'Wales have a spirit': the view from Chris Coleman's Swansea neighbourhood

Ashley Williams of Wales attends a press conference at Stade de Lyon

Ann Williams is one of the lucky ones. She had set her heart on a pair of dragon flags to clip on to the doors of her Citroen saloon and, after an intense search, managed to source a set.

“They tell me they’ve sold out almost everywhere. I was very fortunate to find these in the market. I’ve got to admit I like rugby, I’ve never held with football really but this tournament has changed all that. I’m so proud of what the boys are doing for Wales.”

Across the nation from the cities of the south to the coastal resorts of the west and north and in the vast mountainous wilderness in between, similar searches were being made and sentiments expressed as Gareth Bale and his team-mates prepare to take on Portugal in the semi-final of Euro 2016, the biggest game in the history of Welsh football and possibly in Welsh sport.

Williams and her neighbours in Swansea have particular reason to be engaged, whether or not football is normally their bag. The Wales manager, Chris Coleman, feted for turning a squad of largely unheralded players into an industrious, spirited, joyous team, hails from Mayhill, a working class area of pebble-dashed terraces and houses set high above the city with views across to the Port Talbot steelworks one way and the rather lovelier Gower peninsula the other.

“His mum lives down there and his sister comes in here quite often,” said Lee Daniel, owner of the Mayhill Fish Bar. “He’s been great and the team has been fantastic. It just shows what you can do if you work together. It’s also brilliant that it will inspire more kids to play.” Daniel’s seven-year-old daughter Mia took part in her first game just this week. “She’d seen Wales do well and wanted a go,” he said.

Delivery driver William Jones reckons the Welsh are doing so well because they play with feeling. “They have a spirit. It’s a very Welsh kind of thing. There are no big-heads in this team. Gareth Bale may be a superstar, a millionaire but first and foremost, he’s part of a team. Not an individual.”

Mark Brain, 51, a former boxer, was smoking a roll-up outside the West End AFC social club. “I grew up with Chris Coleman. He’s a down-to-earth kind of bloke. He came to my 50th, turned up out of the blue. He’s that sort of bloke. That’s why we’re doing so well.”

It doesn’t always work out so well, but the Welsh FA’s tagline for its Euro 2016 challenge – Together Stronger – turns out to sum up the team nicely.

Here in Mayhill, they have been made to feel part of the effort. When Coleman’s old school, St Joseph’s Cathedral primary wrote to him wishing him luck ahead of the semi-final, he e-mailed back within the hour thanking the “football family of Wales.” “We told the children about it in assembly today,” said the deputy head, Maria Davies. They were so excited. We’ve got a pretty good football team here at the moment. What the Welsh team has done can only help.”

Of course, Swansea is a town of poetry, of Dylan Thomas. Footballers may not be known for their way with words but Coleman has been supporting the local writers collective Poets on the Hill and supplied a message for the back cover of a first anthology. “I have fantastic memories of growing up on the Hill,” he wrote. “My career in football has taken me all over the world but there is nowhere better than home.”

One of the hilltop poets, Julia Manser, puts the success of Coleman and the team down to a perfect cocktail of pride and humbleness. “I think there will be a lot of poetry written about our Chrissie and this team in the future,” she said.

Wales has long been more famous for its success with the oval rather than round ball. But the success of Swansea City in the Premier League has already made the city as synonymous with football as rugby. “I think what has won people over is the joyfulness of the team and fans,” said Kevin Johns, an actor, broadcaster and official chaplain to Swansea City. “It has been great for the nation. It’s brought people together.”

Wales manager says being underdogs ‘is not a problem’

Charles Ashburner, flag consultant to the football club, said he had never known such demand for Welsh flags in his 30-year career, even leading up to the biggest rugby events. His business, mrflag.com, has sold out of car flags and is continually reordering 5ft by 3ft dragon ones ideal for wrapping around shoulders.

This is a history-making team, whatever the Portugal result. Gethin Matthews, a lecturer in Welsh history at Swansea University and a keen football fan, said the tournament had provided a huge boost for the nation. “Wales is a small country. This has made us much more visible. The Welsh language has had a platform it’s never had before. Uefa and Adidas have been tweeting in Welsh. Gary Lineker has begun and ended broadcasts in Welsh. It all helps with self-confidence.”

The Bale effect may be felt for years, Matthews believes. In his biography of Richard Burton, Matthews argued that the actor was the best ambassador Wales had ever had. “Today I stand by that. No Welshman has promoted Wales with such eloquence. But there’s a chance in four days that statement will be wrong. It may be Gareth Bale.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Steven Morris, for The Guardian on Tuesday 5th July 2016 17.08 Europe/London

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