ON THE ROAD WITH THE COFI ARMY
Words: Josh Millar
Images: James Starkey
Cont—noun: Term of endearment local to Caernarfon, Gwynedd
“Pwy ydi o?” (Who’s he?)
“Mae’n gweithio efo ‘MWNDIAL’, a mae’n sgwenu amdano ni.” (He’s from ‘MUNDIAL’, and he’s writing about us.)
It’s the Saturday three days before Christmas, and I’m on Barry Island watching Caernarfon play Barry Town United in the Welsh Premier League. It’s freezing, I’m hungover, and I’m standing with the Cofi Army and everyone around me is talking in Welsh. About the game, about the weekend, about me. Not many of them have clocked that it’s my first language yet, so I’m trying to gauge whether I’m gonna get in any trouble here.
It’s highly unlikely that these fans will have ever allowed a ‘journo’ to stand with them, and it’s taken a couple of weeks of Twitter DMs to get to this point. The night before this match I was sending screenshots of my Facebook to prove that I was who I said I was, and not actually a copper.
The game itself isn’t really what I’m here for; I’m here to find out why everyone on Welsh Twitter is talking about the Cofis—‘Cofi’ being the local dialect of the region—and their first season back in the WPL. Barry go on to win 2–1, but the whole match is dominated by the travelling bunch from North-West Wales. While I’m standing there, with my big Christmas party hangover, I feel a twinge of sadness when I remember that I don’t get to do this sort of away trip much anymore. I used to bounce around Essex with Clapton FC. I’d been there before the Ultras had even started, and we’d take small bands of forty people all over Essex. It was great, but infighting had made it more trouble than it was worth and I’d sacked it all off. In the intervening years, there’s been something in my life that was missing. Could the Cofis be the answer?
“IN THE TOWN, THAT I WAS BORN. THERE’S A FOOTBALL TEAM, THAT I ADORE. WE ALL FOLLOW THE YELLOW AND THE GREENS...”
Across the world every weekend, fans are shafted as their team’s kick-off time is dictated by TV, and in Wales, it’s no different. The S4C programme Sgorio has moved this match to a 7:30pm start, and it’s decimated the away support down to the absolute hardcore. This doesn’t stop them engaging in some friendly banter with the Barry fans, one of whom decides that he’d love to ‘string them all up’ in response. After I suggest he might be being a bit harsh, he tells me if he wasn’t a Barry player he’d be waiting for me outside. An injured footballer trying to start on me in front of my mam, who had joined us by this point. Welcome back to Wales, Josh.
By the end of the match, the Cofis seem to have taken a liking to me and agree to let me come along with them to their match against Bala in the second week of January, providing I’m careful whose pictures I take. On the way out the ground, as mam gives me a lift back to the Swansea Valleys for Christmas, they’re giving shit to former Bangor midfielder Owain Tudur Jones while he tries to film his piece to camera for Sgorio.
“OWAIN TUDUR, IS A WANKER, IS A WANKER! OOOOOOOWAIN TUDUR, IS A WANKER, IS A WANKER!”
“He said we’d be favourites to go down this season, the fucking twat,” someone explains.
These conts are going to be fun.
Owain Tudur is a wanker, is a wanker!, not the result we wanted but a good day none the less, Cofis Till We Die!!..💛💚 pic.twitter.com/SfFTCsAOiK— 🔰Cofi Army🔰 (@Cofiarmy) December 22, 2018
Caernarfon isn’t a big town; there’s no railway station. So at 6.15am on the second Saturday of January, I get the train from London to Bangor, with my destination another nine miles up the road. There’s been a rivalry between the teams for years, but they’ve always missed playing each other due to a constant tide of promotion and relegation. But this season they’ve been drawn against each other in the 4th round of the Welsh Cup and everyone in Caernarfon is buzzing for it. Apart, that is, from my main point of contact, Paul, who’d booked the weekend away with his wife in Kraków and is obviously gutted.
Paul was the first person I contacted and has become my fixer, helping me gain the trust of his fellow Cofis. He picks me up at ten from Bangor station on the morning of the Bala game (another 7.30pm kick-off, cheers S4C) to make sure I get the full Cofi Army experience.
