With a few minutes to go, totally dominant Wales 3-0 up against 10-man Israel and the devastatingly brilliant Gareth Bale looking like he would score every time he got the ball, I took a slurp of my pint and said “You watch now; James Collins will score four own goals in injury time and we’ll be fucked by fate yet again. God hates us.”
Such is my deeply-ingrained and comprehensively-institutionalised Welsh pessimism, I only conceded that we were probably going to win after the excellent Serbian ref blew the final whistle. And now Wales occupy one of the pole positions at the halfway stage of Euro 2016 qualifying Group B, unbeaten after five games. “We’re in terrible danger of being successful,” I slurred, as we staggered away from the biggest TV screen in Cardiff at Walkabout and headed for the more salubrious environs of the Cottage further up St Mary Street.
Mark my words, even though it now looks almost impossible for Wales not to qualify, some fiendish twists lie in wait to thwart us. This isn’t just my normal doom-and-gloom talking; this is worldly-wise caution erected to cushion myself against anticipated disappointment – and born out of bitter past experiences. Without exploring the torture chamber that is Wales’ history in World Cup qualifying, just look at our recurring nightmares in European qualifying:
1960 Wales did not enter the inaugural European Championship. Which is a great pity, because the team that had reached the World Cup quarter-finals only two years earlier, a team containing the likes of Ivor Allchurch (1929-1997), John Charles (1931-2004) and Cliff Jones, could well have gone far in a competition won eventually by an unexceptional Soviet Union side. Why on earth didn’t Wales enter? Answer: because England didn’t. The FA was run by the ghastly patrician fossil Stanley Rous (1895-1986), who would later become the deplorable, apartheid-supporting, Pinochet-backing President of FIFA. He couldn’t possibly endorse a competition organised by those uppity continentals at UEFA, and when Lancaster Gate told the FAW to jump back then the only response from Fairy Road (the FAW’s rather fitting Wrecsam address in those days) was “how high?” The FA still treats the FAW with complete contempt, as evidenced by their recent unilateral decision without consultation to try to enter a ‘GB’ team at the 2016 Olympics – confirming, yet again, that the ‘union’ is just window-dressing for a takeover, since England and Britain are the same thing to the English. Last week FIFA stamped out the Englanders’ plan once and for all by telling the FA they needed the agreement of all the ‘home’ associations to field their ‘GB’ team, agreement that the football authorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Wales have refused to give. Good gracious: the FAW has begun to develop a little backbone!
1964 Wales entered what was then a knock-out competition over two legs with an unseeded and entirely random draw. Of all the international teams of this era, the one you didn’t want to play was Hungary – ranked 1st in Europe and 3rd in the World according to the authoritative retrospective Elo ratings (there were no official rankings at the time). So, of course, it was the Magical Magyars who came out of the hat with Wales. In the first leg in Budapest Terry Medwin had levelled Flórián Albert’s (1941-2011) early goal and the side managed by Jimmy Murphy (1910-1989), who had cheated death in the 1958 Munich air disaster because he was on Wales duties in Cardiff at the time, were looking confident – until a terrible blunder by centre-half Mel Nurse gifted a goal to Lajos Tichy (1935-1999) before half-time. After weathering a second-half onslaught, Wales came away relieved to only lose 3-1 and still be in contention. Four months later in the return leg at Ninian Park, a string of miraculous saves by goalie Antal Szentmihályi, giving the performance of his life, repeatedly foiled Wales in a 1-1 draw. Lady Luck was laying down her demanding parameters and baring her merciless teeth.
