Wales and the World Cup

Note: each individual’s date of birth and, if appropriate, death is given in brackets on their first mention 

Mediocre Moldova rolled over and Wales cruised to a comfortable 4-0 victory in Cardiff this month to get the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup in Russia off to a flying start. Gareth Bale (b1989) has overtaken Ivor Allchurch (1929-1997) and Trevor Ford (1923-2003) to become Wales’ second highest scorer and is within just four goals of Ian Rush’s (b1961) all-time record of 28. Bale-o has become such a devastatingly irresistible footballer that it now seems inevitable he will either create or score a goal every time he takes to the field – even when he’s having an off day. Add the growing international stature of Joe Allen (b1990), manoeuvring and marauding magnificently in a Pirlo-esque midfield masterclass, the intimidating aerial power of Sam Vokes (b1989) and the penetrative passing of Andy King (b1988) and it’s hard to imagine any team preventing this Wales side scoring, especially when the brilliant Aaron Ramsey (b1990) is back from injury. But hang on, next up are Austria in October and it’s never easy at their place…

Given how ridiculously easy winning games has suddenly become for Wales, even I am confident of three more points in Vienna – despite the fact that nothing in the entire history of Wales in the World Cup would justify the merest smidgen of confidence. With the solitary exception of 1958, so long ago it merely proves the rule, the Welsh World Cup experience has hitherto been a saga of unremitting misery. Hmm…I’m good at unremitting misery…so here then, as a companion piece to my history of Wales in the European Championships (see http://tinyurl.com/poogw48) is the harrowing saga of Wales and the World Cup. WARNING: Contains long paragraphs, big words, philosophical musings, pro-Wales attitudes and flashing images.

1930, URUGUAY

FIFA, which had been founded in Paris in 1904 by the FAs of Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, had 41 members by the time of the first World Cup in 1930 – but Wales was not among them. Although the FAW had been founded way back in 1875 at this point in time Wales had never played anyone other than England, Scotland or Ireland (Northern Ireland from 1924). The FAW, despite being theoretically ‘independent’, was in reality a completely compliant and cowed subsidiary of the English FA and did whatever England instructed without question or qualm. Treating Wales’ national football team as important would not just draw attention to Wales’ lack of national statehood, it would also tacitly endorse the concept of Wales as a nation – absolute anathema to the British nationalists in charge. So when England grudgingly decided to join FIFA in 1905 the other ‘Home Nations’ did likewise. Subsequently, with trademark bullying arrogance, the FA decided to quit FIFA in 1919 because some former WW1 opponents were also FIFA members, and the other three UK associations obediently followed suit. Unable to sustain this ludicrous position, which would have rendered international football impossible had other countries behaved similarly, the FA and its FAW lapdog rejoined in 1924. But in 1928 the FA threw another passive-aggressive hissy fit and stormed out of FIFA slamming doors (this time their hypocritical, indefensible stance was objecting to paid professionalism) – and of course so did their lickspittle FAW sub-branch. The four ‘British’ associations would not become FIFA members again until 1946, ruling Wales out of the 1934 and 1938 World Cups as well as this inaugural tournament in Uruguay, won by the hosts.

Running the FAW from Wrecsam back in 1930 were president Richard ‘Tom’ Gough (1860-1934) and secretary since 1909 Ted Robbins (1878-1946). Both were stereotypical Victorian British conservatives quite out of their depth dealing with the sophisticated sharks of the FA let alone the realities of the rapidly expanding global game. Oswestry-born Gough, in his Oswestry Town playing days a goalie who won one Welsh cap against Scotland in 1883, was actually a member of the FA’s ruling council at the same time as being FAW president. He was an English stooge, a colonial governor implanted to keep the Welsh in order, and thanks to him English clubs had no obligation to release players for Wales duty (and wouldn’t until 1993), meaning Wales often had trouble finding 11 fit players to field a team. Not that it really mattered, since Wales never had more than three games per year, and some years only two. Essentially, the international team was an incidental afterthought, set up to give England a game now and then, while long-serving secretary Robbins was otherwise engaged trying over and over again, and failing over and over again, to organise Welsh domestic football. So spectacularly did he fail that it wasn’t until 1992 that the 3rd oldest football country in the world acquired a national league, and to this day the preposterously labyrinthine and fragmented FAW structure Robbins concocted to palliate the hyper-local blazerati with an allergy to Welsh actualisation survives intact. On the anonymous, unaccountable FAW council in the 21st century the chances of an all-Wales perspective and approach are blighted by SIX squabbling, parochial regional FAs (Central Wales, Gwent, North East Wales, North Wales Coast, South Wales and West Wales) jealously guarding their powers, privileges and perks, pursuing half-forgotten old vendettas and acting as a perpetual, reactionary drag on change.

1934, ITALY

As entries increased, the 1934 World Cup, again won by the hosts, was the first to necessitate a qualifying competition to find the 16 finalists. The party was getting exciting, but shy, virginal Wales was sat at home waiting in vain for gentlemen callers. How would the Welsh team of the 1930s have fared in Italy? Well, if the result of Wales’ first ever game against opponents from outside the UK (and first ever international on ‘foreign’ soil) a year previously in 1933 is anything to go by, not badly. In front of 25,000 at the Stade Olympique de Colombes, Wales got an excellent 1-1 draw against France, qualifiers for the 1934 tournament. This deceptively encouraging toe-dip into international waters turned out to be a false dawn – but nobody knew that back then.

It is instructive to look at the Wales line-up for that 1933 match in Paris (old 2-3-5 formation): 1 Roy John (1911-1973); 2 Bob John (1899-1982), 3 Sid Lawrence (1909-1949); 4 Jimmy Murphy (1910-1989), 5 Tommy Griffiths (1906-1981), 6 Charlie Jones (1899-1966); 7 Tommy J Jones (1909-c1979), 8 Les Jones (1911-1981), 9 Tommy Bamford (1905-1967), 10 Walter Robbins (1910-1979), 11 Fred Warren (1907-1986). Although all plied their trade for various clubs in the English leagues, all 11 had come through the youth systems of Welsh clubs. Seven were produced by clubs in what would now be called the Welsh pyramid (Aberdare Athletic, Barry Town, Bridgend Town, Ely United, Mid Rhondda, Penrhiwceiber Rangers and Ton Pentre) and the other four were developed by Cardiff City (2), Swansea Town and Wrexham. Compare and contrast with the 11 who started against Moldova:  seven developed by English clubs and two each by English league Cymruphobes Cardiff City and Swansea City. Our crippling dependence on England to manufacture players for us, a manifest mistake until Southampton came up trumps with freakish once-a-century Soccer God Gareth, has actually hugely increased over the last 80 years! Perhaps Ted Robbins didn’t do such a bad job after all.

1938, FRANCE

Despite operating on a shoestring in a deep economic depression and continually being hamstrung by English clubs refusing to release players, Wales won the Home International Championship four times in the 1930s (1933, 1934, 1937 and 1939), making it the best ever decade for Wales in the 100 year history of the competition (1884-1984). Team selection was the responsibility of one of the FAW’s dreaded sub-committees, but in truth the team was whoever Ted Robbins could muster from the uninjured and the available. Luckily, in this period Wales had a lot of natural talent to call on to supplement the defensive strength of the aforementioned Tommy Griffiths, Bob John and Jimmy Murphy; players like Dai Astley (1909-1989), Willie Evans (1912-1976), Bryn Jones (1912-1985), ‘TG’ Jones (1917-2004), Pat Glover (1910-1971), Idris Hopkins (1910-1994), Billy Hughes (1918-1981), Eugene O’Callaghan (1906-1956) and Ivor Powell (1916-2012) ranked amongst the best in their positions anywhere in the world. But, unluckily, none had the opportunity to perform on the world stage, thwarted by the FAW’s subservience to Britishness and the outbreak of WW2 in 1939 that halted football for seven years, cutting off many a career in its prime.

Italy retained the World Cup in Paris in 1938. The country’s FIFA vice-president Ottorino Barassi (1898-1971) kept the trophy in a shoebox under his bed to hide it from the Fascists while the 1942 and 1946 tournaments were cancelled. When football resumed it was renamed the Jules Rimet Trophy in honour of Frenchman Jules Rimet (1873-1956), the visionary driving force behind the competition and still FIFA’s longest-serving president (1921 to 1954).

In 1946 the FA decreed that it was time for the four UK nations to return to the FIFA fold; they could hardly do otherwise since their old belligerent supremacism, stroppy antagonism and deluded imperial hauteur was now completely at odds with the prevailing post-war hunger for co-operation, progress and peace. Change was in the air – even at the FAW where the pace of change is measured at glacial rates. After the sudden death of Ted Robbins, press baron Gomer Berry (1883-1968) from Merthyr, owner of Allied Newspapers and ennobled as Viscount Kemsley, became president while Herbert Powell (c1900-1975) became the new chief-cook-and-bottle-washer secretary. But neither was up to the task, simply because neither could bring themselves to see the importance of Wales’ international football status – the only global calling-card Wales possesses to this day. Berry embodied a certain strain of Welsh Conservatism still very much at large: strait-laced, unimaginative, embarrassed by their Welshness and over-compensating by becoming more-English-than-the-English, while uncomprehending Powell was an archetypal Welsh fawner, never rocking the boat, never taking on the powerful, never defending Welsh interests.  Yes, Wales had joined the FIFA family; but Powell, who remained secretary until 1971, made sure that Welsh membership was always contingent on our masterful English overlords – exemplified by his pitiful letters to English clubs grovelling ineffectually for the release of players; his humiliating framing of FAW policy around the FA’s requirements; and his surrender of the FAW’s FIFA vote to the FA for decades in return for tawdry pittances in brown envelopes. Nothing however would characterise Powell’s priorities better than the infamous incident in 1953 when players were removed from the plane to France and made to wait for the next flight in order to make way for FAW officials.