We spend the first ten minutes driving around Bangor while he tells me about the historic battles the Cofis would have on arrival for matches back in the day. “Farrar Road [Bangor’s old stadium] used to be in the middle of town,” he says, “the older boys would have stories of proper tear-ups as they came off the buses in Bangor all through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. But it was a proper stadium; it had history. Not like their stadium now, and the funny thing is, their last game was televised, and the ground had ‘CTFC’ plastered everywhere!” We pull up outside town, and he shows me where the Cup match is going to be played. “I hate this ground, it’s an empty, soulless place, but I don’t give a fuck about them. When Caernarfon nearly died, they were giving us all sorts of shit. Now they’re fucked financially, and karma has truly caught up with them.”
Caernarfon is a seaside town on the very north-west edge of Wales. It sits on the Menai Strait, a narrow band of water which separates the island of Anglesey from the mainland. It’s a grey day, but I can just about see the island from the harbour. There’s a split between the old town within Caernarfon Castle’s walls and the new town outside it. Within the castle, everything is cobbled and grey. Medieval houses with wonky doors lean on each other to keep them steady, within the castle the streets are just about wide enough for one car to go through, and there are pubs everywhere.
“I love Caernarfon, I love living here, my kids love living here. I would never leave this place,” Paul tells me. In the 2011 census, it was found that 65% of people in Gwynedd could speak Welsh, the highest percentage of any local authority in Wales by a distance. And Paul reckons Caernarfon has more. “I’d say 95% of people in Caernarfon speak Welsh and that makes me proud. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not an ignorant Welshman. I would never switch to speaking Welsh just because a non-Welsh speaker walked into the pub, not that it ever happens anyway.”
At this point of the tour, we’ve arrived at The Oval, home of Clwb Pêl Droed Tref Caernarfon. It’s a fairly typical non-league ground, plastered in the team’s green and yellow colours. “You can see the signs they’ve put up everywhere, ‘Un Clwb’ (One Club),” says Paul. “That shows the bond between the fans and the club. It means so much to everyone in the town.”
Caernarfon is a town steeped in Welsh nationalism. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd—ruler of Gwynedd in the 13th Century—refused to pay homage to the English king, Edward I, who conquered the county and built Caernarfon Castle to teach them a lesson. Some 700 years later, two members of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Welsh Defence Movement) were killed trying to blow Prince Charles up on a Royal visit. Between those acts of ‘rebellion’, in 1955, Caernarfon was spectacularly defeated in its bid to become capital city of Wales by 11 votes to Cardiff’s 136. The Cofis are a proud bunch even if things don’t go their way, and that resonates through everything that they do, including their support for Caernarfon Town.
“This part of North Wales is a serious footballing area,” says Paul. “We’d prefer to play our home matches on a Friday night because most of the people who would come and watch us on a Saturday are playing football. There are eight or nine seriously good teams around us, the players and fans who play and watch them as well as neutrals boost the Friday night attendances by about three or four hundred.”
Caernarfon has a population of 9,500, as does Ystradgynlais where I grew up, a town in the Swansea Valleys at the opposite end of Wales. I loved my hometown, it felt safe and it was beautiful. Within minutes of arriving in Caernarfon, I felt a connection; it reminded me so much of my childhood. But I grew up in rugby country, and it’s hard not to feel a bit jealous of a place where 15% of the population go and watch football in the middle of town every week with their kids and their loved ones and all their mates. I’d have given anything to have that. To have it and lose it with Clapton, a place hundreds of miles from my hometown, still hurt me years later.
We set off to meet the rest of the Cofis at Y Goron (The Crown), a pub within the castle walls. It’s half-twelve, seven hours from kick-off. It’s going to be a long day.
It’s a traditional pub (cash only), and I’m drinking lager tops so I can keep up with them. But it’s not the oldish decor and jukey that I’m interested in; this is the first pub I’ve ever been in outside of a Wales international game where the entire place is talking Welsh. The whole town, in fact, seems to only speak in Welsh. From your shopkeepers to your toddlers to your couples to your groups of girls and boys going shopping, all of them chatting in Cymraeg.
It’s the same everywhere. I have to walk into town to get some cash for the seven-hour session, and I pass a group of scallies playing Skepta from a boombox on a cobbled street corner—which was a strange enough experience—but the thing that blew my South Walian mind was that they were chatting to each other in Welsh. It’s not often you see that coming from the Valleys, it’s generally older people in caffs that speak it, and you’d be seen as a bit of a weirdo if it was your first language. Not here, though. It’s natural; they’re not doing it to make anyone feel out of place. They’re doing it because that’s what Cofis do.