1968 Qualification groups were introduced at this juncture. Owing to self-serving, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by the FA, the four ‘home’ nations were put together in a group which combined the results of the 1966 and 1967 Home Championships and from which only one could qualify. It looked like it was going to be a great start for Wales when going 1-0 up against Scotland in the opening fixture thanks to a 75th minute Ron Davies (1942-2013) goal at Ninian Park. But the resulting pitch invasion by hordes of frenzied Cardiff kids (including me) delayed the match for five minutes and Wales lost focus. With the 90 minutes nearly up, gaffe-prone Gary Sprake spilled a speculative shot into the path of Denis Law, sliding in on his backside. Law clearly handled the ball as he bundled it over the line but English ref Ken Dagnall (1921-1995) conveniently didn’t see it. Foiled again – and I was personally responsible! Next up were World Champions England at Wembley, and the same XI that beat West Germany in the World Cup final effectively ended Wales’ European hopes almost before the competition had begun with a 5-1 thrashing, featuring slapdash Welsh marking and defending. The return match against England in Cardiff in 1967 was lost 3-0, a score that flattered England and confirmed Wales’ exit. I was at that one too, and can remember yelling abuse from the boys’ enclosure at England’s irritating box-to-box busy bee Alan Ball (1945-2007). When the squeaky-voiced Lancastrian buried a 90th minute penalty I received an informative early lesson in hubris (since then I’ve become an expert and now I’ve got a PhD in the subject).
1972 In a group containing Czechoslovakia, Finland and Romania, Wales needed a result in Prague in October 1971 to challenge Romania for the one qualifying place. The Czechs had beaten Wales at the Vetch Field already, scoring three late goals in three hellish minutes to overturn a 1-0 deficit; retribution was essential. Wales were on top, despite the fact that articulate, intelligent manager Dave Bowen (1928-1995) was forced to field virtually a second XI because his squad had been decimated by the usual injuries and withdrawals for far more important English league business. But on the hour Ladislav Kuna (1947-2012) scored the only goal against the run of play and Wales could not find an equaliser and were eliminated. Guess what? The officials failed to spot a blatant foul and a clear offside in the build-up to Kuna’s goal. A pattern was emerging.
1976 Euro 76 qualifying was historic for Wales: the only time so far we have ever topped a qualification group. It almost goes without saying that this did not mean we qualified. Our t,t,timing was wrong – because the 5th European Championship was the last in which only four participated in the finals tournament. So, having comprehensively topped a group containing Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg, Wales, managed by soft-spoken technocrat Mike Smith, had to play a two-leg quarter-final against Yugoslavia to proceed to the finals which were to be hosted by…wait for it…that’s right, Yugoslavia. Do you seriously believe that UEFA and the powers-that-be were going to let the hosts be eliminated from their own tournament? For the sake of WALES? I don’t think so. And, as night follows day, the two matches against Yugoslavia were scandalous stitch-ups. The first leg in Croatian capital Zagreb featured the quickest goal ever conceded by Wales, Moca Vukotić scoring from an offside position after 45 seconds while the Austrian ref looked elsewhere. With 50,000 roaring them on, Yugoslavia clinched a 2-0 win with another offside goal in the second half (check out the video, and remember the offside rule at the time stipulated that TWO opponents plus goalie had to be between the attacker and the goal-line; it wasn’t changed until 1990). Wales had a mountain to climb in the second leg back at Ninian Park, but with quality attacking players like Alan Curtis, Brian Flynn, Arfon Griffiths, Leighton James, John Mahoney and John Toshack at the pinnacle of their careers, it was definitely possible. Or it might have been, but we’ll never know: the East German ref Rudi Glöckner (1929-1999) made sure of that. He awarded the Yugoslavs a ludicrous penalty after 20 minutes and, although defender Ian Evans equalised before half-time, the ref gave every debatable offside and penalty decision against Wales in the second half as we laid siege to the Yugoslav goal. Eventually even Glöckner couldn’t fail to award a penalty after a brazen foul – and captain Terry Yorath, who had never taken one previously in his career, missed it. The traditional loutish Ninian Park pitch invasion at the end of the match was truly justified on this occasion (I was at this game too, but didn’t participate in the ructions – by now I’d graduated to the manly stoicism of the Bob Bank’s deep recesses). We wuz robbed.