1950, BRAZIL

Wales entered the World Cup at last and now the story really begins. Who were the opposition for Wales’ first ever World Cup match? I’ll give you one guess. Correct: England. Sometimes it seems that we can never escape the overwhelming, constricting grip of our domineering neighbour – just look at Euro 2016 when we were drawn in the same group. By 1949 the FA had already wormed and wheedled into FIFA positions of power (England approves of international collaboration so long as it’s in charge) and decided that the Home Championship of 1949/50 would double as a qualifying group for Brazil. FIFA, now with 73 members, concurred, and that was that. Wales therefore faced England at Ninian Park in October 1949 for the 60th and by far the most important time. Despite next to no media coverage in print or on radio, the people knew how important it was too: 61,079 turned up – the largest crowd ever to watch a football match in Wales up to that point, and a figure only exceeded once in Ninian Park’s entire history (62,634 against England 10 years later). It was a suitably traumatic introduction to World Cup realities for Wales, setting the trend for the agonies ahead: Geordie hero Jackie Milburn (1924-1988) scored a hat-trick in a 1-4 defeat that more or less instantly eliminated Wales since there were only three games to play in the group. For the record, Merthyr-born Leicester City winger Mal Griffiths (1919-1969) scored Wales’ first World Cup goal. The match had features that would coagulate into abiding themes in Wales’ World Cup travails: bad luck (Wales dominated possession and played the better football all afternoon) and a rabbit-in-the-headlights performance by an individual overwhelmed by the occasion. To launch the tradition, the usually accomplished Liverpool goalie, Colwyn Bay-born Cyril Sidlow (1915-2005), went curiosly awol and was seriously at fault with all four goals. He was never picked for Wales again.

A 2-0 loss in Glasgow and a meaningless 0-0 draw in Wrecsam against Northern Ireland completed a dismal World Cup baptism. There was a small consolation. England duly qualified for the finals in Brazil, ultimately won by Uruguay, and there they suffered a shocking 1-0 defeat in the group stages to the ragbag of barely acquainted part-timers from the United States and were humiliatingly eliminated. However, as generation after generation of Welsh fans would discover, feasting on schadenfreude is never going to be a satisfying or wholesome diet – although it can provide a short-term sugar boost if mum’s gone to ICELAND!

1954, SWITZERLAND

At English insistence, the Home Championship (1953/54) was again made to double as a qualification group. Again Wales faced England at Ninian Park on a Saturday afternoon in October in their first match. Again over 60,000 crammed into the ground. And again Wales lost 1-4. Not so much Deja Vu; more Groundhog Day. In fact, it was far worse than that. Wales, as usual decimated by injuries and late withdrawals, ran England ragged in the first half. Roared on by the vast crowd, Wales went 1-0 up through Ivor Allchurch and would have been out of sight had it not been for a string of miraculous saves by England keeper Gil Merrick (1922-2010). Then it happened: the wheel of fortune took a wicked turn and Wales experienced a shocking introductory World Cup catastrophe. Just as the referee was about to blow for half-time, Cardiff City’s superb full-back Alf Sherwood (1923-1990), undisputed king of the sliding tackle, was badly concussed in a collision and had to leave the field. From the free-kick, inexplicably given in England’s favour, Wolves striker Dennis Wilshaw (1926-2004) rose unopposed to head the equaliser with Wales still trying to reorganise in defence. It was the last action of the first half. By the time Sherwood rejoined the match five minutes into the second half, England had amazingly scored three more goals with three more uncontested headers – another from Wilshaw and two from Bolton Wanderers battering-ram Nat Lofthouse (1925-2011) – created by crosses from the wing where Sherwood would have been patrolling. England’s four goals had come in eight minutes of play: still a record for the worst eight minutes in Wales’ football history. With Sherwood a groggy passenger stationed up front for nuisance value only in the days before substitutes, Wales were effectively down to 10 men for the whole of the second half and there was no way back.

But all was not lost, because two teams qualified for Switzerland from the group. And after a thrilling 3-3 draw with Scotland in front of 71,000 at Hampden Park, in which Wales came back from 3-1 down with an Allchurch special and a last minute John Charles (1931-2004) leveller, qualification was still possible if Wales could get a big win over already eliminated Northern Ireland at Wrecsam in March 1954 and Scotland lost to England in their concluding match. The 32,817 crowd, the third highest ever to assemble at the Racecourse Ground, had barely settled before 19-year-old Peter McParland (b1934), on his  international debut, scored the fastest goal ever conceded by Wales in the World Cup after just 45 seconds. The man who would go on to become an Aston Villa legend with a match-winning and goalie-crocking performance in the 1957 FA Cup final got another in the second half and shell-shocked Wales lost 1-2. There would be no Swiss roll for Wales. Scotland qualified for the first time along with England, both were comprehensively trounced by Uruguay – Great! No, I don’t really mean it, honestly! – and West Germany won a thrilling final 3-2 against Hungary in pouring rain at Bern’s Wankdorf Stadium. Yes, you’re quite right, the inclusion of the venue’s name in that last sentence was entirely gratuitous.

Following this chastening campaign, the FAW decided it was time to join the 20th century and appoint a manager/coach like the rest of the world had been doing for 30 years. Team-building, training and tactics would no longer consist of whoever received Herbert Powell’s letters turning up at a specified place on a specified day (towel and soap not provided). Typically, the FAW chose Walley Barnes (1920-1975), coming to the end of his playing days as a stalwart Arsenal full-back. Barnes was Welsh alright, born in Brecon, but only in the way, say, BBC Wales, ITV Cymru Wales, Media Wales or the Welsh Office are ‘Welsh’: as a secondary, contradictory and tautological adjunct to being thoroughly British. His Brecon birth was accidental – his soldier father was stationed there at the time – and he grew up in Hampshire, going into the Army too and developing into a parody of the English sergeant-major class complete with strangulated vowels straining for gentility. His strictly part-time and passionless tenure lasted two years (W2, D2, L6) before he left to join the BBC as the Corporation’s first football pundit. The FAW appointed Jimmy Murphy to replace him in October 1956. The Ton Pentre and West Bromwich Albion wing-half had won 15 caps for Wales in his playing days and had been a low-key but highly effective assistant to manager Matt Busby (1909-1994) at Manchester United since 1945. It was a good appointment for Wales – and a life-saving one for Murphy.

1958, SWEDEN

Ahh…Sweden ’58…our day in the sun…will there ever be another I wonder…we shall soon find out.

Released from the shackles of a pre-ordained British group, Wales went into the open draw like all the other entrants and came out of the hat in a tough qualifying group from which only one would progress with Czechoslovakia and East Germany, neither of whom Wales had ever played previously (mind you, at this juncture Wales had only played six non-British opponents in a mere 13 friendly internationals spread over 24 years). What happened has gone into Welsh football folklore, but the strange story is always worth repeating – if only to pose a question to which I long for an answer: do you make your own luck in this life?

Expectations were rightly high from the outset, defeatist pessimism having not yet taken up a long lease in the Welsh psyche. A golden generation of players, many Swansea-born like superstar John Charles, had been forged into a real team by the canny Murphy, applying the same intense methods that were working so well with the all-conquering ‘Busby Babes’ in the English league. To begin with, Czechoslovakia were beaten 1-0 in a gripping contest at Ninian Park in May 1957. Goalie Jack Kelsey (1929-1992), discovered by Arsenal playing in the Swansea & District League, was in unbeatable form and lean and hungry Blackburn Rovers sharpshooter Roy Vernon (1937-1993) from Ffynnongroew snaffled a snappy winner 15 minutes from time to send the 50,000 crowd into delirium. Expectations soared higher: the group favourites had been beaten and Wales sat on top of the pile. But another informative lesson on a very steep learning curve was lying in ambush for Welsh fans: never, ever, underestimate the FAW’s capacity for staggering incompetence.

