By Vince Cooper
SWANSEA Town were formed after a meeting at the Royal Hotel Swansea in 1912. In a traditional rugby stronghold it took a while for football to gain some support. There had been previous attempts to start a Football Club in the area – most notably Swansea Villa, but Town were the first club to generate sufficient local interest and £75 was raised to get things moving.
Upon being formed the club took up residency at Vetch Field which was to remain their home for 93 years. In the first season the surface was still made up mostly of coal ash and players wore knee pads to guard against burns.
Vetch Field was no stranger to football even before Town moved in. After initially being an area of mostly wasteland where ‘vetch’ a plant used to feed cows, grew, the owners, the Swansea Gaslight Company had leased it to the Swansea League who had laid out coal ash pitches for youngsters to play on.
The Gaslight Company had asked for permission to build on the land in 1912 but this has been turned down after objections from residents in the local (Sandfield) area. So instead they granted a seven-year lease to the football club. From signing the lease, the club took just 11 weeks to level the playing field, form banking for spectators and build a changing room.
’’The Vetch Field as it will be’
Town joined the second division of the Southern League (which was made up mostly of Welsh teams) and created banking, using railway sleepers to achieve the desired effect. They adopted the all-white kit of the Swansea rugby club and have worn the kit for most of their existence apart from a period wearing black shorts.
The 1912-13 team
That first season was a pretty good one. The inaugural match at Vetch Field took place on 7 September 1912, attracted a healthy crowd of 8,000 and resulted in a 1-1 draw with Cardiff City. Cardiff would go on to win the 2nd division but Swansea finished in a very creditable third place.
Billy Ball. Star forward
Town also claimed silverware in their first campaign. In the Welsh Cup they saw off Milford, Mond Nickel, Llanelly, Wrexham and Merthyr to reach the semi-finals where they came up against Cardiff again, winning the game 4-2 after being two down thanks largely to a hat-trick from star forward Billy Ball
In the final the Swans came up against Pontypridd and after a goalless draw in front of 8,310 fans at Ninian Park, a crowd of 10,000 saw them win the replay at the Mid-Rhondda Ground, Tonypandy with a goal from R.T. Grierson.
The South Stand
Before the 1913-14 season the South (Centre) Stand was built. This was where the dressing rooms and offices were located and the seating consisted of wooden benches.
For the next two seasons the team continued to challenge close to the top of the Southern League Second, with consecutive fourth-place finishes. They also went close in the Welsh Cup again, reaching the last four in 1913-14 and finishing runners-up to Wrexham, after a replay in the 1915 final. In both seasons Town fell in the second round of the FA Cup losing to Queen’s Park Rangers in 1914 and to Newcastle United the following year.
Player-manager for the early seasons was Walter Whittaker an experienced goalkeeper who had played for no less than 13 clubs before moving to South Wales. He would leave Swansea for Llanelly in 1914 and succumb to pneumonia in 1917.
During the war years the ground was used for anti-aircraft purposes and the team played their matches at St Helens, better known as a venue for rugby and cricket internationals but which had, In fact, staged the 1894 Home International Championship match between Wales and Ireland. St Helens was also famous as being the place local poet Dylan Thomas would often visit to watch the Glamorgan cricket team play.
When League football resumed after World War One, the club suffered a tragedy that has been mostly lost in the mists of time. In March 1919 Swansea played a friendly against Barry Town. Lining up for the opposition that day was winger David ‘Tich’ Evans who had performed well against the club a couple of times before.
That day Evans was outstanding in a 3-3 draw and just prior to the start of the 1919-20 Swansea paid Barry £100 for the youngster. Earlier that summer Evans had married his childhood sweetheart Fannie Hawkins and, after the team had made a poor start he was drafted into the team and results improved.
Tragically, Evans’ wife died during childbirth and in December 1919, two weeks after this sad event, the team were training at the Vetch in preparation for an FA Cup match with Gillingham. Evans had failed to show up and there was no response when a message was sent to his lodgings.
A contemporary report.
Player-coach Jack Nicholas started looking around the ground and saw a man laying underneath the grandstand. It was the 24-year-old Evans who had committed suicide.
The loss of such a promising and popular player was keenly felt and Swansea were, not surprisingly, dumped out of the cup two days later.
