“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit” are the opening words of the deeply emotive Together Stronger documentaries, recently released by the BBC. “Something Worthwhile” by Pretty Vicious plays, a metaphor for the progress Welsh football has made in the last ten years. A picture of incredulous delight is painted: Wales have qualified for the World Cup.
Narrated by former players, managers, fans, journalists, pundits, and so on, the interviewees sit against a dark background. The focus is all on them, and their side of the story. The documentary series chronicles the last 20 years of Welsh football. The nation’s fan culture is imbued in the series, too – Super Furry Animals and Manic Street Preachers provide regular sonic intervention – and the documentary makers are keen to confirm this story as one undergirded by the constant support of a small, but militant support. Together Stronger’s first episode explores the proverbial hinterland of Welsh football at the beginning of the 21st century. But this is not merely a sporting documentary – it’s a tale, religiously immortalised, of tragedy, of farce, but mainly of hope.
As we enter the 2022 World Cup, there’s no more prescient documentary out there. Wales, in their second Cup of all time, nabbed a draw on November 21st, against a United States side who’ve just reached their 11th. The former is a small nation, for whom football was widely considered a secondary sport to rugby until 2016. Without a solid domestic infrastructure, there was no comparing to their neighbours – and rivals – England, for example. Together Stronger is a rallying call to any underdogs, to people who’ve lost that crucial degree of hope, to keep plugging away, so to speak. As a documentary it is intrinsically heart-warming television, with its title hinting at the power of cooperation, friendship, and trust.
Wales’ pariah-like status on the international stage is confirmed by memories of a 0-1 defeat to Russia to miss out on qualification to Euro 2004. Memories recounted by former players and pundits cast Mark Hughes’ later premiership as one dominated by failure and malaise, constricted – or so it is hinted – by a slight degree of nepotism on his part. He had played alongside many of the squad he now coached, and Together Stronger makes it clear that there was perhaps an air of amateurism to proceedings.
Step forth John Toshack, managerially best known for being at the helm of Real Madrid not once, but twice. Film footage from the period of training sessions featuring new, younger players makes it clear that Toshack’s ideas on the future of Welsh football stemmed from his belief in progression through youth football. Wales under 21 boss Brian Flynn’s words here are particularly prescient – “Tosh” told him that it would take up to a decade and that “somebody else is going to get the credit for this”. Together Stronger has a penchant for drama, understanding that it’s responsible for reconstructing a seemingly impossible story.
“Welcome to Wales” reads the motorway border sign. This short clip, filmed with the blurriness of an early 2000s camera, is indicative of the influx of English-born footballers of Welsh heritage, migrating to ply their international trade across the border. The cinematography is evidence of the longevity of the Welsh football project. This too is reflected in the length of the documentary: three hours.
The already legendary Gareth Bale is the next new interviewee, humorously noting that Flynn and Toshack saw into the future when they insisted on playing him as a forward, rather than a left-back – his original position. In the first episode, it’s evident that despite Toshack’s ultimate failure to take Wales forward, so to speak, he is characterised as a highly intelligent, but also passionate, light in the Welsh football ecosystem. Bale is a huge character for Together Stronger, a larger-than-life personality who features in every episode. Director Jonny Owen uses Tosack faithfully, as a visionary thinker, a metaphor for change within the documentary.
The reality, however, was that under John Toshack, crowds disappeared and results dipped – not that this was really his fault. “It’s amazing what (Toshack and Flynn) did,” remarks Bale, but the reality, Together Stronger reflects, is that they were a young, inconsistent side. Extra focus on old training footage of youngsters like Joe Ledley sets the scene, Owen presciently reads into the construction of a new national team.
Nevertheless, a competitive fixture in Baku, versus Azerbaijan, culminated in an unlikely 1-0 victory. The squad itself, described as “depleted”, ground out a difficult victory that would herald a new era for Welsh football. The in-game footage of a young David Edwards, delighted with his winning goal, hinted toward a positive future. Or so it seemed, because Owen twists the narrative. John Toshack, after losing to Montenegro in 2010, resigned.
