Comedian Elis James began his career in stand-up comedy over a decade ago, and since then he’s managed to compile one of the most versatile CVs in entertainment. As well as starring in BBC TV show Josh and hosting a weekly radio show with fellow comic John Robins, he’s now making his debut in print with a new book, The Holy Vible, written with this Radio X co-host.
Never one to hide his fervour for Swansea City and Welsh football, James has recently become a regular chirpy voice alongside hardened football journalists on the Guardian’s award-winning Football Weekly podcast, and even hosts his own show, Feast of Football, with former Wales internationals Iwan Roberts and Danny Gabbidon.
It all means that when we got in touch, he was only too happy to share his tales of shunning rugby and the Premier League in Carmarthen, of Lee Trundle lighting up Swansea’s old Vetch Field, and travelling with the Welsh Red Wall. It’s Matchday, with Elis James…
“Whenever I do Wales away trips, I always think that they’re my people.”
I would always prefer to discuss the Swans, the national team and the other Welsh clubs than Barcelona or Real Madrid. I’m just genuinely interested in Welsh football, I’m not pretending. Whenever I do Wales away trips, I always think that they’re my people. I think that’s quite an important aspect of fandom. The first time you’re taken to a ground, if it clicks you feel very at home immediately.
The first major sporting event I was taken to was a rugby match. My dad is rugby obsessed. But it didn’t click. Even though it was incredible, I got all those feelings you get when you attend a big event for the first time. It was actually a world record attendance for a club game, at the Schweppes Cup Final in 1988. But it was the first football match that made me think, ‘ah this is for me’.
I was taken to the football with my school. Because it was West Wales, a Welsh language comprehensive school, it was all rugby. But our geography teacher was football mad. So he used to organise bus trips to Wales internationals. It was Wales vs Belgium in March ’93, in Ryan Giggs’s full debut. He scored a free-kick and Ian Rush became record goalscorer. He beat Trevor Ford and Ivor Allchurch’s record. And it looked like we were going to qualify for USA ‘94 on the way back on the bus… that didn’t happen but never mind!
“It felt something quite counter-cultural about supporting Welsh clubs…”
Carmarthen, where I grew up, was 20 miles from Swansea and it was a Premier League Town. All the kids supported Arsenal, Man Utd and Liverpool and it felt something quite counter-cultural about supporting Welsh clubs, even in Wales. Because at the time Cardiff and Swansea were getting crowds of four or five thousand in the lower divisions, Newport County had gone bust, and Merthyr had a really good patch in the mid-eighties but were sort of on the way down a little bit.
Wrexham were actually the team. I was always quite jealous of Wrexham fans because they had beaten Arsenal in the ‘92 FA Cup and they had finished bottom of the entire Football League and Arsenal were champions, so I think it’s one of the greatest giant killings of all time actually. So, Wrexham were probably Wales’ best club on the pitch at the time. I was always quite interested in that counter-culture stuff and it probably comes from the clothing as well. I always thought football fans were better dressed!
“The dream is to base your entire career around football fixtures.”
There was a time when I just did stand-up and there was a couple of very sympathetic promoters, and I would call them up when the fixture list came out and they were really good to me. We’d have these long conversations where they’d say “listen you’re playing Everton away on Saturday the 3rd October, I haven’t got anything in Liverpool but I could put you in Chester and if I put you on in the middle you can definitely get to Chester from Goodison if you put your foot down”. That was brilliant.
“Television could make better use of our football journalists…”
The thing with working with the journos is you realise their depth of knowledge. I’m just a fan who reads about football whenever he can. One of the first times I did [the Guardian Football Weekly podcast], I was on with Philippe Auclair who’s been writing for France Football for 40 years or something, and he can quite confidently discuss academy products at Southampton who might not even be 16 years of age. I’m aware of some of the good young Swansea players and Wales under 23s, and some of the Wales under 21s and 18s, but certainly I couldn’t go around the clubs and do that.