Competing in the first division of the Southern League having been one of four teams promoted from the final campaign before war broke out they finished 9th in a season that was clearly overshadowed by the tragedy surrounding one of their star men.
The Football League
The following year they were competing in Division 3 of the Football League after the Southern League was incorporated into the national competition. The following year as the League expanded again Swans found themselves competing in Division Three (South).
In 1921 the Vetch hosted the first of 18 international matches it was to stage when Wales beat Ireland 2-1 with goals from Stan Davies and Town player Billy Hole.
The team were fighting for promotion on a regular basis. In February 1924 they paid Plymouth Argyle £1,280 for Jack Fowler and the Cardiff-born forward proved the difference-maker. In the remaining games of the 1923-24 season the new man scored six times in 14 appearances to give a hint of what was to come.
Jack Fowler – Goalgetter
With Fowler banging-in a division-leading 28 goals, Town pipped his former club Plymouth to the 1924-25 title by a single point and earned promotion to the second division.
Fowler would go on to play 167 times for the club scoring 102 goals before leaving for Clapton Orient in 1930. He also made six appearances for Wales – all whilst with Swans – scoring three times.
Earlier in 1925 Vetch Field had staged it’s second international. This time England were the visitors and beat the hosts 2-1 in front of 8,000 fans.
The first season at a higher level was also a fine one with the club finishing in 5th place and Fowler scoring another 35 goals. Alongside this the team enjoyed a fine FA Cup run. One of only four second division sides forced to enter at the first round stage they overcame Exeter and Watford before travelling to top flight Blackpool and securing an excellent 2-0 win. A 6-3 hammering of Stoke in round four was followed by a 1-0 victory at Millwall.
The quarter-Final brought the mighty Arsenal and their legendary manager Herbert Chapman to South Wales. The Londoners were sent back home and out of the competition, Swans prevailing by two goals to one and progressing into the last four.
White Hart – Broken
The semi-final was against star-studded Bolton Wanderers at White Hart Lane. Swans set off for London with Jack Fowler predicting a ‘two-goal win’ amid high excitement. But it was the Lancashire side who scored twice in the first 25 minutes and eventually ran out 3-0 winners much to the disappointment of the estimated 2,300 who had made their way from South Wales to form part of the 25,476 crowd. Wanderers would go on to beat Manchester City in the Final.
Wilf Milne. Record appearance maker
At the end of that highly successful 1925-26 season Swans lost a key man when manager Joe Bradshaw left. The former Fulham player decided to return to West London having identified, signed and developed a number of top players including Billy Hole and record league appearance-maker Wilf Milne. His managerial skills would be sorely missed.
Smith scores against Arsenal in 1926
Having lost their boss the club directors decided not to appoint a new manager, instead going for ‘selection by committee’. This led to a disappointing campaign and, aware that the new approach wasn’t working, they appointed Jimmy Thompson as manager in April 1927.
Thompson spent four years in the post but would find that the club were regularly selling their best players and expecting him to get results with lesser talent. The Scot performed manfully during his time at the helm but the best he could manage was to keep them in the second tier.
The Vetch from the air
The West Stand
In the summer of 1927 the double-decker West Stand was built and this would tower over the rest of the stadium, with seats above terracing.
Surprisingly, given the lack of success with the ‘no manager’ policy before, the club decided to revert to it after the departure of Thompson. Performances failed to improve and the club’s financial position worsened considerably. The only glimmer of light was the 1932 Welsh Cup final where they beat Wrexham in a replay at the Vetch after drawing the initial match at the Racecourse Ground.
The remaining seasons until the outbreak of World War Two were mostly nondescript with survival both on and off the pitch the principal names of the game. The second experiment with management by committee ended when former Scotland international Neil Harris was appointed in 1934 and he remained in charge until 1939. One of Harris’s first signings was his son John who would later win a league title playing for Chelsea.
When league football resumed in 1946-47 Swans suffered immediate relegation to the 3rd Division (South) causing the firing of then-manager Haydn Green who had taken over from Harris. New boss Willie McCandless knew what it took to win the division having succeeded twice before with Newport County and Cardiff City. Two seasons later Irishman McCandless, who also won eight Scottish titles as a player with Rangers, had completed the treble leading the team to the crown by seven points.
After their promotion there was another long period of mostly mid-table comfort for the Swans. Occasional relegation threats was staved off by McCandless and a succession of Welsh managers and it wasn’t until the mid 1960s that they suffered another drop.
