Football and Education: Wales - Rugby or Football? (Part Two)

For Part One - Click Here

Growing up in Wales, P.E. lessons were dominated by one sport - rugby. Gareth and I both attended the same high-school in Cardiff and both enjoyed playing the game from time-to-time. But for us, football was always our number one. Coming from Wales, people are sometimes surprised that rugby indeed takes a back seat in our interests and that our love for football only grows stronger each day. This got us thinking, what really is the most popular sport in Wales? Our recent paper - "Football and Education: Class, Identity and the Dunce Hat", looked in depth at the role football has played in schools since the 1850s and highlighted its influence on children around Britain. 

1960s Street Football

The next step for us was to look deeper at the sport and its role in schools in different areas of the UK. This would help us to see if certain regions are indeed impacted heavier than others. Being Welsh, it only seemed natural to look at our country. In a land so used to rugby, how has football changed the lives of school children across Wales? For this half of the piece, we asked our Twitter following for their memories of football and rugby at school. In doing this, we gathered a broad range of responses from across the country.

Our last piece look closely at how both codes of football were received in Welsh schools. A north/south divide was evident and despite being an industrial heartland - the South of the country was staunchly led by rugby. Following the Second World War - did this remain the same? Football as a game was to reach new heights in the immediate aftermath of the war. During a time of rationing, football provided escapism, leading historian Richard Holt to coin the era the 'height' of the game, before commercialism took over [1].

Image result for ninian park 1955
A busy Sloper Road before kick-off in 1957 (Children in the foreground)
For Matthew Taylor, post-war Britain was in a state of mass employment, but still under the watchful eye of rationing. This led to people having money to spend, but nothing to spend it on. Attending football matches was part of a wider outburst of 'pleasure-seeking'.[2] Naturally, attendances in Wales also saw stadiums frequently at capacity. Cardiff City saw its attendance record set in 1953 as 57,000 watched the Bluebirds face Arsenal at Ninian Park. Children, who as a result of post-war consumerism and liberation, would have of course been in attendance. Wider youth culture was changing as rock and roll music and liberal attitudes introduced the idea of a 'teenager' to society.

So lets get to schools. Phil Stead's 'Story of Welsh Football' touches upon the impact the FAW was to have on football in education. In 1954, the governing body complained as to the lack of football in schools and three year later, protests were seen across the country as rugby was introduced as the sole sport in Welsh grammar schools. With the national team qualifying for the World Cup in 1958, much was needed to help create a true legacy. Stead is quick to reference how the lack of football in schools made front page news, particularly in West Wales. Such cases were 'symptomatic of a problem growing through Wales since the War'.[3]

Stead continues to note the role played by headmasters of grammar schools at the time. Following a post-war focus on education in Wales, more boys would attend university in England. With rugby being the sport of these institutions, their return to Wales brought with it numerous prejudices towards football. Such focus would subsequently lead to the WRU giving significant backing to youth rugby, unlike the FAW towards grassroots level soccer.

Despite bans on the sport in some schools, the changing social world meant soccer was more available then ever before in the form of consumerable goods. Footballers were now superstars, appearing in adverts and on the front pages of annuals and playing cards. Naturally, it was not long until such collectibles became prevalent on the playground. From trawling through my father's incredible collection of football programmes, it is clear that football was the sport in the hearts and minds of most Welsh children, as much then as it is now. Alongside 'soccerstamp' collections and 'Football League Reviews' was a new obsession - football stickers.

Stickers highlighted the growth of the superstar footballer like no other. Now, children could collect and trade their idols, becoming more and more immersed in soccer. Rugby, on the other hand, would struggle to match such heights - mainly due to retaining its amateur status up until 1996. Football's wider spread meant every child, be it directly or indirectly, was impacted by it.

