Monmouth Town FC’s packed, raucous clubhouse on the banks of the muddy River Monnow fell momentarily silent as Wales’s painful loss to a reinvigorated Iran sunk in on Friday. But thoughts – and perhaps a whole nation’s hopes – soon turned to the first clash between England and Wales in a World Cup finals.
The manager of the tight-knit Welsh regional league club, Steve Davies, 50, is not a man for giving up. He believes in resilience, family and community.
“Where there’s a football match, there’s always hope. There’s always a belief that they can produce something special. We’ve done it before in the Euros – so hopefully, we can do it again on an even biggest stage,” he said, as a group of sixth formers, who had gathered with players, coaching staff and supporters to watch the match, drifted back to school.
The semi-professional club’s lush, tree-lined grounds are just two miles from the border with England, with some players crossing over from the English side to play and train. Most of the club’s 250 registered players – from junior to senior teams – are Welsh, but a quarter are English. This week teammates accustomed to giving everything for each other will find themselves on opposing sides.
The senior team’s goalkeeper, Dan Keane, 20, who grew up in the historic border town that has frequently changed hands between the English and Welsh over the centuries, knows major bragging rights are at stake: “It’s a friendly rivalry. If we get a result against England on Tuesday night, I will be very, very loud at training. It probably won’t happen again for a long time – so you have got to enjoy it if it does.”
His teammate, Mitchell Palmer, 25, also grew up in Monmouth but has English parents. His mother made sure he was born in Hereford, not Wales. He suspects there might be a few no-shows to training on Wednesday.
“If England win I wouldn’t be surprised if a few Welsh lads drop out so they don’t have to see me,” he said with a grin.
Few, however, fear that this rivalry will affect the young team’s spirit, which has carried them to fifth in the Ardal Southern league, the third tier of the Welsh football pyramid. “We will unite as a family, as Monmouth Town. And we will play for each other and work hard for each other. We will become one again,” said Davis.
One of the dedicated volunteers running the community club has just got back from Qatar. The president, Terry Cleaves, 63, a former player whose family has been involved in Monmouth Town FC for more than a century, watched Wales’s opening game with the USA, which ended in a draw. “I wanted to be in Qatar for the first kickoff of a Welsh team in the World Cup since 1958,” he said. “I was so proud to be there. I was proud to be part of the Welsh clan abroad.”
Most fans, however, have not made the journey. Instead, both England and Wales supporters will fill the clubhouse on Tuesday.
“There will be 80 to 100 people. It will be the place to be. We will take the mickey out of each other. There will be banter. But it will be a friendly rivalry,” says Cleaves.
Palmer is already nervous, despite England being one of the tournament’s favourites: “It’s a derby and anything could happen. If we go 0-1 down I might have to sneak off.”
Even some of the club’s families will also be divided on the night. Rich Thorp, 52, who is the club’s treasurer, is supporting England while his wife is backing Wales. “My eldest will be supporting Wales. My middle son will not support Wales. My daughter flips and flops,” he said.
Thorp says Welsh fans seem to lack the arrogance of some England supporters. “There’s a reason why Welsh fans are loved around the world: they’re humble. They celebrate and cheer for their team. What lets England down is that they cheer to have a go.”
Wales will have to win handsomely on Tuesday to stand a chance of going through to the knockout stages – and even then they will need other results in the group to go their way.
But for many of the team’s passionate supporters it’s enough to be playing on football’s most illustrious stage.
“We’ve waited for so long for Wales to actually qualify for the World Cup, so we’ve got no real expectations,” says Davies. “We’ve already won just by just getting to Qatar. Regardless of the result on Tuesday, to play in a World Cup, to represent Wales, with a Welsh dragon on your chest, is a fantastic achievement.”