There was also some work done on Vetch Field. In 1951 the North Bank had been levelled out at the top and also lowered at the bottom so that the front was below pitch level. Then in 1960 the Supporters Trust paid for a roof to be added over the end. This was where the most vociferous of the home fans congregated and the roof helped increase the noise level – and keep fans dry! This was also when floodlights were first added.
In the meantime there was two more Welsh Cup wins (in 1950 over Wrexham and in 1961 when they saw off Bangor City). The second of those earned the club their first European experience but it was short-lived as they fell at the hands of East German team Motor Jena in the preliminary round.
Whilst they might not have been producing great teams at this time, Swans were definitely producing and developing great players – and from great footballing families.
Ivor Allchurch made his Swans debut in 1947 and would go on to appear 327 times before leaving for Newcastle United and then Cardiff City. He returned to the club in 1965, with banners reading ‘Welcome Home Hero’ at his first game back at the Vetch, and played 118 more games before retiring in May 1968. He scored 160 goals for the club, also netting 23 times in 68 international appearances. The statue of Ivor outside the Liberty Stadium is a good indication of the place ‘The Golden Boy’, who passed away in 1997, holds in the hearts of Swansea fans.
Ivor’s brother Len played his first match for Swans three years after his brother and made over 350 appearances for the club in two spells with time at Sheffield United and Stockport County sandwiched in between. He also represented Wales 11 times.
Ivor Jones, one of five brothers to participate in professional football, played for the club in the 1920s and also won 10 Welsh caps. Ivor’s two sons Bryn and Cliff both played for Swans; Bryn was a regular on the mid-50s before moving on to Newport County, Bournemouth, Northampton Town and Watford.
Cliff Jones made his debut for Town in 1952 and after only 25 games for the club, was called up for the first of 59 caps. He scored the winner for Wales against England in 1955 and appeared in every one of the five matches his country played at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, by which time he was a Spurs player having been sold to the Londoners in February of that year. He was joined in the Wales line-up by Terry Medwin, another former Swan who had moved to White Hart Lane.
A fine winger, Jones was a key member of the Spurs double-winning team as was Medwin for whom Spurs had paid Swansea £25,000 in 1956
Close to Wembley – Again
Swansea, engaged in a relegation fight and with money worries dogging them, began the 1963-64 Cup campaign with an easy home win over Barrow. They then overcame Sheffield United after a replay and Stoke City in the same manner to set up a quarter-final clash with Liverpool at Anfield. In front of over 52,000 fans Jimmy McLaughlin and Eddie Thomas gave Swans a shock 2-0 lead. Peter Thompson pulled one back for the Mersey giants and when the home team were awarded a penalty with 10 minutes left it looked like they would escape with a draw. Ronnie Moran stepped up and sent the spot-kick high and wide in front of the Kop and Liverpool lost a game in which manager Bill Shankly claimed his side, who would go on to win the title that season, could have scored 14 goals. ‘Keeper Noel Dwyer was quite clearly the hero.
Goalmouth action from the Cup semi-final
So, Swans marched on to a semi-final encounter with fellow 2nd Division side Preston North End. Having beaten Preston 5-1 in a league clash at the Vetch earlier in the season, the 30,000 fans that travelled to Villa Park would have held high hopes that their team could make the final step. The Welsh team dominated a first half played in torrential rain, but had only a goal from McLaughlin to show for their superiority.
The dominance couldn’t last however and just as Swansea had controlled the first 45 minutes, North End took charge after the break. A penalty levelled things up then with 15 minutes left Tony Singleton hit the winner from 30 yards and Trevor Morris’s men were out.
The following season was a disaster as Swans were relegated and Morris fired and two seasons later they dropped again, falling into the Fourth Division for the first time. There were a couple of glimmers of the good time: Winning the Welsh Cup in 1966 earned another brief European foray whilst in 1968 a record 32,786 crammed into the Vetch to watch an FA Cup 4th Round 1-0 loss to Arsenal. But those exceptions could not avoid the general rule of poor football in front of small crowds. The club reached their lowest point when 1975 saw the humiliation of having to apply for re-election to the Football League.