You just realise that it dominates your life if you’re a football journalist. I just came away with a huge respect for the knowledge they had. I occasionally think television could make better use of our journalists because we’ve got some really good football journalists. I think they offer very interesting analysis, and someone like Jonathan Wilson, who wrote Inverting the Pyramid, he has forgotten more about football than I will ever know.
“Supporters are as much as part of the spectacle as what’s happening on the field…”
You get that visceral thrill from watching fantastic football of course, but what excites me about football is what is going on in the stands. I don’t think people realise that supporters, especially your vocal ones, your Stretford End, your Kop, your Gallowgate End, your Gwladys Street Stand etc, they are as much as part of the spectacle as what’s happening on the field. Often Italian clubs, when they have to play games behind closed doors because of crowd trouble, it completely removes the spectacle from the game because you need 80,000 people there!
“I’m dead against playing games at the Millennium Stadium…”
I would count myself as a member of the Red Wall, i.e. I go with Wales away. I don’t get my tickets through the BBC and I don’t stay at a BBC hotel, even now we do Feast of Football over there often. I stay with the same mates I’ve been going to the football with for years, one of them I’ve been going to the football with for 26 years. The hardcore, I would probably say there’s six to eight thousand who are Wales away regulars, we all stand in the Canton Stand in Cardiff for the home games and that’s where all the singing starts. Those people are all dead against playing games at the Millennium Stadium to a man. Unanimously against it.
In the same way that I imagine Newcastle United fans were against calling St. James’s Park the ‘Sports Direct Stadium’ or calling Hull City the ‘Hull City Tigers’. I had a lot of arguments with Welsh journalists over this because the Welsh media would probably like us over there because it’s more of an event and bigger crowds and they think it’s easier to create a buzz.
But the atmosphere is always dreadful at the Millennium Stadium and the atmosphere is always excellent at the Cardiff City Stadium and our record there is tremendous. Prior to the Ireland game, where we failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, we hadn’t lost there for four years. Now our record at the Millennium Stadium is bad. We got absolutely tonked against Spain recently and, arguing with journalists on Twitter, you realise how removed some of them are from the fan experience because, as my mate put it, “they haven’t gone to Moldova via Bucharest to save 20 quid!”
“They used to change kick-off times at Ninian Park to allow miners time to walk from the Valleys…”
I’ll watch most sports, but I think a football crowd at its best is unbeatable in the world of sport in terms of atmosphere. But I remember Cardiff City had to play Sunderland and I think it was a lunchtime kick-off, and a sold-out Cardiff away end had all left at three in the morning! Or, Arsenal playing at Newcastle and the game beginning after the last train back to London. Well, clearly Sky don’t care about you. They used to change kick-off times at Ninian Park to allow miners time to walk from the Valleys. For the first 100 years of football, fans were the be-all and end-all because they were the only source of revenue for football clubs. Now we are certainly down on the pecking order.
“I used to watch a lot of Carmarthen Town…”
I started going to watch Swansea in my late teens because I was 25 miles out of town, so bizarrely until my late teens I was a sort of armchair supporter! I used to watch a lot of Carmarthen Town in the Welsh League, what is now the Welsh Premier, because I used to play under 12s and 14s and part of me thought not only was it far more affordable, because it was only around £3 to get in, but also I thought if the under 16s coach sees that I’m supporting the seniors I’ll get picked on a Saturday!
I got a game, but I wasn’t the best footballer. I wish I played more actually. I was in a position which is now largely irrelevant, I was very wide on the right, touchline-hugging winger, socks down the ankles, hands on hips. Mercurial is the word I would use. It was a word no one else was using…
“Lee Trundle was doing the kind of stuff you associate with Brazilians…”
It was hugely exciting going down to the Vetch when Lee Trundle was at the club because you never knew what was going to happen. It was at a time before I did stand up, I was probably in my early 20s and so I was able to go every week and I was doing a lot of away games, and he had a couple of seasons in the lower divisions where he was unplayable. He was in League 2 and he was being linked with Everton. He was a Soccer AM legend, he was doing the kind of stuff you associate with Brazilians, but he was doing it against Rochdale, Rotherham and Cheltenham and it was just so exciting.