The FAW had meekly consented to a fixture list drawn up to suit Czechoslovakia and East Germany, and 18 days later Wales had to play East Germany in Leipzig followed by Czechoslovakia in Prague seven days after that. If that wasn’t demanding enough, the FAW took only 12 players to these crucial games (John Charles, just signed from Leeds United by Juventus, made his own way there). Actual footballers were outnumbered on the flight to Berlin by Murphy, his assistant, a doctor and no less than 11 FAW selectors! On arrival, the players were put on the bus to Leipzig and, after negotiating the armed guards of Checkpoint Charlie and a gruelling 100 mile journey, were deposited in a no-frills, Communist-era rooming house. Meanwhile, the FAW officials were whisked off to a smart Berlin hotel in limousines! I kid you not! With that preparation it was little wonder threadbare, exhausted, demoralised Wales, missing injured Ivor Allchurch, struggled in Leipzig. In front of a crowd of 105,000 (unofficial estimate 120,000) at the newly-built Zentralstadion, to this day the biggest ever attendance at a football match involving Wales, Wales lined up as follows: 1 Jack Kelsey; 2 Trevor Edwards (b1937), 3 Mel Hopkins (1934-2010); 4 Billy Harris (1928-1989), 5 John Charles, 6 Dave Bowen (1928-1995); 7 Derek Tapscott (1932-2008), 8 Mel Charles (1935-2016), 9 Terry Medwin (b1932), 10 Roy Vernon, 11 Cliff Jones (b1935). Not one single Welsh fan was in the deafening throng (apart from those FAW selectors, assuming they’d recovered from their investigative studies of the Berlin night-time economy), but the vast hordes in the immense bowl, forged from the rubble of the bombed city, were soon silenced by a 6th minute goal from utility player Mel Charles, John’s younger brother. Welsh joy didn’t last long: Günther Wirth (b1933) equalised soon after and in the second half one-armed centre-forward Willy Tröger (1928-2004) grabbed the winner with Wales’ makeshift defence all over the place. John Charles, so versatile he could play in attack or defence, was marking the speedy East German, who had lost a forearm in a grenade explosion in WW2. The Gentle Giant ruefully admitted afterwards that he had consciously avoided tackling Tröger throughout the game because he felt sorry for him! He was a lovely man…the greatest Welsh footballer of all time pre-Bale…never booked or sent off in his entire career of over 700 games…Il Gigante Buono. Do nice guys always have to come last?

The battered, bruised players were left to recover in their Leipzig lodgings for four days before travelling to Prague in a creaky old Dakota aircraft. The FAW councillors flew business class from Berlin. Now the grievous shortage of players scuppered Wales before the must-win match had even kicked off. Bowen, Edwards, Tapscott and reserve Reg Davies (1929-2009) were all injured, meaning Wales didn’t have 11 fit players for the most important game yet in their history. Herbert Powell had to rouse himself and send telegrams to call up two more Swansea products Ray Daniel (1928-1997) and uncapped Des Palmer (b1931), and Murphy had the impossible task of organising an unfamiliar 11 into a coherent team in a single afternoon’s training session. Elegant, ball-playing centre-half Daniel was actually between clubs at the time, having just completed a ban for accepting “illegal” payments while with Sunderland, and he didn’t even possess a pair of boots. He was forced to play in borrowed boots that didn’t fit, blistered his feet and caused agony. With Wales performing surprisingly well in front of 45,000 at the Strahov Stadium, the decisive moment came in the 21st minute when one of poor Daniel’s blistered feet put the ball into his own net. Wales duly lost 2-0, Daniel in so much pain that he threw the boots into touch and played the last 15 minutes in his socks. There could hardly be a better symbol of the FAW’s farcical pennypinching than the bare, bloody stumps of Ray Daniel. It was the last of his 21 caps.

The return against East Germany in Cardiff in September 1957 was to all intents and purposes a dead rubber for Wales. The Germans still had everything to play for if they could win, but Wales were almost certainly out whatever happened. Interest had waned, and only 30,000 turned up to see a relaxed Wales triumph 4-1, despite being without a batch of first-choice players for all the usual lame excuses wheeled out by their clubs. Ivor Allchurch gave a masterclass in creativity, Des Palmer scored an extraordinary hat-trick (he only played for Wales once more before a knee injury ruined his career), and Czech qualification for Sweden was duly confirmed a month later when they won 4-1 in Leipzig. That result also ensured Wales were group runners-up – not that it mattered. Sometimes, though, things that once seemed immaterial assume great importance.

During the Asian/African qualification process country after country had been refusing to play Israel for geo-political reasons: Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia and Sudan all withdrew allowing Israel to qualify without kicking a ball. But FIFA quickly invented a rule that stipulated only holders and hosts could qualify without playing a game, so a solution was concocted whereby Israel would play a special two-leg play-off against the runners-up of one of the nine European groups – to be determined by the drawing of lots. Suddenly that 4-1 defeat of East Germany was vital. It was a 9/1 shot, soon 8/1 when FIFA summarily excluded one group because the deciding Northern Ireland/Italy fixture had yet to be played. Not bad odds, but hardly generous. Wales went into the lottery with Belgium, Bulgaria, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Spain just before Christmas 1957 and FIFA president (and FA chairman) Arthur Drewry (1891-1961), a Grimsby fish-merchant promoted beyond the level of his own inabilities, did the honours. He fished around among the names written on folded scraps of paper in the actual Jules Rimet trophy and pulled out…BELGIUM! But, for reasons that have never quite been established, the Belgium FA ostentatiously declined the qualification place on the spot. Pro-Israel solidarity? Pro-Palestine solidarity? Catholic  distaste at the very concept of random chance? Flanders fusspots grabbing the High Moral Ground? Who knows? And who in Wales cared after Drewry dipped his liver-spotted claw into the Cup again and read out the name of…WALES!!

Now Israel had to be overcome in the play-off, and Wales were hot favourites against the amateur beginners who at that point had only played 17 competitive games in total (W4, L13) since being founded in 1948 (Israel, UEFA members since 1994, are much stronger these days). The job still had to be done and in January 1958 Wales were solidly professional in a 2-0 win in Tel Aviv in front of 60,000 raucous Jews (if that’s not a contradiction in terms, he added needlessly). Ivor Allchurch and Dave Bowen scored in Wales’ first ever win outside the British Isles. Then 30,000 turned up at Ninian Park on the evening of February 5th to roar Wales over the finishing line in another 2-0 win with goals from Allchurch and Cliff Jones. Wales had qualified for the World Cup!

Thus, through the direct intervention of literal luck, Wales became the first, and so far only, team to qualify for the World Cup after failing to qualify. We were universally seen as jamminess personified, the runners-up of the runners-up who had fluked a route to Sweden. Inconceivable as it now seems, for a while we were the lucky people! We would pay with compound interest for this one-off slice of fortune.

And those payments began to be extracted immediately. Within 24 hours Jimmy Murphy’s beloved Busby Babes had perished on a snowy airport runway in Munich, on the way home from a 3-3 draw (5-4 aggregate win) in the second-leg of a European Cup quarter-final against Red Star Belgrade. Among the 23 dead was Bert Whalley (1913-1958), United’s coach, sitting in the seat next to Matt Busby that Murphy would have occupied had he not been in Cardiff. The Welsh achievement was instantly rendered irrelevant while Jimmy Murphy had to deal with a stratospheric high and a profound low simultaneously – and he did. He took over at Old Trafford as Matt Busby slowly recovered in hospital while also throwing himself into the challenge of preparing Wales for Sweden. Jimmy Murphy was a great man…a man of ideas…loved his books and his music…always craved knowledge…oh where in the valleys today is there such a man?

I will not go into detail about Wales’ fantastic tournament in Sweden, mainly because the 58 intervening years have made getting there so much more significant than being there. Wales were drawn in group 3 with Hungary and Mexico and hosts Sweden. None had been encountered before and Mexico were Wales first ever opponents from the Americas.

SQUAD (FIFA numbers): 1 Jack Kelsey, 2 Stuart Williams (1930-2013), 3 Mel Hopkins, 4 Derrick Sullivan (1930-1983), 5 Mel Charles, 6 Dave Bowen, 7 Terry Medwin, 8 Ron Hewitt (1928-2001), 9 John Charles, 10 Ivor Allchurch, 11 Cliff Jones, 12 Ken Jones (1936-2013), 13 Graham Vearncombe (1934-1992), 14 Trevor Edwards, 15 Colin Baker (b1934), 16 Vic Crowe (1932-2009), 17 Ken Leek (1935-2007), 18 Roy Vernon, 19 Colin Webster (1932-2001), 20 John Elsworthy (1931-2009), 21 Len Allchurch (b1933), 22 George Baker (b1936).

It is worth noting that every single member of the 1958 squad was born in Wales, whereas eight of the most recent squad of 23 for the Moldova match were born in England. This is a consequence of FIFA’s gradual relaxation of eligibility rules over the years, which by 1993 permitted a player to represent the country of a parent or grandparent’s birth. Sure, it slightly increased the eligibility pool and sure, it delivered some short-term advantages; but in the long run it has only succeeded in letting the FAW get away with more or less giving up on player development via the normal channel of a strong domestic network of clubs, since there are always likely to be a few Englishmen with a Welsh relative in the intertwined, rootless UK. And thus the crazy reliance on the lottery of English clubs doing what we should do ourselves has grown further.

