BY RUSSELL TODD
The interactive map of the birthplace of every goalkeeper to represent Wales.
11th June 2016. A moment I had resigned myself to never seeing had actually, finally arrived. In the magnificent Stade de Bordeaux Wales were about to make their European Championship finals debut and play its first match at a tournament since eight days shy of exactly 58 years earlier in the World Cup of 1958.
The intoxicating, nervous anticipation was heightened when word spread that Wayne Hennessey was rumoured to be injured. In the pre-tournament friendlies Chris Coleman had shown his hand over who would likely serve as Hennessey’s number two by selecting rookie Danny Ward ahead of Owain Fôn Williams. But two second halves of friendly football is hardly ideal preparation for a European Championship opener. In the run-up to the tournament Ward too had had a niggle and Chris Maxwell, another former Wrexham goalkeeper, had been called-up to act as cover and remained with the training squad.
Ward was understandably nervy but largely solid as Wales became the only British Isles nation to win its opening game at a European Championship. Hennessey returned and had a tournament to remember. The rest is history.
Other than playing their own small parts in a memorable Welsh summer, each of these four goalkeepers hails from north Wales. Hennessey is from Biwmaris on Anglesey; Fôn Williams is from the Gwynedd village of Penygroes; Ward is from Wrexham; and Maxwell was raised in the coastal town of Penrhyn Bay.
That Wales’s current first choice goalkeepers are all ‘Gogs’ – north in Welsh is Gogledd – takes me back to my formative years following Wales in the 1980s when the great Neville Southall headed a contingent of gog-keepers competing for the number one shirt: Tony Norman (Mancot), Tony Roberts (Holyhead), David Felgate (Blaenau Ffestiniog), Eddie Niedzwiecki (Bangor). Such was Southall’s dominance, of the succession of understudies it was Norman who fared best in terms of caps won, but even then he won only five caps, between 1986 and 1988
Hennessey won his first cap as a twenty year old in an end-of-season friendly against New Zealand replacing Danny Coyne, and soon replaced him in the team for good. Coyne is from Prestatyn and succeeded, albeit briefly, Chirk-born Paul Jones as first choice under John Toshack. Despite not winning a cap until after his 31st birthday, Jones won 50 caps and was the long term successor to Southall. At the age of 29 Hennessey has already amassed 65 caps and only Southall has played more times in goal, with his tally of 92 caps also the overall Welsh appearance record. Notwithstanding Coyne’s 16 caps, the gloves have for over three decades been handed from one long-term north Walian to another.
So far, so Gog. But have Wales’s goalkeepers mainly been drawn from north Wales, as it appears? How do the other regions of Wales fare?
Glyn Garner and Roger Freestone, one-cap wonders in the 2000s, are Men of Gwent, from Pontypool and Newport respectively, as is Andy Dibble (Cwmbrân) who was another of Southall’s many understudies in the 1980s. Wales have also recently capped ‘Anglos’: Mark Crossley, Jason Brown, Lewis Price, Darren Ward and Andy Marriott. But these eight goalkeepers account for only 37 caps between them. Incidentally, Barnsley’s Adam Davies, who received his maiden Wales call up in October, looks like he might join these Anglo ranks before too long.
The most-capped non-Wales born goalkeeper is California-born Boaz Myhill, but even here there’s a north Wales link as it was via his Llangollen-born mum that he was eligible to win his 19 caps. Seemingly resentful of the immediate return as first choice of Wayne Hennessey after over almost two years injured, Myhill opted to retire in 2014 from international football, and he is highly unlikely to add to this total.
Hawarden’s Tony Millington and Bangor-born Dave Hollins (brother of England international John) won 32 caps between them in the 1960s, suggesting that decade was similar to the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s for north Walian dominance. But the decade started and ended with goalkeepers from Swansea as undisputed first choices: the great Jack Kelsey (41 caps) who was Wales’s custodian at the 1958 World Cup; and Gary Sprake (37 caps). Not only were they from the same city but neighbouring districts, only minutes apart: Kelsey was born in Llansamlet and played youth football for Winch Wen, Sprake’s birthplace.
With Ammanford-born Dai Davies succeeding Sprake and Cwm Gwendraeth-born Ron Howells preceding Kelsey, this quadrumvirate won 132 caps between them. Furthermore, for several years Davies and Sprake were understudied by Dafen born Glan Letheran, though he never won a full cap. It suggests that the area on both banks of the River Loughor broke the north’s stranglehold on the Welsh number one jersey in the 1950s and 1970s. But the more populous areas of Wales, notwithstanding Swansea, are in south east Wales. Where are the goalkeepers from the Valleys and the capital, let alone mid and west Wales?
But finally a Cardiff-born keeper was found: Graham Vearncombe. In an interesting parallel to Euro 2016, Wales went into the 1958 World Cup also with an experienced, long-term first choice (Kelsey) and back-ups with very limited international experience between them: Vearncombe, who had one cap, and uncapped Aberdare-born Ken Jones. Though Jones never eventually won a full cap he did at least travel to Sweden. Vearncombe was one of the infamous four players named in the squad but who remained at home. He won his second and final cap in 1960.
It is during the interwar years that the other regions of Wales begin to show up with any consistency.
