My Football with Swansea fan Elis James: “You’re in the quarter-finals of a major tournament. Get off your bloody phone!"
Comedian, radio presenter and podcaster Elis James tells us about following Wales at Euro 2016, Lee Trundle's brilliance, and singing about soup
This Elis James interview first appeared in the August 2020 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe today and get five issues for £5
What was the first match you ever saw live?
My first proper live game was Wales vs Belgium in March 1993, when Ian Rush became our record goalscorer and Ryan Giggs also netted on his full debut. My first Swansea game would have been one of Jan Molby’s first games in  pre-season against Carmarthen Town. I sprinted on to get his autograph at the end, but his handwriting was so bad I had to put his name next to it for future-proofing.
Who was your childhood hero and did you ever meet them?
Ian Rush. I discovered football myself, really: my dad, a clichéd West Walian father, is rugby-mad. It wasn’t until I started at primary school that I realised other boys supported teams. When you’re that age, the goalscorers stick out – so the fact English football’s best happened to be Welsh was very convenient. He’d opened a sports shop in Aberystwyth the summer he joined Juventus, and my auntie had queued for hours to get his autograph.
Does a Zoom call count in terms of meeting him? He came on my BBC 5 Live show [with John Robins] as a surprise and called me ‘El’, which I couldn’t believe. I think I’d been training myself for that interview since about 1990.
What was your finest moment as a player?
I had an absolutely cracking game against Mary Immaculate Primary in Haverfordwest, aged about nine. My teacher said I should have county trials, so I did – and I was absolutely terrible.
In the comedians’ football match about five years ago, I sold Andy Zaltzman a dummy so good he had to pay to get back into the sports centre.
I probably think about that moment twice a week. Terrifying, really.
What do you like most about going to a match?
I love that it could be one of the worst afternoons of the season or one of the best. I went to Watford in December 2017, Carlos Carvalhal’s first game in charge of the Swans, and we came back from 1-0 down to win 2-1 with two very late goals. Up until the 75th minute, my friend and I had been discussing the various ways that we could have spent our afternoon – because we were rubbish and clearly going down – only for a 10-minute spell to make it one of the best days that year. I also love the smell of a football ground: lager, fags and fried onions.
What’s your favourite goal you’ve ever seen live?
For Swansea, it’s James Thomas’ chip against Hull in the game that kept us in the Football League in 2002/03. James was a local lad and scored a hat-trick in what proved the most important game in our history at the Vetch Field.
And for Wales, it’s Sam Vokes’ header against Belgium at Euro 2016.
I was right behind the goal and made it onto the match footage: embarrassingly, I’d taken my shirt off because I’d had a bit to drink that evening, and got caught – broadcast to millions with a hotdog in my hand belting out the national anthem. My phone went absolutely mad, so the next time they showed us, I was checking messages. Another barrage came in along the lines of, “You’re in the quarter-finals of a major tournament. Get off your bloody phone.”
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What’s your favourite football book?
Fever Pitch. As a study in masculinity it’s unparalleled, and when I read it as a kid, I could empathise with every page. Nowadays it’s a period piece and a terrific illustration of what football was back then. Another good example is Arthur Hopcraft’s 1968 book The Football Man. It predates hooliganism and comes from a time when there was a real feelgood factor. You can tell how much society has changed since, because he talks about the jobs that supporters had back then: things like ‘typewriter salesman’.
Who’s the worst player you’ve ever seen at your club?
Franck Tabanou, who played for Swansea a few years ago. If you’ve ever read The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin, there’s a section in there that discusses how difficult it is for scouts to turn up at a game and just watch one player. I thought, ‘That would be quite interesting’, and wanted to settle the debate about how bad he was. It was a game against Oxford in the FA Cup, and yes – he was absolutely horrendous. Never played for us again.
Which of your club’s ex-players has the best job now?
Lee Trundle works for Swansea in an ambassadorial capacity, but he’s still turning out in the Welsh league for Ammanford at 43, scoring hat-tricks every week.
Going along to the Vetch when Lee was playing was joyous. As you were walking to the North Bank, you’d get a surge of adrenaline because you knew he was probably going to do something special. He was a complete entertainer in the 1960s and ’70s mould.
I can’t dispute that Cristiano Ronaldo is great – but he’s not fun, is he?
What’s the funniest/strangest thing you’ve seen or heard at a match?
Sadly I wasn’t there, although I must have watched it at least 100 times on YouTube: one of our supporters got on the pitch and ‘scored’ when we played at Anfield in 1990. We lost 8-0. It’s one of those clips I turn to when I’m down, and I heartily recommend it.
What’s the best food you’ve ever had at a game?
That’s easy: at Kidderminster Harriers.
I watched Swansea at Aggborough in the early-noughties and the sheer diversity of the menu was incredible. I’d never seen pasta, shepherd’s pie or different varieties of soup at a game before. The game passed by without incident, so our fans sang about the soup for an hour. Superb.
What’s the most important piece of memorabilia that you have or wish you still had?
Oh God, this is quite niche. Wales had a fantastic Adidas kit from 1980-84, so I have a match-worn version that I bought on eBay and still fits. At the tail end of that cycle, they changed it very slightly so it had a pinstripe. The seniors never wore it but the youth team did, so I have the under-21s’ version. It’s absolutely stunning.
I’ve got another one: my mum couldn’t afford the shorts of a Wales kit I got for my 10th birthday, so bought me generic red ones to go with it. I didn’t complain, but it wasn’t right. Those shorts are hard to come by because nobody bought them, but I found some on eBay in my size a couple of years ago. When they arrived, I was able to be a full-kit w**ker with these eye-wateringly short shorts.
If you could drop yourself into your all-time five-a-side team, who would you be playing alongside?
Hang on, I wrote this down. [Grabs notes] Neville Southall in goal, Virgil van Dijk in defence – we’re playing to win – Gareth Bale and Thierry Henry.
Listen to Elis James and John Robins on BBC Radio 5 Live every Friday, plus Elis’ podcast ‘The Socially Distant Sports Bar’
For a limited time, you can get five copies of FourFourTwo for just £5! The offer ends on May 2, 2022.
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Joe was the Deputy Editor at FourFourTwo until 2022, having risen through the FFT academy and been on the brand since 2013 in various capacities.
By weekend and frustrating midweek night he is a Leicester City fan, and in 2020 co-wrote the autobiography of former Foxes winger Matt Piper – subsequently listed for both the Telegraph and William Hill Sports Book of the Year awards.
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