The Red Wall, the name given to the massed ranks of Wales fans decked out in replica shirts, that were their team’s 12th man out in France, impressed everyone as they experienced the greatest summer of their lives. And while the football team blazed a glorious trail to the Euro 2016 semi-finals, the fans were rewarded for their entente cordiale with a special award from UEFA.
It had been a long, hard, barren road for Wales’ players, fans and the Football Association of Wales. They hadn’t qualified for a major international tournament since 1958 - a number of near misses in the intervening years causing untold heartache for everyone associated with the game.
That’s why France was the stuff of dreams for fans who had waited years for this moment.
The success of Euro 2016, however, was years in the making, built on a slogan that had galvanised the international side - ‘Together Stronger’, the foundation on which The Red Wall was built.
Work had begun behind the scenes for the FAW several years earlier as they looked for a vision and motto that would capture the growing self-belief in Welsh football, and inspire the fans and players. Their initial slogan was ‘Time To Believe’, but when the Wales team lost to Serbia 6-1 in September 2012 in a qualifier for the 2014 World Cup, it was left behind.
What they were searching for had, in fact, been there all the time on the players’ shirts. The Wales crest with its motto ‘Gorau Cwarae Cyd Chwarae’ – ‘best play is team play’ led to ‘Together Stronger’. Everyone pulling in the same direction - officials, players and fans - led to the extraordinary reawakening of Welsh football and successive qualifications for the European Championships.
It was the ‘Together Stronger’ ethos that changed the public image of the game, resulting in a new found cultural self-confidence. However, it was the building blocks of The Red Wall, put in place by the FAW and its match day team behind the scenes that transformed the experience for fans eager to savour this striking evolution of the game in Wales.
In turn, a fan-led uprising - a heady mix of new found self-confidence, pride and passion, aligned with a strong cultural identity, transformed the supporter base. This was Club Wales – inclusive, bilingual, cosmopolitan and internationalist in outlook.
The last decade has seen the startling transformation of Welsh international football – both on and off the pitch. Success breeds success and brings in fans, but the match day supporter experience at the Cardiff City Stadium is a key factor in engendering loyalty, underlining the ‘Together Stronger’ ethos, such an important part of the Wales fan’s DNA.
One of the first things the FAW wanted to get right was the singing of the national anthem before games. However, this wasn't a straightforward task, with the FAW and its match day team spending several years trying to perfect this pivotal moment.
Trying singers brought in to perform the anthem before matches, using recorded backing tracks, putting the words up on the screen and in programmes for fans, all worked to a degree, but the biggest issue was that the crowd was ultimately out of sync with the anthem.
In a eureka moment, the FAW and its match day team realised the problem wasn't the singing, it was the music itself. They subsequently removed much of the anthem from the equation, playing just the first three bars to start the fans off, and letting The Red Wall take it from there.
It was a masterstroke. It is now the perfect spine-tingling precursor to the game, the stirring anthem sung with gusto and pride by the massed ranks of The Red Wall.
Music plays a hugely important part in the matchday experience, from the matchday Spirit Of ‘58 stage (named after the clothing company synonymous with the distinctive bucket hats adopted by Welsh fans), which has seen the cream of Welsh talent performing below the Canton Stand in front of wildly enthusiastic fans, to those keepers of the Wales fans’ hearts - The Barry Horns. The much-loved brass band have become the soundtrack of this new golden generation, the orchestrators of a playlist so fulsome and varied, it bears absolutely no relation or comparison to those barren days of recent decades.
Formed in 2011, when they performed outside the Millennium Stadium ahead of Wales playing England in a World Cup qualifier, the band, named after former Wales captain Barry Horne, were quickly adopted by the FAW to provide a stirring accompaniment to the unique fan chants that can now be heard reverberating around the Cardiff City Stadium. Their reconstruction of hits from yesteryear have been a thrilling sideshow to the on-pitch excellence. See ‘Ain’t Nobody’ by Chaka Khan (Joe Ledley), ‘Push It’ by Salt n Pepa (Hal Robson Kanu), ‘Give It Up’ by KC and the Sunshine Band (Gareth Bale now Kieffer Moore), ‘No Limits’ by 2 Unlimited (Ashley and Jonny Williams now Neco and Jonny), ‘Gimme Hope Joanna’ by Eddy Grant (Joe Allen), to name just a few. When you factor in The Red Wall theme tunes ‘Don’t Take Me Home’ and ‘Zombie Nation’, that’s some repertoire.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the fan experience has been the amount of Welsh language songs now sung at the stadium, supporters embracing a national pride and cultural identity, 'The Welsh football team is a route into learning about Welsh history and culture,' says Fez Watkins, band leader of The Barry Horns. 'That’s how I got into it. Being around people who are passionate about the Welsh football team, which is an independent institution, not beholden to anyone. The highest accolade is to play for Wales. It’s not to play for the British Lions or Team GB, it is to play for Wales. And I love that, we all love that.'
It’s a sentiment shared by match day stadium announcer, Rhydian Bowen-Phillips. 'I love The Red Wall / Y Wal Goch - anyone and everyone can be a part of it,' he says. 'We are proud ambassadors for this independent football nation and were rightly awarded that special award back in 2016. What is special is that no matter how big or small the turnout, it’s always The Red Wall. Albania the other night felt like relaying the foundations with just a few thousand, but they were The Red Wall. The link between the team and the fans is special. Chris Gunter is like our representative in the team.'
As for the emergence of the Welsh language at games, represented in the branding of the team and the rise in Welsh language songs sung at games, Rhydian says tribute had to be paid to the FAW. 'That’s down to the FAW not being afraid of who we are as a country, what our heritage is linguistically and unashamedly and unapologetically putting Cymraeg at the forefront wherever and whenever they can, be it on social media, at press conferences or ‘Diolch’ on the players’ t-shirts. That in turn has been embraced by the fans in the sense that ‘Calon Lân’ can sit side by side with ‘Zombie Nation’ in the Canton Stand and bands like Candelas can follow Feeder on the stadium playlist. Everything I say on the stadium mic is bilingual with Cymraeg being first every time. I’ve always lived a bilingual life and that has always been accepted in Y Wal Goch.'
This vivid ideology has been wholeheartedly embraced by fans. This reimagining of Welsh football is also set to pay dividends for the women’s team, who feel on the cusp of the sort of breakthrough their male counterparts have experienced. The foundations are in place, as they were for the men's team in 2014. You got some great players, a good squad, there is togetherness, but they haven’t been able to get across the line to qualify just yet.
But with the changes the FAW have made, and a new manager, those who understand how winning teams are built recognise that this can be a very successful female team - one that has been fully embraced by The Red Wall.