The little Rhondda Fach valley has supplied Maerdy’s Dan Lewis (3 caps) and Ferndale’s Johnny King (1), while Tredegar’s Bert Gray (24) was part of the successful 1920s Welsh sides in a fourteen year international career. Gray remains the most capped south east Walian goalkeeper even though his final cap came in 1938. Gray’s main rival was Roy John from Briton Ferry who usurped Gray for four seasons as first choice in the 1930s, winning 14 caps.
But if Briton Ferry can be considered part of a ‘greater’ Swansea region, then it is further proof of that area’s importance in supplying goalkeepers to the national cause: also being the home of one cap wonders Martyn Margetson (Wales’s goalkeeping coach up to and during the Euros), Jack Parry and Vic Rouse, who holds the distinction of being the first ever player to be capped from the English fourth division.
Matters return to type before the First Wold War – in which the irrepressible Leigh Richmond Roose (Holt, 24 caps) was a casualty – with north Walians remaining prominent. Teddy Peers (Connah’s Quay) won 12 caps either side of the Great War and also played in two non-cap 1919 Victory internationals. While Wales also capped Wrexham pair Jim Trainer (20) and Bob Evans (10), RH Mills-Roberts (Ffestiniog, 8), and, of course, Roose whose rampaging, cavalier approach to goalkeeping would lead to the FA introducing the confines of the goal area with which we are familiar today.
Interestingly both Trainer and Mills-Roberts were part of Preston’s original 1888-89 Invincibles squad, though it was the latter that played in the FA Cup Final ahead of Trainer who had been first choice all season.
With international eligibility much looser in the early days of the game several English-born goalkeepers were selected for Wales due to playing for the likes of Welsh clubs Druids, Wexham or Oswestry (located in England, but affiliated to the FAW) such as Edward Phennah, George Glascodine (1 cap each) and three-times capped Elias Owen.
For mid Walian readers, it would be remiss to overlook Presteigne’s Fred Griffiths who won a pair of caps in 1900, before being later killed at Passendale; the Montgomery-born Richard Gough who won his only cap in 1883; or Newtown’s Harry Hibbott (3 caps), the first goalkeeper to win more than a single Wales cap, though the last was as an outside half.
So, overwhelmingly Wales has largely relied on goalkeepers from the north and from what I have referred, perhaps tenuously, to as the ‘greater’ Swansea region – a land of ‘Jacks’ and ‘Turks’. Of the total 665 caps earned by Welsh goalkeepers, 58% have been awarded to north Walians – an area that tends to typically account for only a third of the overall Welsh population – and 23% to those from Carmarthenshire and ‘Greater’ Swansea, totalling 539 caps. Non-Wales born keepers account for more caps (73, 11%) than goalkeepers from the rest of south Wales (53, 8%).
A recent thread on the Apostle message board suggests that with less rugby played in the north, particularly in schools, anyone with good hand-eye coordination and catching ability there will be drawn to the round rather than oval ball. This seems plausible. But the Gwendraeth, Swansea and Loughor valleys are also rugby hotbeds – indeed, home to the fabled Welsh fly-half factory – and the traditional bigger, taller build of goalkeepers would typically in rugby require them to do less catching and handling and more scrummaging, rucking and tackling.
That said, it is perhaps telling that of the south Walians capped by Wales since 2000 – Freestone, Margetson, Garner – all had started their professional careers before rugby union turned professional in 1995. It is surely more than a coincidence that not a single goalkeeper starting his professional career since 1995 from south Wales has won a full Welsh cap.
And although the current first choices are all north Walians, of the most recent under 21 call ups – Billy O’Brien, Michael Crowe, Christian Dibble (son of Andy) – all are English born; as is the current Wales u19s fist choice, Fergal Hale-Brown. Wales will probably be calling on further ‘Anglos’ in the future.
Almost certainly the notoriously parochial selection politics of Welsh international football played a part, with selectors rewarding allies from their respective powerbases. The FAW’s headquarters for much of its existence was in Wrexham, it is a factor in explaining the number of goalkeepers from, in particular, the north east to represent Wales.
But playing and living locally to Wrexham was also a factor. The town’s Racecourse ground was for many years the principal home ground for Wales and because many Welsh players have plied their trade in England many would find it difficult to obtain permission from their clubs to represent their country. Often players would secure their release perilously close to kick off; often, some didn’t confirm their unavailability until late in the day either.
In 1889 however the notice was so short that selectors, unaware that first choice Jim Trainer had been prevented by Preston from playing against Scotland at the Racecourse, had to call up Wrexham’s Sam Gillam (5 caps) minutes before the game was due to start. While they waited for Gillam to arrive, Rhostyllen’s custodian, Alf Pugh, stood in for the opening 30 minutes to win his only international cap.
Perhaps another factor in all this is a correlation between the renowned eccentricity of goalkeepers and Gogs, Jacks and Turks? Hmm, let’s not go there…
Whatever the reasons, there is no doubting that with the likes of Roose, Kelsey and Southall north Wales and Swansea have provided not only Wales’, but some of the game’s, finest goalkeepers.
Bert Gray’s jersey and Paul Jones’s gloves are from the Cyffyrddiad Cewri/Touched By Greatness exhibition at Wrexham Museum. Click here for more details.
The original version of this featured on the Podcast Pêl-droed blog.