After seeing Llywarch’s laboratories, which left me more amazed still, and after having lunch in his house, he took me to see the football game. I suggested to him that the end of May was a bit late in the year to be playing football. He said that the football season was longer in Wales than in England, that the final for the Welsh Cup had taken place a fortnight ago, and that today’s game was a friendly. I was glad that they still played with the round ball in Ninian Park. I’d been there a number of times with Tegid. There was some connection, at least, between myself and my own time.
Ninian Park had changed a bit as well, though I couldn’t say exactly how. The crowd was the same size, and their conversation was very similar, but the men were more colourful, and happier, I’d say. Llywarch had tickets for us in the main stand, and the seats were good. Pwllheli had come down to pit their wits against Cardiff.
It was a particularly fine afternoon, and the sun bathed the field before us. Next to us there was a jolly, fat man arguing with a policeman. The chap had come into the field, somehow, without paying. The policeman was remarkably patient; he argued with the man gently, quietly, trying to get him to see that he had committed an offence against the public. The man switched to speaking somewhat ragged Welsh, hoping to make a fool of the policeman. The policeman also switched to Welsh, of a much better quality.
“Good grief,” said the fat man, “what you think? Am I thief? Have I injure you?”
“Not at all,” said the policeman, “you haven’t done any harm to me. I wouldn’t be any the poorer if you came in without paying every Saturday.”
“Well, what you problem then?”
“Everyone else here has paid, and you’re freeriding on them by not doing so.”
“If they fool enough to pay come in, that their business.”
“Friend,” said the policeman, “you must understand…””
“I no friend of yours.”
“That’s obvious. But you must understand…”
“What you want me do?”
“Either pay for your seat, or be so kind as to leave the field.”
“Me no money.”
Everyone around us had been listening to the argument, and one of the listeners reached down from his seat behind me.
“Policeman,” he said in Welsh, “I’ll pay for the chap, so long as he’ll be so courteous as to apologise for his foolishness.”
The fat man looked crestfallen.
“Did you hear the gentleman’s kind offer?” said the policeman.
Without saying anything, the fat man pulled some money out of his trouser pocket and gave it to the policeman.
“It’s easier to pay than to apologise, isn’t it?” said the Policeman, taking the money.
The fat man burst out with a torrent of colourful English, and everybody laughed. The policeman smiled, and left. I was amazed. I’d hardly be likely to hear a conversation like that one in my own age. The exceptionally patient policeman, the ready kindness of the gentleman in the seat behind me, the good-tempered crowd. The atmosphere was quite new to me.
The sound of a band cut across my thoughts. I immediately thought of the Purple Shirts, but I could see that a rather different band was coming into the field. These bandsmen were wearing white coats, red caps, and green trousers.
“Wales colours?” I said to Llywarch.
“Yes. Cardiff City Band.”
The band played a medley of Welsh folk songs, and having reached the centre of the field they stood still. The drums thundered, and the whole crowd rose to its feet to sing “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”, with a passion that made my hair stand on end. I hardly knew what was happening until the band walked off the field and the two teams ran out into the sunshine, as the earth shook with the applause.
There was a whistle, and the game began. I had seen good football played from time to time, but before five minutes had passed I realised I’d never seen anything like this. Every foot seemed like a magnet, pulling the ball towards it from the most impossible directions, the play going from one end of the field to the other with frightening speed, nothing stopping it except the incredible leaps that the two goalkeepers made. Llywarch was the embodiment of ecstasy.
“The golden age of football wasn’t in the past, Powell,” he said, slapping me on the back so hard that I buckled under it.
I agreed, gulping and gasping for breath.
The play swung from goal to goal like the pendulum of a clock. Then, one of the players caught my eye. Three of the Pwllheli men were in front of him – it was obvious that one wasn’t enough to mark him. He kicked the all up lightly, bounced it off his head, and trapped it with his feet. He dribbled it straight through the three men around him, twice, three times. And leaving them in confusion behind him, the thundered towards the goal and kicked the ball into it so hard that the net sang. The crowd stood with a shout that tore the air apart. I turned to Llywarch and said hoarsely,
“Stanley Matthews resurrected?”
Llywarch looked at me kindly and shook his head.
“One greater than Matthews,” he said. “If you’d said a combination of Matthews and Ferenc Puskas, you’d have been nearer the mark. That’s Rhys Rhymney, the greatest footballer in the world. Any club would pay a fortune for him. They tried to poison him twice, once in Portugal and again in Brazil.”
I didn’t like the sound of that.
“Are people so mad about football that they’ll try to poison the genius of the game?”
“Not in Wales,” said Llywarch, “but remember that it’s on the playing field that wars are fought nowadays. Victory in the game, not in arms, is the nation’s glory. That’s why some countries want Rhys Rhymney’s blood.”