Over the next three hours, I’m introduced to a portion of the Cofi Army, and they talk and talk and talk and talk about the history of the club, slipping in and out and in and out of Welsh the entire time. A load of them tell me about their memories of following Caernarfon from the 1980s ‘til now. They talk about how the club was forced to play in Curzon Ashton’s ground in Manchester for refusing to join the League of Wales in the ‘90s. “Bangor also refused to join, but some say they went back on their word at the last minute, the bastards,” one of them says.
One of the bigger (harder) lads tells me about their famous FA Cup run to the 3rd Round where they lost to Barnsley in a replay. “When Stockport came into town, we were playing Saturday football on the hill above the town square and could hear them running riot in the centre. So as soon as the game finished, I put my jeans straight on over my muddy kit, and we ran straight into them.”
Then there was the time that the club ran out of money in 2010, so they had to start a team from scratch, and a load of local players had to fulfil the fixtures. Neil, a local businessman, explains it to me. “We’re so proud of the people that stood up and played, and it means in recent history that this Caernarfon team has been built up from a local identity. We haven’t had to pay players from Liverpool or Manchester to come and play for us.” This is a team full of local lads who understand what Caernarfon Town means to its supporters.
We leave Y Goron and wait in the middle of town for a bus to pick us up. We’re going to Bala (population <2000) in Snowdonia National Park. There are no motorways from North to South Wales, so the only way to make the ninety-minute journey is via a winding A-road into the mountains. While we wait everyone is popping in and out of the Bargain Booze to pick up four-packs of beers, me getting some pint cans of Carling. The camaraderie of an away day brings me back again, that part of a trip where you’ve forgotten that you’re even going to a football match. You’re just happy that you’re there with your mates, on the piss, knowing you’re going to some strange village in the middle of nowhere where you’ll be able to misbehave a bit. I felt like I was beginning to feel that buzz once more.
Within minutes of leaving Caernarfon and its seaside views, all I can see is green. The gradient of road increases with every mile as we drive up into Snowdonia, one of the highest mountain ranges in Britain. There is some serious, serious mist, and I hope it doesn’t rain because the hood on my jacket makes me look ridiculous. The journey is full of people getting right fucking on it, cans of lager and bottles of wine are being emptied at speed as we keep climbing. Every corner we turn, someone grabs me and tells me something new about the area.
“That’s Trawsfynydd power station, don’t eat the fish from that lake, they’re full of nuclear waste,” says one.
“This is Llyn Celyn,” says a second. “There’s a village called Capel Celyn under there, with twelve farms and houses, a school, post office, and a chapel and cemetery.”
“Yeah, it was flooded to give the people of Liverpool water in the ‘60s,” adds another.
Everyone on the bus knows everything about the area. They have a burning love for it, and they want to tell me about it all the time. The Cofis are proud to be Welsh, and they’re proud to be from Caernarfon, it’s so obvious in the way they talk about their area throughout the day. It’s something that I can understand; people love to take the piss out of the Welsh and the Welsh’s love of being Welsh. But we can’t help it: we’re a proud country full of proud people, and the Cofis are no different. And in these small towns, it’s not often you get to show off your area.
We arrive in Bala three hours before kick-off. There’s no phone signal, it’s gloomy, but the fifty-strong Cofi Army don’t care, there’s drinking to be done.
The Cofis look like your mother’s worst nightmare—presuming your mother’s worst nightmare is fifty big lads in expensive Italian goggle jackets and German trainers—but they don’t act like it. They’re on best behaviour today; there’s no edge. We take over The Ship, and we take over the Plas Coch, and the locals are happy to chat and watch as their visitors drink and sing and drink some more. We’re even treated to Caernarfon’s local celeb, folk artist Phil Gas, and his new anti-Bangor song, sung to the tune of Max Boyce’s ‘Hymns and Arias’.
“AND WE’LL BE DRINKING GIN AND TONIC, LAGER AND CIDER, WHEN BANGOR DIE.”
See, no edge.
While we’re in the Plas Coch, I get dragged away again to talk to Steve ‘Psycho’ Smith. I was worried when I got asked if I “fancied a chat with Psycho”, but he turns out to be the ex-manager of Caernarfon. He took over in 2010 when everything looked doomed, and told me how he had to get local Sunday League players to fulfil fixtures and ended up finishing third in the league. He loves the club and thinks the fans are unbelievable, which is why he watches them when he can. I’m inclined to agree with Psycho.
By this point, the lager tops have turned into normal lagers. My words start to slur a bit, and I find myself sneaking a bottle of Budweiser past the stewards into the ground. Bala have another fairly identikit non-league stadium, two sides of covered stands and terracing overlooking a 4G pitch. Someone in the crowd tells me, “Caernarfon are one of three teams in the league without one, and our grass has never looked better”. The Cofis have taken me in now that we’ve been drinking together for the past seven hours and get to watch the team they’ve been talking about all day.