1980 Wales, in a qualifying group with Malta, Turkey and West Germany, were top of the table with two games left. It all came down to the game in Cologne. Small children, maiden aunts, those of a nervous disposition, those with compromised immune systems, and Dai Davies…look away now: 5-1; four conceded in 20 humiliating first half minutes; three at the near post. Mike England’s men looked like carthorses against thoroughbreds, illustrated perfectly by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s audaciously contemptuous goal. West Germany would go on to win their 2nd European title in the expanded eight-team finals in Italy. Here was a sobering footballing lesson – you might say a case of ‘Oh, duh, Cologne’ if you were straining for otiose puns. And here also was a new revelation for Wales’ fans to digest: when there are no wicked conspiracies or crazy misfortunes to screw us up, we’ll do the job ourselves.
1984 Wales, with pragmatic Mike England still in charge, had to win a tough-ish group up against Bulgaria, Norway and Yugoslavia to qualify for the 1984 finals in France. With one game to play, against Yugoslavia at Ninian Park, this was the position (two points for a win until 1996):
Therefore a victory would put Wales through. Do I need to mention what happened? Oh well, for completion’s sake…Wales were 1-0 up with a few minutes to go, I was skinning up in celebration at the back of the Bob Bank (no CCTV cameras, stewards, seat numbers, smoking bans and respect agendas in those days!), and FAW councillors in the Grandstand were Googling “Paris. Brothels” on their smart phones (well, they would have been had the technology existed). Then Neville Southall, who went on to win a record 92 caps for Wales, committed an awful schoolboy howler. Arggh…he let a speculative, not-very-powerful shot from Mehmed Baždarević go right through him…and that was that. There would be no revenge for the outrages of 1976. We don’t do revenge. Wales played Yugoslavia once more in a friendly (lost 2-1) and never beat them in seven attempts overall. From 1992 onwards Yugoslavia split into today’s Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Incidentally, it’s about time we started sussing out this revenge lark: there’s a must-win away match against Bosnia & Herzegovina coming up in October – and their head coach is Baždarević. They do say it’s a dish best served cold, and this particular dish is deep-frozen.
1988 Don’t for one moment imagine that Welsh football’s torment can’t get any worse: it always can. The campaign to get to the Euro 88 finals in West Germany is a case in point: it was even more agonising than four years earlier. Czechoslovakia, Denmark and Finland were the opposition and this was the position as the group reached its climax:
Wales’ last two games were away to Denmark and Czechoslovakia in October and November 1987. A win in Denmark and Wales were through; a draw in Denmark and Wales were through barring a thrashing in Czechoslovakia; a defeat in Denmark and Wales would still go through by beating Czechoslovakia. But somehow or other Wales contrived to lose both games. In Copenhagen the Wales of Ian Rush and Mark Hughes menacing up front, Peter Nicholas and Robbie James (1957-1998) snapping into tackles in midfield and Kevin Ratcliffe imperious in defence were bossing the match – until early in the second half Neil Slatter botched a clearance from a cross made by an offside Dane and Preben Elkjaer gratefully snapped up the gift. Wales had 40 minutes to get an equaliser but missed chance after chance. All was not lost: Denmark’s win had eliminated Czechoslovakia, so Wales now only had to beat a team with nothing to play for. Up against a scratch Czech team in a deserted, atmosphere-free Letná Stadium in Prague another Slatter slip let Ivo Knoflíček stroll through to score after half an hour of Welsh pressure. Powder-puff Wales couldn’t respond and a last minute free kick, walloped past a flat-footed, statuesque Southall by Michal Bílek, just rubbed salt into our wounds. Ouch! This was Mike England’s last game in charge and Wales never played Czechoslovakia again (overall record: P10, W3, D1, L6). After the ‘velvet divorce’ of 1992, they split the artificial union into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to the mutual advantage of both. There’s an idea.