Episode one ends having charted the ephemeral management of Toshack’s successor, Gary Speed. “Everybody loved him,” Bale says, and the choice to recount his death, via the original news footage, tugs at the heartstrings in a profound way, even over a decade later. Most, if not all passionate Welsh football fans will be able to remember where they were when the news came out. I, an eleven-year-old Welsh football obsessive at the time, remember hearing it via the radio in the car. The tragic death of Speed is painful to reencounter.
Jonny Owen is known to use archival news footage to create an analytical yet emotional visual experience. The strength of this mode is that it brings a secondary degree of realism to the documentary. We have it recounted from a first-person perspective via the interviewees, but also from historical news segments. This can trigger fans’ memories, or simply intervene in an episode to add to the realism of it all.
Episode two begins by revealing the devastating news’ impact on Gary Speed’s young Welsh side – a team “better than any” he’d played in – and how the likes of Ashley Williams and Joe Allen, both top internationals, played for Swansea City almost immediately after hearing the news. “How they played that game of football, I’ll never know,” sympathises Welsh football reporter Chris Wathan. A healing process had to begin, and it would be Gary Speed’s close friend, and former international teammate Chris Coleman to bear this unique and tragic burden.
If you love an underdog tale, you’re surely already aware of where this tale is going. With the furore around Wales at the World Cup, Owen recognises how simple it is to under-appreciate the national side’s unbelievable development. His work painstakingly recounts every moment. Together Stronger charts lived experiences, and the interviewees contribute to a documentary style that oscillates skilfully between the bleak and the colourful.
The new manager had known Speed since he was 15: “some of those memories were really vivid,” he recalls. Together Stronger heightens the multifaceted issues facing the Football Association of Wales following Speed’s suicide – the heart-wrenching element of it aside, how could they project some form of continuity, of clarity? Speed was known for having a project to grow the Welsh national football team, and his loss is keenly felt in the documentary. Without resorting to platitudes, Together Stronger is a real, and constantly used motif for the Welsh side of the last decade – tragic ruptures to that togetherness are eloquently explored in the documentary.
Exploring the difficulty Coleman had, both mentally, and in terms of team performance is a way of elevating his eventual success. As Wathan explains, there was very much a sense of “you shouldn’t be here” – this had been a national tragedy, and the concept of a new Wales manager felt profoundly uncomfortable. And these difficulties translated onto the pitch.
Many Welsh fans will recall the traumatising 6-1 defeat to Serbia in Coleman’s early days. Chants calling for his sacking are amplified, and Ian Gwyn Hughes, FAW’s Head of Public Relations, remembers the manager sitting in the solitude of a dark room, above the dressing room. It’s a deeply evocative image to construct – it was, after all, one of the darkest moments in recent Welsh football history. It feels like football has come home: like what Coleman was going through, albeit on a far greater stage, is something we can all relate to.
Then-captain Ashley Williams charts the change going into Euro 2016 qualification: they had “some of the best players in the world at the time”. Here, the documentary insists, was the decisive leap forward – Wales were starting to assert themselves. An initial, difficult victory over minnows Andorra, secured the momentum the Dragons needed, and Owen makes sure to emphasise the toughness of the fixture. Highlights of all three goals are shown, the last minute winner giving the viewer a deserved reprieve.
It’s stressful viewing. “Andorra, 2-1,” laughs Coleman, “but we’d take anything at that stage”. Coleman is personified as an energetic, Jurgen Klopp-like figure during the campaign. It’s almost as if he was able to leave the metaphorical shadow he’d been living under. Footage of his pitch side antics, as he grows in confidence are Owen’s way of transitioning to the colourful side of Welsh football. Despite losing their final match to away Bosnia, Cyprus beating Israel meant that Coleman was able to take Wales to their first major tournament since 1958.
The change in general atmosphere between episodes one and two of Together Stronger is utterly transcendental, a reflection of the remarkable progress made by Welsh football during this period. Welsh football is set for an epoch, but Owen creates the sense that Toshack must leave for it to be truly realised – and he does this by using interviews with the man himself. By doing this, ‘Tosh’ is a commentator early in the documentary. We know he won’t be at the helm for too long. The change occurs, Together Stronger remembers, as a nation remembers how to love its football team. Owen has recounted the lows, it’s time for the viewer to enjoy the highs.