It is also worth noting that despite a summer tournament not hampering the release of players, and despite not being limited by a long injury list (the only serious absentee was fearless Trevor Ford, but that wasn’t because of injury; the hypersensitive FAW ludicrously banned him for mildly critical comments he had made in his 1956 autobiography I Lead the Attack), Wales still had real problems rustling up 22 men for Sweden. The glaring lack of a professional domestic structure meant, then as now, a chronic shortage of professional footballers. Just to make up the numbers Jimmy Murphy had to select three unknown, uncapped players (John Elsworthy, Ken Jones and George Baker) who he knew would play no part in the tournament (the FAW actually left Elsworthy at home to save a few quid knowing FIFA wouldn’t notice). None of the three were considered good enough to ever play for Wales.

And here’s another point to digest: back in 1958 little Swansea Town, perennial Division 2 strugglers run on a wing and a prayer, produced no less than six of the squad; whereas today’s Swansea City, bloated, money’s-no-object, billionaires of the English Premier League, are responsible for only three of the current squad. English clubs’ suicidal dependence on a meat-market of multitudes of bought-in globe-trotting mercenaries is having a knock-on detrimental effect on Wales thanks to the Anglo fifth columnists. So much for Swansea City’s presence in the English pyramid being “good for Wales” (quote: every football pundit in Wales, bar me).

Wales got to the World Cup quarter-finals! It seems like a dream now. Let the stats do the work:

GROUP MATCHES

8 JUNE Sandviken, 15,343 HUNGARY 1 József Bozsik (1925-1978) 5′, WALES 1 John Charles 27′

11 JUNE Solna, 15,150 MEXICO 1 Jaime Belmonte (1934-2009) 89′, WALES 1 Ivor Allchurch 32′

15 JUNE Solna, 30,287 SWEDEN 0, WALES 0

FINAL GROUP 3 TABLE (2pts for a win, top 2 progress, teams level on points play off)

         P         W          D          L       F-A       PTS
SWEDEN          3          2           1          0       5-1          5
H’NGARY          3          1           1          1       6-3          3
WALES          3          0           3          0       2-2          3
MEXICO          3          0           1          2       1-8          1

PLAY-OFF

17 JUNE Solna, 2,823 HUNGARY 1 Lajos Tichy (1935-1999) 33′, WALES 2 Ivor Allchurch 55′, Terry Medwin 76′

QUARTER-FINAL

19 JUNE Gothenburg, 25,923 BRAZIL 1 Pelé (b1940) 66′, WALES 0

Well, stats can’t do all the work: I’ve got to mention Wales’ superb core defenders who played in all five games, Jack Kelsey, Stuart Williams, Mel Hopkins, Mel Charles and captain Dave Bowen; Jaime Belmonte’s last-gasp equaliser earning Mexico’s first World Cup point, for which he was henceforth know as El Héroe de Solna; the miniscule attendance at the play-off, still the smallest in World Cup finals history; Ivor’s sumptuous goal in that sensational play-off victory; Hungary’s brazen hacking of John Charles out of the quarter-final; and, of course, Edson Arantes do Nascimento…PELÉ!!

Ten days later Brazil lifted the Jules Rimet trophy that would eventually become their property. The beautiful game was born. We were there when modern football was defined; we were there at the making of a legend; we were there. I have no truck with providence – but even I can catch myself thinking it was meant to be.

1962, CHILE

This time Wales were drawn in a winner-takes-all two-team qualifying group with Spain, a sleeping giant rising in the game in the wake of Real Madrid’s 5th consecutive European Cup win in 1960. It could hardly have been more difficult. The redoubtable Murphy was still the part-time manager, but those of the golden generation who hadn’t retired were becoming a little long in the tooth and the supply of international-quality replacements was in one of its regular fallow periods. On top of this, the reluctance of Juventus to release John Charles combined with his dislike of travel meant that Wales’ talisman played in neither match, scheduled within a month of each other in spring 1961. The two titanic struggles were Wales’ maiden matches against Spain and, curiously, the countries have only met three times in the 55 years since, and not at all for the last 31.

45,000 were at Ninian Park for the first-leg, and when Caersws-born midfielder Phil Woosnam (1932-2013), the golfer’s cousin, slotted home a neat goal in the 7th minute the explosive roar thundered and reverberated across the city through the soggy drizzle. But lax marking allowed reserve defender Alfonso Rodríguez, aka ‘Foncho’ (1939-1994), to level from a corner 15 minutes later. He was making his international debut, only playing because of injuries, scored a mere three goals (including this one) in his entire playing career and won just one further Spanish cap. Little did anyone know it, but Foncho was inaugurating a vexatious World Cup sub-theme of Wales getting royally screwed by the mundane. Throughout the ebb and flow of a pulsating second-half, the classically crass Cardiff crowd took to booing Spain’s danger-man Alfredo Di Stéfano (1926-2014) every time he touched the ball. Big mistake: the Real Madrid maestro who had scored in each of their five European Cup triumphs responded to the provocation like a goaded bull by half-volleying on the turn a stunning 78th minute winner that left Jack Kelsey groping at air. One of the best goals ever seen at Ninian Park was not recorded for posterity because, even though football on TV was increasingly common, neither the BBC nor ITV ever bothered with unimportant Wales.

So Wales had to win in front of 100,000 at the Bernabéu in Madrid a month later to take Spain to a play-off. And, amazingly, they very nearly did. Another scratch team defended heroically for 55 minutes until Joaquín Peiró (b1936) of Atlético Madrid put Spain ahead, then hit back on 70 minutes when Ivor Allchurch threaded home an exquisite left-foot daisy-cutter. Right at the death Barcelona goalie Antoni Ramallets (1924-2013) somehow shovelled another goal-bound Allchurch effort away after it bounced off the post and rolled along the line. Wales were out. Brazil retained the Cup in Chile, where Spain disappointed, stymied by an injury to Di Stéfano that put him out of a tournament he never graced. Spain’s day would come – even though it took nearly half a century to arrive. Patience, I am reliably informed, is a virtue.

1966, ENGLAND

One narrow failure to qualify does not constitute a trend. Just a blip. And it certainly didn’t give the FAW reason to snap out of comatose complacency and create a serious football infrastructure. The sport was becoming a global phenomenon with FIFA membership up to 120 and rapid change happening on every front. Meanwhile the crusty old FAW in Wrecsam was being left far behind, only interested in the national team insofar as it facilitated an increasing number of all-expenses-paid overseas junkets for the parasitic committeemen. Jimmy Murphy retired from the Wales post in 1964 and Dave Bowen was appointed as his replacement in time for the qualifying campaign, but again it was a part-time job. Bowen was more than fully occupied as manager of English league Northampton Town, performing miracles with the cobblers by overseeing a record ascent and descent through the four divisions and back again between 1961 and 1969.

Wales were drawn in a qualifying group with Denmark, Greece and the USSR, three more nations never previously played, and were strong favourites for the opening fixture in Copenhagen in October 1964 – after all, the Danish FA only allowed amateurs to play for the national team until as late as 1971. Ravaged by the inevitable withdrawals and injuries, an inexperienced and experimental Welsh team lost 1-0 in front 22,000 at the old Idrætsparken (demolished 1990). Ole Madsen (1934-2006), who played in the Danish 3rd division, got the winner early in the second-half, catching the Wales defence cold and escaping the attentions of new captain, the unfortunately named Mike England (b1941), then still refining his game at Blackburn Rovers and Wales youngest captain until Aaron Ramsey in 2011. In December Wales faced Greece in Athens, at the time European whipping-boys with a record in competitive football of P19, W6, D2, L11 (goals F-A: 19-45). It was sheer hell in the Hellenic. A 2-0 defeat began to entrench a recurring Welsh syndrome of conceding fatal early goals in the World Cup: forwards Mimis Papaioannou (b1942) in the 4th minute of the first-half and Andreas Papaemmanouil (b1939) in the 2nd minute of the second-half doing the damage this time. Greek football’s greatest win so far was celebrated long into the Peloponnesian night while Wales’ collection of uncoordinated strangers slunk home humiliated.

There were only 11,159 at Ninian Park the following March to see Wales thrash Greece in the return fixture 4-1 (Allchurch 2, England, Vernon), having gone 0-1 down to another early Papaionnou strike in the 3rd minute.  With just one qualifying this meant it all came down to the match in Moscow in May against the biggest superstate in the world. John Charles, winding down his career with Cardiff City, won his 38th and final Welsh cap in front of 86,000 at the Central Lenin Stadium (now the Luzhniki Stadium), but it was another veteran, USSR captain Valentin Ivanov (1934-2011), who stole the limelight, breaking stout Welsh resistance in the 39th minute and harassing West Bromwich Albion full-back Graham Williams (b1938), discovered playing for Rhyl, into scoring an almost comical own-goal three minutes into the second-half. Caernarfon Town product Wyn Davies (b1942), then with Bolton Wanderers, pulled one back with a signature header 20 minutes from time and Wales came agonisingly close to an equaliser…but it was not to be. By the time Wales played their next match in the group, against the USSR in Cardiff in October, the Soviets had won five out of five and had qualified in a canter.