1992 Terry Yorath’s ultimately fruitless five years as manager can be summed up by the cruel denoument of the qualifying campaign for the Euro 92 finals in Sweden. Wales, because seeding and ranking were now factored into the draw, were having to get accustomed to always being in a ‘group of death’ and were given no chance in a group consisting of World champions Germany (just re-unified), difficult Belgium and banana-skin Luxembourg. Yet Yorath’s team swept all before them, beating Belgium and, with Ian Rush’s famous cool finish, Germany at the Arms Park. This meant Wales went into the return fixture in Germany needing just a draw to qualify and sensationally knock the World champions out. Oh dearie me: Nuremburg, October 1991. 4-1. Möller, Völler, Riedle and Doll (sounds like an extract from the Ann Summers catalogue!). Note the way I deflect and disengage from pain by using “humour”. It works for me. And you require humour by the bucketload to revisit the dumbfounding brainstorm of defender Gavin Maguire that obligingly served up Germany’s second goal on a plate: from right-back he chipped a perfect cross into HIS OWN penalty area for Rudi Völler to bury the header and put Wales out of the competition. Out of his depth in international company, Maguire was one of the increasing number of rent-a-Taffs with Welsh ancestry being recruited by the FAW to try to lessen the handicap of having the smallest pool of players in Europe – a policy that hasn’t worked to date. He never played for Wales again. The words “stable-door”, “bolted” and “horse” come to mind. PS: Denmark, a country the size of Wales, were crowned champions of Europe in Gothenburg.
1996 UEFA expanded the 1996 finals tournament in England to 16 teams, meaning seven of the eight group runners-up would also qualify. This didn’t mean qualification was any easier for Wales, because UEFA itself had increased from 33 to 48 members with the addition of the football-mad ex-Soviet and ex-Yugoslav states, joyful to be independent, proud to have a national football team and hungry to make a mark. Groups were bigger than previously, and low-ranking Wales were drawn in an absolute beast with Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany and Moldova. We need not detain ourselves long on this particular car crash of a campaign, which was overseen by Mike Smith, inadvisably returning to fill the breach left by John Toshack’s sudden departure in 1994. Another Englishman, Bobby Gould, replaced Smith for the last two fixtures – but by then Wales had long been put to the sword. For the first and only time so far Wales ‘won’ the wooden spoon in a European qualifying group. The lowlight, of many, must be the 5-0 annihilation (from five shots on target) by poverty-stricken, war-torn Georgia – Georgia’s first ever win in competitive football and a hot contender for the worst Welsh performance of all time. In central defence that shocking afternoon in Tbilisi was Chris Coleman. Perhaps the experience will prove salutary in the long run and help him become in management the winner he never quite was as a player – he typed, crossing everything.
2000 There was to be no respite for Wales as the Bobby Gould era came to an ignominious conclusion. Belgium and Netherlands automatically qualified as co-hosts and the new eastern European nations were improving rapidly, so qualification was even harder. Up against Belarus, Denmark, Italy and Switzerland, Wales started by losing 2-0 at home to Italy. I say ‘home’ but the game was actually played in Liverpool at Anfield. Embarrassingly, while the Millennium Stadium was under construction there wasn’t a single ground in Wales that could hold 20,000 people. Surrendering home advantage for a neutral venue against the likes of Italy was trademark self-abnegation by Wales (we agree: we don’t matter), and it did the trick: Wales were out of it before the group was half completed after a roll-over-and-die 4-0 loss in Bologna, characterised by the clumsy incompetence of Andy Melville and Adrian Williams in defence. Gould was sacked and Mark Hughes took over for the dead-rubber fixtures remaining. With Ryan Giggs coming into his world-class pomp and Hughes looking the part, Welsh fans were daring to hope again. Will we never learn?