The second half of episode two chases Wales on their now-immortal plight to Euro 2016, across the Channel in France. Reaching the semi-finals, the atmosphere throughout is remembered as electric, and new. Nobody knew how long this football dream would last, which is why the ecstasy of episode two is so addictive. “We kinda didn’t get the rub of the green,” in the 2-0 semi-final defeat to Portugal, admits Bale, but the dominant theme of the documentary is that progress has been made. Not only had Wales exceeded expectations, but they had set the bar higher for the future. The main thing, in 2016, as Ashley Williams says, is that this was the “summer of our lives”. Owen captures the essence of the incredible squad of that year by regular injections of common camerarderie, be it the team having a pint, or taking a walk together. Images such as these reinforce ideas of the closeness of these players and fans.
The third segment of Together Stronger begins with an image of a Welsh side in transition, again. The camerawork is sharp, professional. They’re now a sporting profile of note. Something has changed, the FAW are a different association. Ireland ending their 2018 World Cup dreams marked the end of Chris Coleman’s reign. Unbeaten till the final match during qualification, it’s fair to say Together Stronger is eager to emphasise the massive positives of Wales’ ex-manager’s leadership. “Cookie”, in Together Stronger, is constantly on screen as manager or interviewee: he is a star of the story.
Next, comes a twist towards the farcical. The next man in the hot seat would be Ryan Giggs, as Joe Allen observes, a “superstar in the game”. The episode accurately collects Welsh fans’ thoughts on their new manager, with one woman observing “he’s not pro-Welsh” – a fairly minimal requirement given the passion of Wales’ football culture. Not that his subsequent decision-making was hugely appreciated, either: he was fairly merciless in his dismissal of stalwarts from the 2016 campaign, a decision that Bale, as captain, isn’t fond of. Not that this is totally negative, he gave numerous young players their debuts, which has contributed immeasurably to the development of the national fold of 2022. But, importantly, Giggs’ new look team qualified for Euro 2020.
But then came the fall so typical in Welsh football. Televised footage shows Giggs being accused of assaulting his partner, leading to his suspension as manager, and deputy Rob Page became manager. The documentary is tight-lipped over the entire affair, as it is personal to so many individuals in the Welsh setup, but also as the case hasn’t been resolved. It must be remembered that Together Stronger is very much a tale of trial against adversity, and for many players, particularly young ones, blooded by Giggs’ youth dominant system, this news would’ve been difficult.
Coronavirus, luckily for Page, delayed the Euros by a year, and he was able to establish a concrete relationship with his squad, and perform respectably at Euro 2020, reaching the Round of 16. Now, of course, he has the World Cup to look forward to. Owen makes it seem as though this is breathing room for us to see Page, who features more prominently, as a tough, impenetrable figure, possessing the solidity needed in the aftermath of such unpleasant chaos.
The connection between players, staff and fans nowadays is “incredible” remarks Page, smiling. Red and yellow bucket hats adorn the screen, Owen makes it clear that a loyal fan base, one of the best in the world, is set in stone. The culture, which hinges on a slightly left-wing, liberal premise is, as Together Stronger details, perfectly represented by the prominence of folk singer Dafydd Iwan’s ‘Yma o Hyd’, literally translated as We’re Still Here.
The movement to resuscitate the Welsh language and celebrate the nation’s unique history and culture is growing, and to Page, Iwan’s protest song has a “meaning” that is “really important to us”, as existential underdogs. As Joe Allen eloquently states, “this has been no short journey, for anyone.” This quote, in particular, is integral to Owen’s overall ambition: to reveal the longwinded nature of Together Stronger’s story.
Football in Wales has grown exponentially, or rather, international football in Wales has. Together Stronger’s heart-warming tales of endurance, spirit and determination is a tearjerker at times, and ecstatic at other times. For Wales fans, this is a very real experience, chronicled exquisitely – but I found it, emotionally, a difficult watch. Personal persuasions aside, there are very few sports documentaries that I’ve found so turbulent. And given Wales’simpressive first outing in Qatar, there may well be plenty more documentary-worthy moments for Jonny Owen in the future.
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