Never mind, there’s always next time. The fact Wales won the remaining two meaningless fixtures painted a rosy picture that turned out to be just rose-tinted. First was a tremendous 2-1 win over the USSR. Goalie Gary Sprake (1945-2016) should have stopped Anatoliy Banishevskiy’s (1946-1997) soft 17th minute opener, but Vernon levelled within three minutes and Allchurch buried a 77th minute winner. Then a helter-skelter 4-2 win over Denmark at Wrecsam (a mere 4,839 turned up at the Racecourse) permitted self-delusion to continue. Wyn Davies scored in the 2nd minute, Kaj Poulsen (b1942) equalised two minutes later with the only goal he ever scored for Denmark, Roy Vernon restored the lead after 11 minutes and Wales were 3-1 up after 18 minutes through speedy Coventry City winger Ron Rees (b1944) – the first of only three goals the Merthyr product would score in 39 Welsh appearances. Denmark surprised Wales when Ole Fritsen (1941-2008) pulled it back to 3-2 right at the start of the second half, before Vernon clinched it in the 79th minute with the last of the eight goals he scored for Wales in 32 appearances. Another salutary undercurrent was beginning to present itself for absorption, had anyone at the FAW been paying attention: a decent player in the English leagues does not necessarily make an international footballer.

England’s World Cup went ahead without Wales. Nobody gave two hoots: rugby was our sport, and anyhow we Welsh could now seamlessly transform into England fans (it’s all Britain, innit?) while wall-to-wall TV coverage from the BBC and ITV launched soccer’s mass media era in the Union Flag-bedecked Wembley Stadium.

Oh, by the way, England won the tournament, scandalously fixed with the help of bent match officials by English FIFA president Stanley Rous (1895-1986). But, although they didn’t think it was all over – it was.

1970, MEXICO

’58 was fading from memory but despair had not yet set in. That would only begin to happen during Wales’ dreadful qualifying campaign for Mexico 1970, after which it was a default setting. In a three-team group with Italy and East Germany, from which only one could qualify, Wales’ record was: played four, lost four, points none, wooden spoon – the first, and hitherto last, whitewash in Welsh qualifying history. Wales had the usual meticulous preparation: they went into the tournament without having played a game for six months and in every match poor Dave Bowen had to cobble together a side from whoever played football for a living, came from Wales, was not doing anything better and could walk unaided. At Ninian Park in October 1968 18,500 saw Italian artist Gigi Riva (b1944) score an elegant goal without reply (yes, it was right on the stroke of half-time); in April 1969 in Dresden 38,200 saw John Toshack (b1949), with his first goal for Wales, cancel out a Wolfram Löwe (b1945) effort before Peter Rock (b1941) grabbed a late winner for East Germany (yes, it was in injury time and, yes, it was Rock’s solitary international goal); in the October, 22,400 back in Cardiff saw East Germany beat Wales again with three goals in eight catastrophic second-half minutes from Eberhard Vogel (b1943), Löwe and Henning Frenzel (b1942) that emptied the ground, meaning few witnessed Dave Powell’s (b1944) facile late goal (it was the 4th and final Wales/East Germany meeting before reunification in 1990); and finally 67,500 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome saw Wales put to the sword 4-1 – Riva got a hat-trick, Sandro Mazzola (b1942) the other, England (M) chalked one up for Wales. Italy went on to reach the final in Mexico’s fantastic festival of technicolour football where Brazil, Pelé et al, won for the 3rd time, allowing them to keep the “14 inches high” Jules Rimet Trophy in perpetuity (perpetuity turned out not to be very long; in 1983 the cup was stolen from the Brazilian FA’s HQ in Rio and has never been recovered).

It was crystal clear: Wales didn’t have enough high quality players who could step up to the demands of international football, and lacked the professionalism, investment and organisation required by the modern game. Root and branch action was needed to catch up with a world disappearing over the horizon. So, of course, nothing changed.

1974, WEST GERMANY

Wales will always breed good footballers: we love the sport, we’re good at it, we’ve got a natural aptitude for ball games, we’re talented, we’ve got over 30,000 registered players (more pro-rata than Brazil!) and soccer’s played across the nation, from Tyddewi to Treffynnon, Caergybi to Cas-gwent. So it is now, and so it was in the 70s, when lots of promising players were emerging, such as John Toshack, John Mahoney (b1946), Leighton James (b1953), Leighton Phillips (b1949) and Terry Yorath (b1950), to bolster the experience of reliable performers like Mike England, Peter Rodrigues (b1944), Terry Hennessey (b1942) and Rod Thomas (b1947). But part-time boss Dave Bowen never had the time, resources or context to meld them into a winning team. He wasn’t helped either by FIFA’s iniquitous seeding system, unchanged since 1930; a completely illogical stitch-up concocted in secret by the organising committee under the beady eye of superannuated arch-machiavellian Stanley Rous (a properly scientific ranking system didn’t come until 1992). This time Wales were put in another financially unrewarding three-team group with brand new opponents Poland and old-as-the-hills enemies England. This was a bitch of a draw; not only because we had to play bloody England yet again but also because, as the retrospective Elo Ratings show, England and Poland were the 3rd and 6th best sides in the world at the time.

The group started with the two Wales/England games either side of Christmas 1972, the most convenient arrangement possible for England. You can see Rous’s thinking: play our pauperised dependents at the height of the English league season to maximise the possibility of withdrawals, knock out the helpless patsy early and clear the way for the showdowns with the far more worthy Poles.  It worked too – but not quite the way Rous envisaged. There were 36,384 at Ninian Park (the capacity by now was reduced to 45,000) for the 83rd clash with the neighbours from hell and, although Wales fought like, like, um…like fighting Welsh terriers, a 35th minute goal from Manchester City’s main man Colin Bell (b1946) was enough for England. In the second-half Wales launched an onslaught of high balls aimed at the aerial superiority of Wyn Davies and John Toshack, but nothing ever quite fell right.

Hustling and hounding in midfield that night for Wales was Trevor Hockey (1943-1987), a hairy monster from Yorkshire who was the first to qualify to play for Wales through the birthplace of a parent. The new FIFA-approved rule had a rare galvanising effect on the FAW, now run by secretary Trevor Morris (1920-2003), Herbert Powell’s replacement in 1971. Morris was cut from precisely the same cloth; he was another bone-marrow yes-man and had managed Cardiff City, Swansea Town and Newport County, all three of the south’s Anglo clubs. Soon Morris had set up whole departments dedicated to ancestry research – the better to paper over the yawning cracks in domestic player development. Hockey was the first of many who would be recruited in this way; English league journeymen who could never hope to win an England cap. Their increasing preponderance in Welsh squads correspondingly increased Welsh dependence on England, and also dragged the standard of Welsh football down, entrenching the woeful technical limitations of ‘British’ football and eradicating any possibility of an evolving, Welsh-specific style.

Hockey was running round like a headless chicken again in the return at Wembley in January 1973, and fully played his part in a great Welsh performance. Leighton James, running England ragged on both wings all night, created a 23rd minute goal for John Toshack, gliding across Wembley’s greensward at his imperious best all night, and Wales were in control. Then Norman Hunter (b1943) beat his Leeds team-mate Gary Sprake with a flukey, unstoppable 30yard howitzer just before half-time (natch). Oh for heaven’s sake, ‘bite yer legs’ Hunter didn’t score goals – he only got 24 in his career of over 700 appearances. This was that one game in 30 (natch). In the second-half Sprake and captain Mike England were towers of strength, Wales repeatedly threatened on the counter-attack and it ended 1-1. Wales had not been eliminated as per the Rous scheme. There was still a chance, and Welsh fans gleefully wallowed in the braying boos ringing around Wembley and the following morning’s hysterical tabloid headlines bewailing England’s ‘shame’.  This 84th meeting took Wales’ overall record against England to W11, D19, L54. It hasn’t got better since, as Euro 2016 underlined, and currently stands at P102, W14, D21, L67. PUN ALERT! They’re our bogey team and we’re their go-between…

While England now had a six-month break before their next game in Poland in June, when their players would be fit, fresh and not distracted by league business, Wales had to play Poland just nine weeks later in March, the most frenetic period in the English league calendar. Please note: this isn’t conspiracy theory; it’s conspiracy fact. Sure enough, Wales faced Poland without key players and Dave Bowen was forced to field an untried central defensive pairing of debutant Dave Roberts (b1949) of Oxford United, the latest family-tree Welshman, and Abercynon-born John Roberts (1946-2016) of Birmingham City, given the captain’s armband in Mike England’s absence. Incredibly, both were heroes in an epic 2-0 win in front of a paltry gate of 12,753 at Ninian Park. Dave Bowen could organise a side and, when everything clicked and misfortune didn’t intervene, he had the knack of overcoming technical deficiencies by motivating that time-worn Welsh stand-by: “passion” (I put it in inverted commas only because the word has cheapened into a euphemism for “unskilled brutes”). The first half was goalless and then Leighton James slammed in a Toshack flick within seconds of the resumption. In mounting tension, slick Poland were foiled by obdurate defending and a wonderful Gary Sprake double-save before, right at the end, Trevor Hockey intercepted in midfield, played a one-two with Yorath and drilled home the clincher in scenes of pitch-invading delirium.  Then, after Poland sensationally beat England 2-0 in Chorzów in the summer, the Rous script had to be torn up and binned. With goal difference deciding position when points are level, Wales now knew that a win in Poland in their final match would almost certainly mean winning the group and qualifying for Germany. This was the position going into the Chorzów cockpit:

            P          W           D           L         F-A        PTS
WALES           3           1           1           1         3-2          3
ENGLAND           3           1           1           1         2-3          3
POLAND           2           1           0           1         2-2          2

Deludedly, we dared to dream. And, to the deafening roar of 90,000 at the Silesian Stadium in September ‘73, those dreams were dashed. Under relentless pressure, weakened Wales wilted and shipped three goals, notched by strikers Robert Gadocha (b1946), Grzegorz Lato (b1950) and Jan Domarski (b1946), in 24 disastrous minutes either side of half-time. After his career highlight in Cardiff Trevor Hockey now had his career lowlight in Chorzów: his mis-hit back-pass gave away the first goal, then he lost his head and got sent off for a reckless challenge after the second goal, meaning Wales had to play for 50 minutes with 10 men. It was the last of his nine Welsh caps. He was a wonderful bloke, the kind of larger-than-life character no longer found in the English leagues, with a bushy black beard that makes the facial growths of today’s over-groomed narcissists look like so much bum-fluff. He died with his boots on, literally; a massive heart-attack playing 5-a-side footie, aged only 43.

It wasn’t all bad news: a month later Poland drew 1-1 at Wembley and knocked England out. I should point out here that I strongly disagree with the petty “as long as we beat the English” mentality; I’m with the “as long as anyone anywhere beats the English at anything” persuasion.  In the finals West Germany won the World Cup for the second time while Poland excelled, winning the 3rd place final to emphasise how close Wales had come to glory. Dave Bowen, beaten but unbowed, retired and the FAW at last made the position full-time, civilised English coaching wonk Mike Smith (b1937) becoming Wales’ first non-Welsh manager.

1978, ARGENTINA

This particular qualifying campaign has gone down in the annals of football infamy. To prove that statement I will type just two words: Joe Jordan (b1951). Now here’s another word: CHEAT!

The toughest thing to digest, even all these years later, is that even when the Welsh football team overcomes perpetual poverty, FAW negligence, a miniscule pool of players, inferior skills, FIFA bias, injuries, suspensions, withdrawals, FA sabotage, Brit-induced indifference and every sling and arrow of outrageous fortune imaginable…there is still the cruellest cut of all lying in wait to destroy us: the CHEAT!

The toothless CHEAT with the acceleration of a carthorse, the stopping distance of an Airbus A380 and the turning circle of an ocean-going supertanker CHEATED Wales out of a deserved place in Argentina’s spectacular 1978 World Cup by deliberately handling the ball in the Welsh penalty area in the decisive Wales/Scotland match and winning a penalty FOR Scotland by acting as if Wales centre-half, adopted Welshman Dave Jones (b1952) of Norwich City, had handled. The CHEAT kissed his fist when the French ref fell for the con-trick. It’s all on video, preserved for ever. Were it to happen today such a CHEAT would be summarily sent off, given a long ban and disgraced. And had, say, England been robbed by such shameless CHEATING there would have been Questions in The House. There were and have been no consequences for Jordan; he became an instant Scots icon and is still employed in “the industry”.

In yet another three-team group along with European champions Czechoslovakia and Scotland, Wales went into the fateful Scotland match in October 1977 having bounced back from an unlucky 1-0 defeat at Hampden Park in November 1976 with a barnstorming 3-0 pasting of the Czechs at the Racecourse Ground in March 1977. In Glasgow Ian Evans (b1952), a classy Crystal Palace defender qualified for Wales through his father, stuck out a twiggy leg to put through his own goal in the 15th minute and Wales couldn’t turn possession into goals. In Wrecsam, a professional-looking Wales won with two from Leighton James and one from Nick Deacey (b1953) from Ebbw Vale, a John Charles discovery who played in the Dutch league. Wales were reaping the benefits of having a full-time manager and showing that the recent run to the quarter-finals of the 1976 Euros was no fluke.

But other forces were at work to thwart Mike Smith’s tough-to-beat team. Following crowd trouble at Ninian Park against Yugoslavia in the Euros the previous year, the FAW reacted to pressure from the police, FIFA and the media by switching the big match to a different venue: Anfield in Liverpool. Continuing a venerable tradition of blithering imbecility, the FAW ignored the Racecourse Ground (not enough revenue) and thus ceded home advantage for Welsh football’s most important game since 1958. Worse, the Scots snapped up the 75% of the 55,000 tickets, turned Anfield into a sea of navy blue and a caterwauling of the clans, and it became their home game – a vital factor in the influencing of the referee, as Dave Jones discovered.

In a pulsating match Wales, depleted as ever by absentees, were the better side, with Toshack agonisingly denied at his kop end spiritual home by a combination of Alan Rough’s (b1951) fingertips and the crossbar. Then, with 10 minutes left and Wales knowing a draw would leave them in pole position with eliminated Czechoslovakia to come, the CHEAT intervened to pervert the result. Don Masson (b1946) scored the penalty, Welsh players were shattered by the injustice and Kenny Dalglish (b1951) rubbed it in with a spurious second at the death. Scotland had CHEATED their way to qualification and Wales lost the remaining empty fixture in Prague 1-0 to a scrappy 12th minute goal from Zdeněk Nehoda (b1952). Rather like Jordan’s ugly mug, it just wasn’t fair.

That said, there’s no accounting for…let’s call it karma. Ally MacLeod (1931-2004) and his ‘Tartan Army’ reeled into Argentina, eventual winners on home soil, with glib talk of lifting the Cup – and then scarpered shortly afterwards, tails between their sporrans (if that’s anatomically possible), having been humiliated in the group stage by Peru and Iran. Yes, Iran. See, that’s what happens when you CHEAT!

1982, SPAIN

Under the pro-active, go-getting presidency of Brazilian João Havelange (1916-2016), receiver of an estimated $41 million in bribes for World Cup marketing rights during his 24-year tenure, FIFA’s membership was growing like Topsy (I’ve always wanted to use that recondite expression – another ambition achieved!). Now FIFA tentacles were reaching far from Zürich deep into Africa and Asia, so the finals were expanded from 16 to 24 teams with two qualifying from European groups. The draw was encouraging: Wales were in a not-insurmountable group with Czechoslovakia, Iceland (not met previously), Turkey and the USSR. Despite never being able to field the same team twice and having to regularly call on fresh batches of untried, unremarkable players from the English lower leagues, new manager Mike England, appointed in 1979 after Mike Smith stepped aside, had the ability to forge a Welsh side that added up to more than the sum of its parts and Wales took the group by storm. The first five matches went as follows:

2 JUNE (1980) Reykjavik, 10,254 ICELAND 0, WALES 4 Ian Walsh (b1958) 2 45′, 75′, David Giles (b1956) 53′, Brian Flynn (b1955) 61′ (pen)

15 OCTOBER Ninian Park, 11,770 WALES 4 Brian Flynn 18′, Leighton James 2 35′ (pen), 85′, Ian Walsh 78′, TURKEY 0

19 NOVEMBER Ninian Park, 20,175 WALES 1 David Giles 10′, CZECHOSLOVAKIA 0

25 MARCH (1981) Ankara, 35,000 TURKEY 0, WALES 1 Carl Harris (b1956) 67′

30 MAY Racecourse Ground, 29,366 WALES 0, USSR 0

This then was the position as the group reached its climax (still 2 points for a win):

            P          W          D           L         F-A        PTS
WALES           5           4          1           0        10-0          9
CZECH           4           3          0           1        11-2          6
USSR           3           2          1           0        7-1          5
ICEL’D           5           1          0           4        5-18          2
TURK           5           0          0           5        1-13          0

Granted, exacting away matches against Czechoslovakia and the USSR lay ahead but, given that they also had to play each other twice and that two would qualify anyway, it seemed that Wales were certs for Spain – especially as there were a guaranteed two points still to be accrued in a home game against small-fry Iceland and Mike England had adeptly constructed a defence that had yet to concede a single goal in five games, a best-ever sequence for Wales in tournament football. Imposing goalie Dai Davies (b1948) was protected by an impregnable wall of Joey Jones (b1955), Leighton Phillips,  Luton Town’s second-generation Welshman Paul Price (b1954), new find Kevin Ratcliffe (b1960), captain Terry Yorath and workaholic holding midfielders Brian Flynn and Peter Nicholas (b1959). We were set fair, what could possibly go wrong? Answer: everything, and then some.