2004 Wales were drawn with Azerbaijan, Finland, Italy and Serbia & Montenegro (still combined); a comparatively favourable grouping, especially as the 10 group runners-up would play-off over two legs to decide the five teams that would join the group winners and the hosts for the finals in Portugal (where minnows Greece were ultimately victorious). After winning the first four games (including a momentous 2-1 victory over Italy at the Millennium Stadium), Wales sat top of the table in a seemingly impregnable position. Wily Hughes had instilled structure and spirit, Giggs could win a match on his own, there was a new sense of self-confidence brought by devolution, and the magnificent stadium was packing in the biggest average crowds in Europe – including the all-time record Wales home attendance of 73,500 against, of all teams, Azerbaijan. But the last four games went L, L, D, L as Wales froze in the spotlight. Italy won the group and Wales had to settle for runners-up position and a play-off against mighty Russia. In the first leg in Moscow in November 2003, the two country’s first ever football encounter, obdurate and disciplined Wales held the Russians to a 0-0 draw despite missing five regulars through the traditional injuries and late withdrawals. Jason Koumas, Robbie Savage and Gary Speed (1969-2011) all had their best game for Wales simultaneously in midfield. Having done the difficult bit, Wales then blew the easy bit: a syndrome that must be considered a national characteristic. Four days later in Cardiff I was among the capacity crowd that witnessed lacklustre, nervous, strangely unambitious Wales stumble at the final hurdle once more and lose 1-0 to an unchallenged 22nd minute Vadim Evseev header, the only goal he ever scored for Russia. “Disappointment” doesn’t quite express it. Later it was discovered that Yegor Titov had tested positive for prohibited substance bromantan after the first leg, in which he was an un-used substitute. He was banned for a year, yet he had played for Russia in the second leg! Repeated FAW appeals to UEFA to have the result overturned were rejected on spurious, bureaucratic grounds. “Injustice” doesn’t quite express it. Subsequently, UEFA tightened doping rules so that nobody else would have to suffer the Welsh experience in future. Well, I suppose being Guinea Pig makes a change from Cash Cow, Scapegoat or Sacrificial Lamb…
2008 With Austria and Switzerland jointly hosting the Euro 2008 finals, Wales were lumped into a massive group from which the top two would qualify: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, San Marino and Slovakia. John Toshack was back in the saddle, but he seemed to have lost his managerial mojo of yore and looked out of touch with the evolving international game. Can I draw a veil over this thoroughly miserable campaign? I get complaints my blogs are too long as it is! One excruciating match sums it up anyway: Wales 1 Slovakia 5, the worst home result for 98 years and a personal disaster for goalie Paul Jones, who let THREE long-range shots go over his head. It was his 50th, and final, game for Wales. Today Toshack is getting belated credit for blooding a batch of young players for the future, such as Joe Allen, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey. We’ll soon know whether Tosh’s master plan worked; that future has now arrived.
2012 What fresh corners of Hades would Wales have to endure while trying to qualify for the 2012 Poland/Ukraine finals? Answer: the boiler-rooms. It began with an abject 1-0 defeat to Europe’s newest nation Montenegro in Podgorica, following which my boyhood hero Tosh did the decent thing. Brian Flynn was given a go as caretaker-manager but, after a 1-0 surrender to mediocre Bulgaria at a half-empty Cardiff City Stadium and then a shambolic defensive display in a 4-1 pasting in Switzerland, he too was shown the door. Gary Speed took over in time for Wales’ 100th game against England at the Millennium Stadium (Wales have not played there since). Naturally it was lost (2-0), allowing qualification hopes to be formally laid to rest once more. Speed used the meaningless fixtures remaining to re-organise and tweak the team and a few good wins were racked up (we always shine when it doesn’t matter). Some indulged in optimism – until the shattering news of his suicide rendered footballing matters irrelevant.
See what I mean? See why I’m counting no chickens until they’re hatched? We are the unluckiest people on Earth and, on those rare occasions when luck is on our side, we have an uncanny knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. 24 qualify for Euro 2016 in France, two from each of the nine groups plus the best third-placed team plus the four winners of play-offs between the other eight third-placed teams. It will take failure on a catastrophic scale unprecedented even by Welsh standards for Wales to miss out this time. If it all comes down to the final game in October at home to Andorra (international record: three wins in 126 games) I know where I’ll be: chucking pennies in a wishing-well, far from home.