19 JANUARY 2002, Page 59

Blackmail in the valleys!

Simon Barnes

A FORTNIGHT ago Cardiff City beat Leeds United in the FA Cup amid turbulent scenes of bottle-throwing, coin-throwing and a massed pitch invasion. Now we know whose fault it was. It was the media what dunnit. To be more precise, it was the wicked, imperialist, racist English press. This bombshell was released last weekend in an eight-page brochure written by Cardiff's chairman, Sam Hammam. Hammam is not Welsh by birth. He's a self-made paranoiac.

But his mad document found an answering chord in Welsh hearts. It never happened: it was all good-natured fun; anyway, Leeds were just as much to blame.

I am hardly surprised by all this. Practically every time I have been to Wales on footballing business I have found myself in trouble. I remember covering a match at Wrexham. On these occasions, it is customary for the sports desk to request that a ticket be left on the gate. Frequently, the ticket isn't there, but the matter is always sorted out with amiable bumbling. Not in this instance, 'You can't come in without a ticket.' We asked for one. 'We don't know anything about that.' Well, there has been a hitch, then. 'What do you expect me to do about it?' And on and on. 'You think you can just walk up here and come in for free?' They were genuinely convinced that I was working a massive confidence trick on the entire principality in order that I might spend the afternoon watching Wrexham play football without paying for that privilege. Eventually, we got down to the nub of the matter: 'You people from London. you're so arrogant.' Listening to the rant that followed was, I learnt, the price of a ticket to the press box.

But I did better when I covered Merthyr Tydfil's adventures in the European Cup Winners Cup, of all things. The team qualified for this major European competition by winning the Welsh Cup, and were to play the Italian side, Atalanta. Once again there was trouble with a ticket: they had sent it to London in error, The chairman himself explained, 'You want your ticket, you go back to London and get it.'

That L-word again, you see. It never fails. I suggested a more reasonable approach: the issue of a duplicate. 'You know how many press tickets I've had to give away?' It sounded as though he was talking about how many organs he had donated. He told me the number, and I said that it was publicity that money can't buy. Now most people think I'm exaggerating when I tell them the reply, but I swear that it is the tedious, pedantic truth. 'Blackmail!' he said. 'That's blackmail, that is! We don't like blackmail in the valleys!'

The Times FedExed the ticket the next morning. Naturally, I was planning to say some hateful things about the club, the town and the country. But the Merthyr lads were such a splendid bunch and played so well — with a lad called, as I recall, Ceri Williams (what else?) playing the match of his life after spending the day shovelling grit on the roads — that there would have been no fun in it.

Oh, I won't go the whole Anne Robinson hog and write off everything Welsh; counter-arguments include red kites, Dylan Thomas, a girl called Jane, Gerald Davies and a pub near Machynllyth. But all these unprovoked attacks — really, if it were a dog, you'd have to have it put down.