the sheep and cows feel duty bound to remind us through their various pungent emissions) is a car air freshener. Very Welsh and in SO58’s hands, very cool.
So after the remarkable and deserved 1-0 win against Belgium, Wales are on the cusp for the first time since you know when (Bodin!). That’s not to say anything is being taken for granted, as Welsh fans are long used to the rug being swept from beneath them at the final hurdle. Nevertheless the nation is discovering that two sports can determine who we are in our various (high spirited and thankfully well behaved) trips abroad. One thing is for sure, Tim Williams will continue in his quest to add a sartorial swagger to Wales’s foreign escapades, and who knows, should they reach the Holy Grail of France 2016, maybe a SO58 beret might be in order?
This article has referred to a number of items produced by Spirit of 58, the above sites contain much more.
(Observing from across the border, enviously).