Welsh teams in Dad's 1971-2 Soccerstamp Collection

Rugby 1970/80s

Despite football dominating playground activities and conversation, rugby was still the choice of PE teachers when it came to lesson time. The sociability aspect of seeing thirty children playing instead of twenty-two, is often regarded as a prime reason for such decisions. In the 1970s, Welsh rugby was to see its 'golden era' as the imperious talents of Barry John and Gareth Edwards spearheaded the side to multiple five nation victories. There was, without doubt, an increase in patriotism in Welsh people across the nation. Wales was leading the way in the sport and rugby was once again the greatest source of national pride.

For schools, it was clear in the south that their was only one sport to be played. Martin Johnes has written about the role rugby played in 1970s Wales in creating a tribal Welsh identity once again. For Johnes, the National Stadium in Cardiff became a 'Welsh Mecca' adorned with 'red rosettes, giant leeks and daffodils'. In terms of education, rugby had long regarded the importance in the promotion of learning - indeed some of the Wales' finest coaches, Clive Rowlands, Carwyn James and John Dawes were also teachers.[4]

By the late 1970s and 1980s, Wales was to undergo under mass change. The introduction of a Conservative government with Margaret Thatcher at its helm still leaves scars through the Welsh Valleys to this day. Industrial towns, built on mining and steel were dismantled overnight and lacking in direction. Be it soccer or rugby, the 80s were to be hugely influential in the shaping of modern Wales. Johnes further's his study into the 1980s as Welsh fortunes in both soccer and rugby began to face a steep decline.

It was in the grassroots that Welsh rugby began to lose its status as Britain's best. For Johnes, the hundreds of attendees at school rugby trials had shown a level of fanaticism which had led to rugby being ingrained in Welsh education culture, much to the loss of soccer. In the 1980s however, the closure of many grammar schools into comprehensives led the way for less competitive exercise to take respective roles in school syllabuses. Teacher's roles in leading extra-curricular activity also saw a decline - partly in protest to Thatcher's management of education.  For a new generation of young Welsh pupils, the very symbols of their national identity - rugby, steel and coal were vanishing before their very eyes.
"But I feel - in purely rugby terms - Wales was hit as much by the loss of school rugby as she was by loss of her steelworks, her docks and her collieries."
Mervyn Davies' biography

In the North of the country however, football still remained number one, even in P.E. lessons. From our Twitter page we can see multiple stories stating that rugby played little to no part in their memories of school. Journalist Bryn Law wrote that his school Ysgol Rhiwabon was a rugby-free zone. Furthermore, personal tales from @DragonSoccer58 mentions school life was dedicated 100% to football for two terms before cricket took over. Rugby once more playing no role in education. It is a theme which is clear from our followers from the north. For them, rugby was indeed a code best played down south where personal tales are flipped on their heads and rugby once more emerges as number one.

This leads us to the future of football in Welsh schools. Throughout the 1990s, Wales began to recover from a disastrous previous decade, securing devolution by the slenderest of margins. The nation could see its place on the global stage begin to grow. In 1999, Wales hosted the Rugby World Cup - although in no way on a similar scale to its soccer counterpart, it did help to fester Welsh identity, particularly amongst young people, like myself. A new millennium would hopefully bring new fortunes to Welsh sport and indeed Welsh education. Curriculum changes and major sporting events began to take centre stage in Cardiff - how would children react?

Image result for Bale Warburton Whitchurch
The future was to be bright for Welsh Schools

It is here that this part of our study finishes. The next part will look solely at modern Welsh education and current state of affairs with regards to football, rugby and other sports. How have they changed since 2000 and what does the future have in store for the next generation of Welsh sporting fans? As both Gareth and myself are teachers (primary and secondary), the piece will have a personal connection and will hopefully get across how important the two of us believe sport is to education. With us both on half-term - the next part should be with you shortly!

What are your memories of football or rugby in school? Let us know @TFHBs!


[1] Richard Holt, Sport and the British, 1989
[2] Matthew Taylor, The Association Game, 2008
[3] Phil Stead, The Story of Welsh Football, 2011
[4] Martin Johnes, 'Sport and National Identity in Post-War Wales' in Dilwyn Porter and Adrian Smith, Sport and National Identity, 2013


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