The first half isn’t great; we’re standing on an uncovered grass bank behind a goal. My beer gets taken off me, and Caernarfon go in 1–0 down thanks to a terrible bit of defending.
The second half sees Caernarfon come out flying and their passing game puts Bala on the back foot. The ball zips around in front of the home team’s defence on the 4G, and they just have to watch it because Caernarfon can sense a goal coming. This performance resonates with the Yellow Green army behind the goal, and they’ve finally found their voices.
“WE LOVE YOU, WE LOVE YOU, WE LOVE YOU, AND THAT I WHY WE FOLLOW, WE FOLLOW, WE FOLLOW, COS WE SUPPORT THE COFIS, THE COFIS, THE COFIS, AND THAT’S THE WAY WE LIKE IT, WE LIKE IT, WE LIKE IT.”
So why do the Cofis sing in English when they speak Welsh in town and on the terraces? “Well if we’re going to piss someone off, we want them to be able to understand us,” Paul tells me. Neil tells me: “We could sing in Welsh, but there's not a massive Welsh-speaking fanbase in the WPL. Plus if we did sing in Welsh, all you're going to get back from that is ‘You're just a bunch of sheep shaggers’.”
I’m getting into it more now we’re off the grassy knoll and under cover. I find myself standing at the back of the stand with the singers, and I realise that I’m joining in with every song. I am desperate for Caernarfon to win. Then it hits me that I finally belong to something again. My Clapton-sized hole in my heart had been filled. When I followed them, we’d turn up in tiny villages like Bala and get pissed and have fun, the football coming a distant second. The buzz of going to a game would consume my week. It was the best thing in my life. The Cofis were bringing back some of the best memories of those away days, everyone under a tin roof singing together, bouncing off each other in every sense.
Caernarfon equalise deep into the second half, scored by the Cofi Messi Darren Thomas, and I go bananas, jumping in with the pile-on behind the goal. I run from the back of the stand and leap into the bouncing Cofis on the barrier behind the goal; people are smashing the tin roof, giving each other giant bear hugs, or just running around because they’re too excited. The buzz really is back. They score a second, and it’s carnage again—one more and they leapfrog Bala into fifth. Paul tells me it was Danny Brookwell, who’s only from across the river in Anglesey, who netted it. Another player scoring for a local team.
The final ten minutes is one big Cofi party, topped off by the captain Nathan Craig, another Cofi, scoring a last-minute penalty. When he does, the players and fans have another bundle behind the goal, and I can’t help getting involved. And then it’s over. Caernarfon finish victorious, overtaking Bala to finish in fifth before the WPL splits. It means so much when you consider they were favourites to go down.
Everyone, including me, is buzzing as we walk to get the bus that’ll take us on the ninety-minute trip back to Caernarfon. I’ve bought a ticket for the Bangor game, lost my voice, and I’m knackered. The 4:30am alarm for my journey from London has caught up with me, and I fall asleep on the way back, leaving our English photographer James having to listen to the Cofis talk in Welsh for the whole journey. When I wake up ten minutes out of Caernarfon I’m given a warning: “We’ve got a picture of you sleeping on the job, so if you don’t write anything nice about us, we’ll show your bosses.”
Absolute conts. The lot of ‘em.
The actor Dewi Rhys once wrote in his book Hiwmor’ Y Cofi: “When you first meet a Cofi, you’re usually greeted with this deadpan sort of look; you can never tell what’s going through their minds. I think it’s fair to say that you don’t get much small talk with a Cofi.”
I had been getting plenty of that on Barry Island before Christmas. You never know how you’ll be received by football fans as an outsider, especially when you see the way they’re still treated by the mainstream media. But by the end of the night, I felt like I was one of them. After losing a part of myself when I stopped watching Clapton, I felt like I belonged to a proper fanbase again. Even one based over 250 miles from where I now live. I felt it so much that you can see me in the celebrations for their third goal on Sgorio, having lost all my senses. I’m a Cofi now.
Caernarfon are a team that’s on the up with a chance of playing in Europe next season, and the Cofis are going to follow them on every journey. They’re fans that are so proud of their area and the team that represents them. And that’s obvious from the way they talk about themselves. “We are what we are,” said my mate at the back of the bus. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
This originally appeared in Issue 17, which is sold out online. Why don't you buy a Subscription to MUNDIAL instead?