WHEN a tear rolled down the cheek of Dafydd Iwan belting out ‘Yma o Hyd’ before Wales’ World Cup play-off game against Austria, many hailed it as a moment of national significance.

In a sports-mad nation often billed as the ‘Land of Song’, it is perhaps no surprise that when football and music meet, high emotion follows. 

But Thursday’s performances – first by the 78 year-old folk singer, and then on the pitch by eleven men in red – seemed to lift our collective spirit in a realm beyond sport or song or simple emotion.

According to the English folk singer Martin Carthy football chants and songs are ‘the one surviving embodiment of an organic living folk tradition’ – and the adoption of Iwan’s almost 40 year-old anthem of defiance by a wide cross-section of the Welsh public certainly seems to bear that out.

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Written in the years following the crushing ‘No’ vote of the 1979 devolution referendum, and immediately prior to the seismic clash between Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and striking miners in the south of Wales and elsewhere, ‘Yma o Hyd’ celebrates the survival of the Welsh people and the Welsh language over nearly two millennia – since Macsen Wledig withdrew the Roman legions from the island of Britain in 383AD.

The National Wales: Dafydd Iwan performs Yma O Hyd before Wales World Cup play-off semi final victory over Austria. Picture: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans AgencyDafydd Iwan performs Yma O Hyd before Wales World Cup play-off semi final victory over Austria. Picture: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency

The song has been popular, particularly with Welsh-language audiences, for four decades, and has been credited with contributing to the changing attitudes that prefigured the Welsh Language Act 1993 and the second – successful – devolution referendum in 1997.

Now it takes its place in the long tradition of football anthems, songs that some academics have theorised as a form of blason populaire, in which an in-group vocalises its identity against an out-group.

Chanting at football matches can be traced to the earliest days of the professional game in the late nineteenth century.

A ‘war cry’ was recorded at the Scottish Cup Final of 1887, and many Victorian music hall songs referenced the popularity of the game, most famously Glasgow-born James Curran’s ‘The Dooley Fitba’ Club’, better known as ‘Football Crazy’.

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Welsh supporters were among the first known to develop chants in support of individual players. ‘Give it to Ballie’ – striker Billy Ball – was a popular chant of Swansea fans in the 1910s, and is referenced in the academic tome Sport, Music, Identities, edited by Anthony Bateman. 

But despite these early examples – and songs like Portsmouth’s ‘Play Up Pompey’ and Newcastle United’s ‘Blaydon Races’ which have survived to this day – it was not until the 1960s that songs and chants became an integral part of football fan culture.

At the 1962 and 1966 World Cups, more affordable travel made it possible for international supporters to mix en masse and adopt each other’s chants, songs and popular tunes.

 

It is perhaps therefore no surprise that the recent development of what is possibly world football’s most eclectic songbook has coincided with the most successful period in the history of Cymru’s national team, during which supporters have travelled in greater numbers, developing what comedian Elis James has called ‘a bilingual counterculture’.

Songs until recently more associated with rugby than with football have been seamlessly integrated into the canon, in keeping with the inclusivity encapsulated in the slogan ‘Together, Stronger’.

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These include ‘Calon Lan’, a hymn written by Daniel James (Gwyrosydd) in the 1890s, and ‘Hymns and Arias’, a song specifically about rugby trips and other Welsh songs, written by entertainer Max Boyce in 1971.

Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ entered the repertoire via yet another modern folk tradition: advertising. 

The National Wales: Singing and chanting are integral parts of attending football games. Picture: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans AgencySinging and chanting are integral parts of attending football games. Picture: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency

 

John Morgan, head of presentation and promos at BBC Wales, made a short film to advertise a televised game – the crucial and ill-fated World Cup qualifier against Romania in 1993.

Despite Wales’ failure to qualify for USA ‘94 – Paul Bodin, the crossbar and all that – footage of Rush, Hughes, Saunders et al ‘playing their hearts out’, in what are now vintage and much sought after Umbro kits, passed into legend, and the song into a standard.

READ MORE:  Choir performs Yma o Hyd for Welsh Language Music Day

Fan favourites are often associated with particular matches or periods in the team’s history. ‘Kernkraft 400’ by German DJ and producer Florian Senfter – better known as Zombie Nation – became an unofficial anthem after Wales secured a goalless draw away to Belgium during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. 

The song was then played when Belgium visited Cardiff, a Gareth Bale goal giving Wales a 1-0 victory and putting them on the road to a historic tournament qualification.

Other songs popularised during the ‘golden era’ of Bale and Ramsey include ‘Don’t Take Me Home’, set to the tune of Billy Ray Cyrus’ ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, and a whole series accompanied by the distinctive sound of eleven-piece brass ensemble The Barry Horns.

The National Wales: Wales supporters' band THe Barry HornsWales supporters' band THe Barry Horns

With the Horns ensconced at the top of the Canton Stand, or tucked away in the corner of stadia across Europe, ‘Ain’t Nobody’ by Chaka Khan became indelibly associated with Joe Ledley.

Salt N Pepa’s ‘Push It’ with Hal Robson Kanu, Eddy Grant’s ‘Gimme Hope Joanna’ with Joe Allen and ‘Give it Up’ by KC and the Sunshine Band first with Gareth Bale, latterly with Kieffer Moore.

Meanwhile, ‘No Limit’ by 2Unlimited has soundtracked support for any number of Wales’ Williamses – from Ashley to Jonny, and now to Neco. 

It is no coincidence that many of these songs are laced with both joy and humour, expressing the sense of wonder and slight incredulity that many Welsh football fans – who previously endured decades of disappointment – have felt since a rise in fortunes for the national team, first under Gary Speed, then Chris Coleman and now Robert Page.

But there is also an undertow of real social change. Beneath the sea of bucket hats and flags created to wind up Florentino Perez, a new generation of football supporters have grown up in a culture that is actively inclusive, genuinely bilingual and often independentist in sentiment.

‘Viva Gareth Bale’ rejects the Union Jack. The Barry Horns released a pro-independence single, ‘Cymru Rydd’. And despite the noise of the pop, the rock, the disco and the techno, ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ is still the piece de resistance.

No wonder Dafydd Iwan shed a tear.

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