It wasn’t until the arrival of former Liverpool (and Cardiff) great John Toshack that things finally moved in the right direction. Toshack joined the club in February 1978 as player-manager. The team, fired by 33 goals from the legendary Alan Curtis, finished 3rd in the 4th Division, and then filled the same position in the 3rd tier the following year to make it two promotions in a row. This time Robbie James was the principal scorer finding the back of the net 24 times.
The 1979-80 squad
As the club started their rise plans were put in place for major redevelopment at The Vetch. The East Stand was added although not without it’s own problems as local residents objected to the construction of a large floodlight tower forcing the club to improvise. The initial plan was for the new stand to run the width of the pitch but this never materialised, again because of problems with local housing. Then plans for the remainder of the new work had to be put on hold due to financial constraints.
In the 1980-81 season the team completed their remarkable rise under Toshack when they grabbed 3rd place ahead of Blackburn Rovers on goal difference to finally make it into the league’s top flight. You might think three promotions in four seasons would be enough but on their opening day at the highest level Swans thrashed Leeds 5-1 and would go on to finished in 6th place, still far and away their highest-ever placing. They underlined their massive improvement by winning the Welsh Cup three years in succession proving beyond doubt that they were far and away the strongest team in the principality.
100 up for Robbie James
A standout player for the club throughout this period was Robbie James. Locally born in Gorseinon, James made his debut as a 16-year-old during the relegation season of 1972-73.
James was a leading light as the club made their rise back up through the divisions and by the time he was sold to Stoke City following relegation from the top flight in 1983 he had made almost 400 League appearances, scoring over 100 goals.
He would return for a second spell between 1988-1990 and when he finally finished his League career in 1994, it was after a total of 783 appearances in all competitions, a record, along with 47 caps for his country. James then became a player-manager, first with Merthyr and then with Llanelli for whom he was playing in 1998 when he tragically collapsed and died.
James is remembered at the Liberty Stadium with the ‘Robbie James Wall of Fame’ commemorating the greatest players to have appeared for the club.
For Swansea, it all came crashing back down to earth. In 1982-83, despite 34 goals from Bob Latchford they were relegated. They then suffered the same fate the following season and again two years after to be back among the basement dwellers. During this turmoil Toshack left, eventually moving on to greater success in Europe, and a host of managers were brought in to try to right the ship.
Off the pitch things were, perhaps, even worse. The West stand was torn down due to safety concerns after the Bradford fire and by 1985 the club’s financial situation was so bad that on 20 December of that year they were officially wound up. Fortunately a group of directors managed to put together a rescue package. It took the High Court over a year to approve the package and during this time no signings could be made, by which time Swans were back in the bottom division.
It wasn’t until Terry Yorath took over in 1987 that things began to turn around. Promotion to the 3rd Division via the playoffs in 1987-88 began the climb back. But Yorath was also in charge of the Welsh national team at the same time and the club were not happy with the joint arrangement. Replaced by Ian Evans for a year, Yorath returned but then left again a year later replaced this time by Scot Frank Burrows.
In 1990 the rear of the North Stand had to be closed due to safety concerns and this caused capacity to drop to just 12,000. It was clear even then that if the club wanted a stadium and team to match their lofty ambitions they would have to consider a new home.
Burrows managed another promotion year and also finally gave Swans fans a day out at Wembley when the team battled through to the final of the 1993-94 Football League trophy. 47,000+ fans showed up at Wembley to see the Welsh club battle past Huddersfield Town in a penalty shootout and claim some major silverware.
The team were relegated back into the bottom division of the league in 1996 and Burrows left. Four years later former England international John Hollins (whose brother was a Welsh international) would guide Swans to the 4th Division title but the next real glory days would come after the move to the Liberty Stadium.
Final Day of Glory
There was one final day of glory at the Vetch. A crowd of 11,469 were in attendance on 30 April 2005 to see Adrian Forbes score the final goal at the stadium. And that goal along with another from Forbes the following week at Bury saw Swans gain promotion to League One (the old 3rd Division) as they began their rise back to the top flight.
And so it was on to the Liberty Stadium. And as for Vetch Field, The home of Swansea Town (later City) for 93 years, host of 18 Welsh internationals. rugby league matches, boxing title fights and concerts by The Who and Stevie Wonder among others was demolished. The centre-circle remains as a wild flower meadow, whilst plans are for new homes. sheltered accommodation and open spaces for children to play.
The Vetch saw it’s share of ups and downs during those 93 years, but it will certainly be remembered more for the ups by Swans fans.