In Prague in September ’81 reserve defender Byron Stephenson (1956-2007), only playing because of late withdrawals, blundered horribly in the 24th minute and forced Dai Davies to concede an absurd own-goal before Czech sub Verner Lička (b1954) scored his one and only international goal in the second half to condemn Wales to a damaging, but by no means fatal, 2-0 defeat. Next, Wales met Iceland in October at the Vetch Field in Swansea, the unlucky 13th of only 18 internationals played at the quirky venue (closed 2005, demolished 2011). How secretary Trevor Morris would regret his decision to spread the love around! Nearly 20,000 were there on that dreadful night to see Wales, superior in every department, go 1-0 up through Robbie James (1957-1998) after 24 minutes. It seemed only a matter of time before Wales got a second as Iceland hung on desperately. Then, quite suddenly, with no warning, the lights went out (metaphorically as well as literally). The ref took the players off the pitch-dark pitch for over 10 minutes while someone phoned for an electrician and a little man with a screwdriver turned up to change the fuse. The match resumed for a few minutes and then it was half-time. Step forward Sigi Sigurvinsson (b1955). All momentum gone, Wales had to start again from scratch and had barely adjusted their jock-straps at the start of the second-half when Sigi bundled in a soppy leveller, helped by a freaky bounce off the rutted, parks-standard surface. Wales, impetus regained, soon went ahead again with an Alan Curtis (b1954) header, but were pegged back once more by another Sigurvinsson fluke – this time enabled not by the Vetch’s similarity to a ploughed field but by a catalogue of schoolboy errors from a string of Welsh players one after the other. It doesn’t take an awful lot to erode a Welshman’s confidence; heads dropped, self-doubt took hold, that old persecuted feeling spread its poison and Iceland held out for a 2-2 draw.

And yet there was still a chance going into the group’s concluding pair of matches in the November: USSR v Wales and then Czechoslovakia v USSR. USSR had 11 points, Wales 10 and Czechoslovakia 9; it was possible for any two of them to qualify. A win in Tbilisi and Wales would win the group and even a draw in Tbilisi would be enough to come second if Czechoslovakia didn’t themselves beat the USSR. At the Dinamo Stadium the USSR won 3-0 in front of 80,000, including scary phalanxes of uniformed military personnel, without really having to play well. The goals by Vitaly Daraselia (1957-1982), who died in a car crash a year later, Oleh Blokhin (b1952), all-time top goalscorer for both Dinamo Kiev and the USSR,  and ace Spartak Moscow playmaker Yuri Gavrilov (b1953) were all gift-wrapped presents, delivered up by wince-inducing individual errors and general defensive disarray.

Even after that pain-y night in Georgia there were some (the credulous, the pie-eyed, the lobotomised and the Western Mail) who convinced themselves Wales could still get to Spain. All it needed was for the USSR to beat the Czechs. Ha! As if! And, lo and behold, the Soviet paymasters and fat controllers blatantly and scandalously provided their Czech client-state with the draw it required to snatch the runners-up spot from Wales on goal difference. In Spain, where West Germany triumphed again, the notorious non-contest between West Germany and Austria in the group stages, aka ‘the disgrace of Gijón’, forced FIFA to change the rules so that the final games in each group are played simultaneously. Too late the Phalarope, too late.

In retrospect this qualification attempt was the very archetype of all Welsh qualification attempts. It had the lot: raised hopes, tick; suicidal mistakes, tick; killer goals by wildly implausible unknowns, tick; self-defeating FAW misrule, tick; bolt-from-the-blue Acts of God, tick; outright injustice, tick; corrupt saboteurs, tick; hastily-cancelled plans for a fun few weeks in the sun with the boyos, tick.

1986, MEXICO

Six consecutive qualification failures added up to a crisis, even around the drinks cabinet in the FAW committee room. So Trevor Morris was pensioned off in 1982 and Porth patriot Alun Evans (1942-2011) appointed as secretary/chief executive. At last Welsh football had a leader with energy, ideas, radicalism, readiness to rock the boat (he controversially moved FAW HQ from Wrecsam to Cardiff in 1991) and genuine commitment to Wales. Back then naive young idealists, like me, had not yet evolved into today’s bitter, misanthropic cynics, like me. The campaign to qualify for Mexico ’86 would go a long way towards hastening that process.

Wales were drawn in a peculiar group of four from which only the winners would qualify automatically while the runner-up would have to play-off for a place in Mexico against the winner of the qualifying tournament of Oceania, FIFA’s newest confederation. The other three all sent a chilling shiver down the back: Iceland, Scotland and Spain.

Oh, before I continue, earlier in this interminable blog you might remember me making some childish jibe or other about England’s calamitous, cataclysmic, indeed comprehensively castrating, defeat by Iceland in the recent Euros. As with their self-pitying, mawkish dirge about “30 Years of Hurt”, a mere phase compared to Wales’ 60 and counting, and their over-entitled moaning about “The Hand of God”, improvised artistry compared to Jordan’s crude CHEATING, the delicate flowers’ Iceland experience doesn’t come close to what we Welsh had to endure in Reykjavik in September 1984.

A 1-0 defeat, the first time Wales had been beaten by a team ranked outside the world top 100, can’t just be blamed on the routine bad luck of key players like Ian Rush being unavailable (clubs were now required to release players for international duty, but could always ‘persuade’ their employee to cry off, especially if it was only Wales). No, this was down to good old-fashioned sloppy defending: Magnús Berg (b1956) rose unopposed and unchallenged to head in the 50th minute winner from a corner, despite being surrounded by eight Welsh players. Iceland racked up the best win in their short footballing history and Wales already had a mountain to climb. That mountain became a range of Himalayan peaks a month later when Wales were overwhelmed 3-0 in Spain by classy goals from Hipólito Rincón (b1957), ‘Lobo’ Carrasco (b1959) and Emilio Butragueño (b1963) in front of 42,500 in Seville. It goes without saying that withdrawals meant Mike England had been forced to scratch around among a mixed bag of English league artisans to try to field a team fit for purpose.

All interest and enthusiasm drained away and there were only 10,500 at Ninian Park in November to see Wales grind out a 2-1 win over Iceland with goals from buzzing scamp Mickey Thomas (b1954) and Mark Hughes (b1963), getting into his barnstorming stride at international level, sandwiching a Pétur Pétursson (b1959) shocker. The result seemed irrelevant and there was more interest in a fanciful future based on the quality quartet of Evertonians Neville Southall (b1958) and Kevin Ratcliffe at the back and Ian Rush and Mark Hughes up front (unfortunately, as we were to discover, you need a midfield too).

As we’ve seen though, it is always prudent to expect the unexpected with Wales, and the group was thrown wide open after Scotland and Spain beat each other in their two games and then Wales stunned 62,500 at Hampden Park in March 1985 in the 100th match between the Celtic rivals. For once Mike England could play nearly his first-choice XI and it made all the difference. Captain Ratcliffe marshalled the defence like Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, Robbie James and Peter Nicholas were bravehearts in midfield, and Ian Rush speared in a lethal 35th minute winner like William Wallace on Stirling Bridge, he said stretching pro-Scot appeasement to breaking point.  It got even better the following month when Wales demolished Spain 3-0 in front of 23,500 at the Racecourse Ground with two more from Rush and a Hughes screamer that announced his arrival as an authentic Welsh legend. Wales were in dreamland again. Uh-oh. Going into the last two games in September 1985 the group stood like this:

            P          W           D           L         F-A         PTS
SCOTLAND           5           3           0           2         7-3           6
WALES           5           3           0           2         6-5           6
SPAIN           5           3           0           2         7-7           6
ICELAND           5           1           0           4         3-8           2

Wales only needed to beat a below-average Scottish side already beaten and we’d be heading down Mexico way. You could almost taste the tequila. It was one of those Ninian nights, never to be forgotten. A capacity crowd of 39,500 in a state of fevered, orgiastic frenzy (and that was just me!) saw Mark Hughes put Wales deservedly ahead after 13 minutes and then chance after chance agonisingly go begging as Wales bossed the match. We were nine lousy minutes from glory when all hell broke loose: an innocuous long-ball reared up in the penalty area, German-born defender David Phillips (b1963) instinctively raised his arms, the ball hit him quite unintentionally on the elbow, the ref awarded a penalty, Davie Cooper (1956-1995) just squeezed it past Nev Southall thanks to another evil bounce.  1-1, Wales out. Overall record versus Scotland reaches P101, W18, D23, L60 (it’s improved since, today it stands at P107, W23, D23, L61). Put the sombrero back in the box Dic, you’re going to Aberafan not Acapulco…

Scotland manager Jock Stein (1922-1985) had a heart attack on the heaving Ninian Park touchline as the game came to its chaotic conclusion and died in the medical room shortly afterwards. “We’d rather be out of the World Cup and have Big Jock back,” said a Scotland fan, expressing the nation’s inconsolable grief at the loss of the magnificent Scotsman, whose death on Welsh soil squared the circle of his close connection to Wales formed when he played for Llanelli for two seasons in the 1950s. He never forgot the Lanarkshire coalfields he came from, he never betrayed the people, and he never gave up the struggle, opposing Thatcher’s draconian treatment of football fans right up to his death. Jock was right; Thatcher was wrong, as proved by the Hillsborough Disaster four years later and the subsequent 30 year wait for the massive criminal conspiracy by the agents of the British state to be exposed.

