RIP up the grass at the Millennium Stadium and replace it with a hybrid natural/artificial fibre surface, seems like a good idea – and a convenient prompt to pick the greatest matches played on that much maligned turf. a7a7a7;”>Embed from Getty Images
The iconic Cardiff city centre venue is now in its 15th action packed year and in that time human kind has moved on to accept a world-class playing surface won’t grow in a giant darkened fridge but science has been able to deliver an alternative.
Here I’ve picked what I consider to be the greatest moments from 15 years of sporting action on the 7,412 movable pallets of hallowed grass that make up the home of Welsh sport (or rugby at present).
First I should acknowledge that this post was inspired by the South Wales Echo/Western Mail rugby journalist Simon Thomas – who in the finest traditions of modern-day online news websites spotted an opportunity for a picture gallery ‘listicle’ type article that could easily be shared online – tempting internet users to click through and gaze at his newspapers’ website for a few crucial minutes.
The Heineken Cup rugby final between French side Toulon and Saracens from England is set to be the final game played on natural, easy to cut up grass which led to Simon picking his top 15 Millennium Stadium matches.
At first I couldn’t disagree with any of Simon’s picks but twitter users fiachra cunningham and Wm A both suggested good alternatives, Munster’s 2006 Heineken Cup win and Ireland’s historic 2009 Grand Slam.
The only one of Simon’s picks I really disagree with is the 2012 London Olympics men’s football quarter-final between Great Britain and South Korea. Admittedly it was a dramatic match that South Korea won on penalties but I think the Unionist football side is best forgotten overall.
Simon also picks Wales’ breakthrough sun bathed 2005 Grand Slam clincher against Ireland, the Welsh football team’s unforgettable 2-1 win over Italy in 2002 and Cardiff City’s 2003 Division Two play off victory as well as the first FA Cup Final to be played outside of England, when Arsenal surrendered to Michael Owen and Liverpool in 2001, and the Reds’ Stephen Gerrard inspired comeback and penalty shoot-out victory over West Ham in 2006. All great matches and undoubted moments of Millennium Magic.
Perhaps the most glaring omissions from Simon’s list are some of the Rugby League games played at the riverside stadium. It hosted the league’s first ‘Magic Weekend’ – a full set of Super League fixtures played over two days at one venue, while from 2003 to 2005 the sport’s showpiece Challenge Cup final was played in Cardiff, with two of the three decided by three points or less.
But League doesn’t really excite me so I will leave it for someone else to make the case for the code’s inclusion in the stadium’s greatest moments.
Watching Lennie Lawrence, Graham Kavanagh and Sam Hammam lift the play-off trophy as Cardiff City climbed back to the second tier of English football I remember the commentator on ITV’s highlights programme drop his well rehearsed line: “The Millennium Stadium has always belonged to the City of Cardiff, today it belongs to Cardiff City.”
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I swelled with pride, the Millennium had brought English club football’s greatest events to our city. That Bank Holiday Sunday we were claiming a real football dividend for being such good hosts to our noisy neighbours. An invite to the five year party in our own backyard.
It’s also interesting to note the two other Welsh teams playing in the English league during that period had memorable triumphs at the Millennium. Wrexham won the Football League Trophy in 2005 while Swansea managed to overshadow their victory the following year when some players and fans thought it an opportunity to try to taunt Cardiff City. I’m sure winning in the Welsh capital carried some extra sentiment for both clubs and their fans, but as the ITV man said it’s Cardiff’s Stadium. That is factually correct too, as the city council owns a stake in it.
Play-off’s, league cups and LDV Vans Trophy Finals though take a back-seat to the FA Cup Final. In 2001 I walked down Cathedral Road on my way to a 10 or 12 hour shift at a high street restaurant and an anticipated bumper tips day. Liverpool fans spilled onto every pub terrace as the greatest single game in English football finally arrived in Wales and with it the first day of summer. In Sophia Gardens red clad families, representing Liverpool and Arsenal, sat in the sunshine in 70F temperatures, enjoying the city centre park yards from the stadium. Goodbye Wembley Way.
But my favourite Millennium Stadium football game? Craig Bellamy skipping past two Italian defenders to slot the ball home and seal a 2-1 win in October 2002? No. Five months later on a sunny March Saturday afternoon Wales put four goals past Azerbaijan and kept a clean sheet to maintain a perfect start to the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign.
Spring is the season of optimism and Wales fans believed we could finally reach that major championship finals. But sometimes seemingly unconnected events can have the most unexpected of consequences. Wales were due to play Serbia and Montenegro in Belgrade the following Wednesday, but the assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic earlier that month saw a state of emergency declared and Wales would have to wait until August to travel to Serbia.
By then the confidence of a team on a winning run, broken by a friendly defeat in America, was replaced with the doubts and uncertainties of a new season. Wales lost to a late goal in Belgrade and a tough fixture list took its toll that autumn and as Wales lost at the Millennium to Russia in a play off Portugal 2004 seemed as far away as Sweden 1958.
But if ever there was a game that captured that golden period under Mark Hughes it was the careless abandon with which Wales played in-front of 74,000 fans who’d filled the Millennium, not to watch the opposition, but to cheer Wales on against Azerbaijan and on to what had so often before seemed like an impossible qualifying mission.
Personal preference aside though, it has to be acknowledged those steep banks of plastic seats are forever linked with international rugby. Wales’ three Grand Slam triumphs, in 2005, 2008 and 2012, were all sealed in Cardiff – the Millennium Stadium’s own golden era to match the 70s golden age of the old National Stadium.
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But while the 2005 slam was the first in 27 years four years later on that same ground the success starved Irish won a first Grand Slam in 61 years. But how different it could have been had Wales kicked a last gasp penalty almost from the half-way line? That March day is certainly one of the greatest in Irish rugby history. Had Wales scored with the late kick it wouldn’t have denied the Irish the Six Nations title but it would have been the cruelest of defeats. Those dramatic final moments should leave no-one in any doubt how hard it is to win a Grand Slam when the margin between victory and defeat can be so thin.
Who would want to deny that talented Irish generation their first tangible success in the international game? Not me, but I can’t make it my top Millennium Stadium rugby moment though. That has to belong to Wales.
A first victory over South Africa in a half-finished stadium, where a pre-arranged fixture meant play stopped work in summer 1999? The Millennium looked as if it would usher in a new golden age as Graham Henry’s team moved into their new home while on an impressive winning run, but defeat to Samoa in the 1999 World Cup shook Wales and the team limped out in a hard-fought quarter-final defeat to eventual champions Australia.
By the turn of the Millennium, Welsh rugby had returned to gloom – and it would only get worse during that year’s Six Nations Championship. ‘Granny-gate’ exposed some ‘Welsh’ players of New Zealand birth who didn’t actually have the Welsh forefathers they thought they had.
Wales’ first match, post scandal was against Scotland in Cardiff. If some had felt uncomfortable about Wales’ reliance on foreign-born players, then up-stepped a home-grown hero to put a smile back on the face of an embarrassed and shamed rugby nation.
Shane Williams had already made his full debut but against Scotland, with Wales back in the dumps, the tiny winger who looked swamped by his baggy jersey scored two crucial tries as Wales won and won back some self-respect. Shane would shortly fall out of favour with coach Graham Henry – and didn’t appear to appeal to successor Steve Hansen until he was named as a wildcard selection in a 2003 World Cup dead rubber against New Zealand – but that Saturday little Shane gave Welsh fans the first glimpse of the joy he would provide until his retirement from international rugby in 2011. A true magician of the Millennium Stadium.