In 2002 we were almost relegated from the entire Football League and we would have been the first club to be in the First Division to fall out of the Football League. Then we got a new manager in and Brian Flynn brought Trundle down from Wrexham, and it just felt we’d lanced this boil. This cloud had been hanging over the club for a while and it was just a new beginning and I was probably only 22 or 23 maybe but for a couple of years it was thrilling. Leon Britton was massively a part of that too – 500 games, never played a bad game.
“Alan Curtis used to volunteer in the club shop folding jumpers…”
Alan Curtis now has a 45-year association with the club. Because he is such a nice man I can’t think of an equivalent for other clubs. You’re in sort of Sir Alex Ferguson or Bobby Charlton territory, he was at the club as a young boy, he played for us during our glory period, he then came back and played for us at the end of his career, he’s coached us, he’s been youth team manager, he’s been matchday ambassador, he’s been assistant manager, he’s been caretaker coach.
He used to volunteer in the club shop folding jumpers, he’s that kind of guy. He used to legendarily pick up drunk Swans fans outside Oldham Athletic and take them home because he realised they had missed the bus. He is an absolute one-off. We are very very lucky to have him.
I would love his story to be told to the wider public because just the loyalty he shows. He will not retire because the club needs him, and to be honest when we were bouncing from one dreadful manager to the next in our last few years in the Premier League it was always Alan that would come to the rescue.
“I watched Swansea stave off relegation out of the Football League…”
That was April 2003, we had to beat Hull on the last day of the season to stay up and we were 2-1 down at half-time and then local lad James Thomas got a hat-trick which included one of the most audacious chips I’ve ever seen in my life. That was something special. He’s now an ambulance driver in Llanelli. He had bad knees so that was that, he never really recovered. He was quite young, I think he’s about my age.
Then there was Swansea beating Valencia in the Europa League, when for about 24 hours I thought we were going to win the Europa League because we just hammered them! We beat them 3-0 at the Mestalla, their fans went on strike and didn’t come back for the second half. It was just a very amazing night.
“You see Swansea flags next to Cardiff flags at Wales games…”
It used to be very bad. I don’t know what it was like with Scotland, with Rangers and Celtic, but what effectively happened was our Swansea hooligans didn’t go, and our normal Swansea fans tended to keep their heads down. Because it became a very Cardiff thing and there were flashpoints. Whenever we would take big followings, we took around 10,000 to Italy in 2003, and there was trouble, then out in Brussels in 1991 it happened. So, that’s slightly before my time because I couldn’t really afford to do much Wales away, especially in the early 2000’s because I was a student.
But from talking to people, it was a big deal and the ‘Together Stronger’ campaign – I’m not usually who thinks that marketing campaigns work – but that ‘Together Stronger’ campaign was a stroke of genius, I don’t know who came up with that. I’m on a Welsh football flags Facebook page, and you see Swansea flags next to Cardiff flags at Wales games and you know it’s much, much better than it was. To be honest we’re a small country so if it’s so bad that one of the biggest clubs in the country, their fans don’t go, then you’re in big trouble. But also, I would never wear club colours at an international game anyway. I think it’s fine on a flag, but I wouldn’t wear a Swansea shirt.
“Wales beating Belgium in the quarter-finals was something I will never forget.”
Just insane joy! But Wales beating Belgium at home in qualifying actually was when I thought, it’s actually going to happen. This is different this time. I had been at the Romania game when we failed to qualify for USA ‘94 and I had been at the Russia play-off game where we failed to qualify for Euro 2004, and I knew people who had been at Ninian Park when we failed to qualify against Scotland in ‘84 and Anfield when we failed to qualify against Scotland in ’77.