I was astonished. Rhys scored another goal, and like men who had been shocked into achieving the impossible, the men of Pwllheli rose to the occasion, and scored. The place was like a roiling furnace. From then on, Pwllheli’s sole aim was to keep the ball out of Rhys’s possession, but he was everywhere. It wasn’t possible for mortal men to keep this up for long. The shirts kept swarming before my eyes, the legs flashing like pearls in the sunshine. If I could go back to my own age, I’d have something to tell Tegid… but Tegid would never believe it.
The half-time whistle came far too soon for me. The two team ran back into their tunnels without any sign of being tired. The shouts of the crowd turned into animated conversation. Llywarch was in grand spirits. The band came back onto the pitch.
“Forgive me,” said Llywarch, “I can see my colleague Dr. Prydderch over there. I won’t be long.”
No sooner had Llywarch left than another man came and sat in his place.
“That’s Dr. Llywarch’s place” I said to him.
“I know,” said the man, “I’ll be gone before the Doctor comes back. I want to have the privilege of meeting you, that’s all.”
I scrutinised the man. He was dressed just like the other men around us – the knee-length jacket, the bright waistcoat, the wide-brimmed hat. But there was something different about him. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. One thing, though: there was a hardness in his eyes.
“You’re the man from the Past, aren’t you?”
“Yes….” I said “How do you know?”
He showed me a newspaper, and on the front page there was a picture of me, in the clothes I was swearing when I arrived in the Llywarch’s laboratory the night before. The picture that was taken of me by the lad, Gwilym. In my shock at everything new around me, I’d completely forgotten about him.
“Let me say,” the man said, “that I’m glad to meet a man from the happy days of old. The golden age when Wales and England were united and politics was sane.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that they were happy days,” I said. “Wales – as much as I’ve seen of it – looks like a much better place today…“
“Listen.” The man was uncomfortably close to my face. “I want you to come and address a big meeting tonight in the Charles the Third Hall. A car will be waiting for you by Dr. Llywarch’s house at seven o’clock.”
“But,” I said, “I’ve never addressed a public meeting in my life…”
“Begin tonight. We’ll pay you well. And if you don’t come…”
“You’ll be sorry.”
And the man vanished as quickly as he’d come. I looked around. Everyone else was obviously too engrossed in discussing the game to have heard our conversation. Seeing their faces and hearing their laughter, my fear subsided. But the strange man and his veiled threat had shaken me. When Llywarch returned, I told him the whole story. His face darkened.
“You didn’t promise to go, Powell?”
“No I didn’t, but…”
“Good. He’s a scout from the U.B.L.”
“One of the men of the Purple Shirts?”
“The same movement. To Hell with them and their schemes! But forget about them – they can’t mess with you. Look. The two teams are coming back out.”
In the excitement of the second half I forgot the man from the U.B.L. Rhys Rhymney was amazing. Although he was a midfielder, he was also the team’s third defender and sixth forward. Yet, when needed, he’d be in his proper place in centre. I ventured to criticise him for this, suggesting to Llywarch that he should have passed the ball to the forwards instead of scoring two goals himself.
Llywarch smiled and said,
“That’s what they always say about him. That’s how he begins every game. But look now: he’ll be a gentleman from now on.”
No sooner had Llywarch said that than the ball shot like a newt’s tongue from Rhys’s boot to that of the Cardiff inside right forward, and from there straight into the net. Within ten minutes, he’d performed the same kindness for the inside left forward. The Pwllheli supporters had been quiet for some time.
Then, one of those things happened which makes football so magical. Pwllheli had a centre forward named Gwil Llannor. A 17-year-old boy, Llywarch said. Rhys had got the better of him a few times, and so far he hadn’t really made his mark. But suddenly he was face-to-face with Rhys on the halfway line, with the ball at his feet. A second or two and Rhys would have the ball off him – or so everyone said. But then the impossible happened. Gwil kicked the ball against Rhys’s knee, and it bounced back to his foot. Like a shot, he had passed the great champion and thundered down the field. The crowd groaned. He passed the ball to his inside left forward to confuse Cardiff’s right back, and then received it back again. Another groan. He paused for a moment until the Cardiff full-back in his folly stood between him and the goal, then kicked. The ball screeched through the goalkeeper’s hands and into the net.
The Pwllheli supporters went wild. Gwil scored a second time.
The game finished with Cardiff the victors, by four goals to three. But Gwil Llannor was man of the match. Everyone said that Wales had a new player who could be a worthy successor to Rhys Rhymney. His picture was prominent in the paper that night. He was whisked off to the television studio. Llywarch was walking tall. And no-one spoke more highly of the new hero than the Cardiff supporters.
By the gate on the way out, Llywarch turned to me.
“Is football in Wales better or worse today, Powell?”
“Don’t be cruel,” I said to him. “There’s only one answer to that question.”
He pinched my arm kindly.
“A nation can do great things once it loses its inferiority complex,” he said.