I also knew people who had been at the Vetch when we’d drawn with Iceland even though they were a team of amateurs and the floodlights went out and they equalised, and we failed to qualify for Spain ’82. I was beginning to think we were just cursed but it just felt different this time. I cried actually when Gareth Bale scored. I can see it now, I just burst into tears!
It just felt like it wiped out all of the past because even though we hadn’t qualified – we qualified against Bosnia two months later – Belgium were the favourites, they were the best team in the group, and it just felt that we were on to something. Even though I had seen great players for Wales in the past, Mark Hughes, Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs and there was Neville Southall and Kevin Ratcliffe, Bale was just titanic.
“Chris Gunter is one of the best examples of a fan on the pitch…”
In terms of unsung heroes, Chris Gunter always turns up, always plays well, and he’s one of the best examples I can think of, of a fan on the pitch. When Wales lost to England at the Euros he looked up at our end and there was a bloke crying on the big screen and he thought ‘if I wasn’t good enough to play, I would be in there with a bucket hat on’. So, he went up to us and did a chin up gesture meaning it was going to be fine and alright. And I think it’s the most iconic photo in the history of Welsh football. He made his debut for Cardiff I think in 2007, in 2006 he was going away on the supporters’ bus with his mates and his brother! He’s the archetypal fan on the pitch.
“I’ve got a pair of lucky pants…”
I did have a lucky shirt actually, which I discarded after we lost to England in the Euros and then we went on a winning streak and I thought, actually, maybe it doesn’t matter. But the pants, it’s more to do with, they’re a very comfortable pair of pants from John Lewis and I’ve never been able to replicate how comfortable they are. It’s more to do with me than the team! They’re grey with black elastic and they’re absolutely lovely. I don’t know how I got a hold of them but I’ll wear them for Wales and Swansea games.
It’s not really a ritual but with Wales away, I don’t actually organise it, there is a logistics man and he is more of a miser than I am. So, what usually happens is we get to Copenhagen or we get to Cyprus or Belgium or Moldova, and the first half an hour is me berating him for his standard of accommodation, promising to do it myself next time and it never happening!
Some places are like the toilet in Trainspotting. He didn’t organise my hotel in Dublin when I went 18 months ago, and I remember going to bed thinking what is different? Oh yeah, it’s just me and there isn’t six of us sleeping on the floor! When we went up to Hampden it was horrendous, it’s always horrendous. So, in terms of matchday rituals it’s probably me going “oh come on, another tenner a night would go far!”
“You can drink rosé wine at the Liberty now…”
I used to really love drinking in the Garibaldi when we were still at the Vetch, and I will have a pint in The Railway now at the Liberty. With Wales, some of the boys like craft beer, so we end up going to Crafty Devil which is not far from the ground, but I don’t particularly like craft beer so then again, because I’m not the logistics man, I just sit there and complain! A session ale is the dream, but unfortunately, they all like stuff with mango and toffee in it.
The amazing thing as well is, how food has improved at football grounds. You can drink rosé wine at the Liberty now. At the Cardiff City Stadium there’s a grazing shed that does a genuinely nice burger, whereas the hot dogs they used serve in the 90s it’s amazing any of us are still alive! Even the chicken curry pie is an improvement. It’s still to a large extent – especially in the away ends – a grab bag of Walkers and those huge KitKats.
I went to watch Aussie Rules football when I was doing gigs in Australia, in Melbourne, and I was astonished at how healthy the food was. It was all sushi, and there was loads of avocado and I was just amazed. But Rossi’s Chip Shop, opposite the Liberty Stadium, is genuinely fantastic.
Elis and John Present The Holy Vible, by Elis James and John Robins, is published by Trapeze and is out now in hardback.
Jon Candy, Flickr
Jeremy Segrott, Flickr
Adam Simmons, Flickr
Rhys Owain Williams, Wikimedia Commons