Spain scraped past Iceland 2-1 a fortnight later – had they drawn, Wales would have been runners-up, but this was just a teaser to twist the knife. Scotland beat Australia in the play-off and they too went to Mexico, where Argentina won for the second time. Welsh dejection at another cruel World Cup exit was completely overshadowed by Jock Stein’s death in any case. Another wonderful working-class Scottish hero, the immortal Bill Shankly (1913-1981), once famously said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”. Shanks was of course being tongue-in-cheek and wittily subversive as usual, but in Wales’ case his epigram has real validity. Here, football and life and death are the selfsame thing.

1990, ITALY

Good, I’ve arrived at a qualification campaign that can be breezed through in two sentences (it’s important for me as a writer to show that I’ve got more in my armoury than didactic, prolix logorrhoea) – shit, better crack on, that’s one sentence already!

Terry Yorath had replaced Mike England as manager and nearly pulled off a great result in the opener against reigning European champions the Netherlands, but Wales lost 1-0 in Amsterdam to a Ruud Gullit (b1962) header eight minutes from time; no-hopers Finland drew 2-2 at the Vetch Field, going ahead through Kari Ukkonen (b1961) before Dean Saunders (b1964) levelled with a penalty, Aki Lahtinen (b1958) scored an own goal and Mixu Paatelainen (b1967) of Dundee United completed the first-half goal rush; Wales battled to a terrific 0-0 draw with mighty West Germany in front of an all-seated 30,000 at the Arms Park, the Welsh football team’s first ever game at the rugby shrine; a 51st minute Mika Lipponen (b1964) goal in Helsinki gave Finland a devastating 1-0 win that ended Welsh qualification hopes; the Netherlands won 2-1 in front of a sparse 9,000 crowd at Wrecsam – Graeme Rutjes (b1960) with the only goal he ever scored for Holland and John Bosman (b1965) had sewn it up by the time Neath-born Norwich City full-back Mark Bowen (b1963) notched a last minute unconsoling consolation; West Germany joined the Netherlands in Italy by beating Wales 2-1 in the closing game in Cologne in November 1989, where Sgorio pundit Malcolm Allen (b1967) soon put Wales ahead with a cracker, the Germans shifted up a gear and won it with goals from Rudi Völler (b1960) and Thomas Häßler (b1966); Wales finished bottom of the group with two points from six games and it was Arrivederci Roma; West Germany won the World Cup. There! I knew I could do it!

1994, UNITED STATES

“Bodin’s penalty”, a phrase that has gone into the Welsh vernacular, can be loosely defined as “self-inflicted fuck-up in a pivotal moment of truth”. Cardiffian Paul Bodin (b1964) was a workaday full-back with a sweet left foot and a minor career around the English pyramid. Like many called up by Wales over the years he did his best and had his moments but was ultimately out of his depth at international level. And, also like most of his predecessors in a Welsh shirt, he would be largely forgotten today – were it not for that penalty. Poor Paul has been trying to live it down ever since. And poor Wales can never move on until the wrong is righted by the only remedy possible: World Cup qualification.

The campaign to qualify for the USA was a case-study in Welsh World Cup wretchedness, a tormenting roller-coaster of highs and lows leading inexorably to the horrible inevitability of Paul Bodin’s date with destiny at the Arms Park. Drawn in a group with Belgium, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Faroe Islands and Romania, from which two would qualify, Terry Yorath’s Wales got off to the worst possible start with an appalling 5-1 surrender in May 1992 in Bucharest. Romania scored their five goals in the space of just 30 minutes in the first-half, as a shambolic Welsh defence of Mark Bowen, David Phillips, Mark Aizlewood (b1959) and Andy Melville (b1968) stood around gawping at the wizardry of ‘the Maradona of the Carpathians’, Romanian star Gheorghe Hagi (b1965). Hagi collected a long ball unchallenged and strolled through to stroke in the first on five minutes then lobbed a contemptuous free-kick over the sleeping defence for Ioan Lupescu (b1968) to score two minutes later. After 24 minutes unmarked Lupescu picked his spot and got his second before another straightforward thump down the middle finished by Gabi Balint (b1963) was enough to unlock the shell-shocked Welsh defence yet again in the 32nd minute. Three minutes later Neville Southall let Hagi’s speculative 40yard dipper go through his hands and Wales were looking down the barrel of a massacre. Ian Rush pulled one back in the second-half, with Wales at least showing some pride in a grim damage-limitation exercise.

The embarrassing 7,000 attendance at a deserted Arms Park for the next game in September against new opponents the Faroe Islands said it all about the dire state of Welsh football: even die-hard fans had given up. A new Welsh World Cup record was set by the 6-0 win, providing the starkest possible contrast with the record defeat in Romania but, up against a north Atlantic archipelago with the population of Port Talbot, only admitted to FIFA in 1988, it was shooting fish in a barrel. Ian Rush got his only hat-trick for Wales (and one of only 14 in Wales’ entire history to date) with further goals coming from Dean Saunders, Mark Bowen and Clayton Blackmore (b1964). Another win a month later in Wales’ first meeting with Cyprus impressed nobody either: it was a low-grade slog until Mark Hughes got the vital goal – and, after all, the Mediterranean island with the population of Glamorgan was, and still is, one of the few countries with a qualification record as bad as Wales. Any flickering embers of hope were then doused in November by a 2-0 defeat in Belgium. Lorenzo Staelens (b1964) and Marc Degryse (b1965) snaffled quickfire goals in a five minute spell early in the second-half – yet another of the mini-collapses that were becoming habitual – to undo all the good work of the first-half, particularly from Flint Town United junior and new captain Barry Horne (b1962) of Everton,  startling tyro winger Ryan Giggs (b1973), authoritative midfield hub Gary Speed (1969-2011) and leggy, head-banded giant Eric Young (b1960), a Singapore-born beneficiary of FIFA rule-changes that made him eligible to play for any of the four UK nations. There were hints that this latest Yorath attempt to weld a group of random components into a team might have potential.

That promise bore fruit in March 1993 when Wales beat Belgium 2-0 in the return fixture at the Arms Park (gate 27,000). Ryan Giggs scored his first goal for Wales with a blistering free kick missile, Ian Rush nodded in the second 20 minutes later to complete a flowing move and Wales then micro-managed the second-half with rare calm and organisation to seal victory. Was this merely one of those once-in-a-blue-moon notable scalps all Wales teams will collect from time to time? Or might Wales at last have a squad that can take on the world? Or was it just cold-hearted Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos spinning another yarn to entrap us?

In April a 1-1 draw in Czechoslovakia maintained the improved form. Hughes put determined Wales ahead after 30 minutes with a characteristic goal and Radoslav Látal (b1970) equalised seven minutes later. Strictly speaking, Wales were not playing Czechoslovakia but the ‘RCS’ (Representative team of Czechs & Slovaks). The state had been dissolved in the amicable ‘velvet divorce’ at the end of 1992 after the group had started, and the two new independent states had to wait until the group was completed to field separate sides – which would account for the tiny 7,000 crowd in Ostrava.

A 3-0 win (Saunders, Young, Rush) in the bleakly beautiful cliff-top Svangaskarđ at Toftir in the Faroes was routinely accomplished and then Wales met Czechoslovakia for the very last time in September 1993. The crowd of 37,558 in the Arms Park generated genuine hwyl and showed that Wales fans will always return en masse to see a winning team. They were to be disappointed though; a 2-2 draw seemed like an opportunity lost. Giggs and Rush had efficient Wales 2-1 up at half-time after Pavel Kuka (b1968) had stuck one in early doors, but Peter Dubovský (1972-2000) equalised with a Giggs-esque free-kick (he would die accidentally tumbling down a Thai waterfall aged only 28). Wales’ head-to-head record against Czechoslovakia thus concluded at P12, W3, D3, L6. Cyprus were then beaten 2-0 at the Arms Park, late goals from Saunders and Rush breaking stout Cypriot resistance, leaving the group position going into the final matches like this:

            P          W           D           L         F-A         PTS
BELGIUM           9           7           0           2        16-5          14
ROMANIA           9           6           1           2        27-11          13
CZ/SLOV           9           4           4           1        21-9          12
WALES           9           5           2           2        18-10          12
CYPRUS          10           2           1           7         8-18           5
FAROES          10           0           0          10         1-38           0

Many permutations were possible but, whatever happened in the other game being played simultaneously in Brussels between Belgium and Czechoslovakia (which ended 0-0, eliminating CZ), Wales had to beat Romania and if they did qualification was virtually certain. 40,000 packed into the Arms Park on 17 November 1993 to see the titanic clash between two in-form teams. Wales, missing key personnel like Mark Hughes but giving as good as they got from the Romanian hard-men, fell behind to a 33rd minute Hagi goal that must still keep Neville Southall awake at night. It should be remembered that this atrocious fumble by the most capped Welsh player of all time (this was the 71st of his record 92 caps) was just as damaging as Bodin’s, er, overindulgence would be. Wales, with Giggs, Horne, Melville, Saunders, Speed and Young all outstanding, took the game to Belgium, and Saunders lashed in an exhilarating equaliser after a bout of head-tennis on 60 minutes. The crowd went wild. Cardiff trembled in anticipation. Romania were on the ropes. Within minutes Speed was tripped in the box and the penalty was awarded. Paul Bodin stepped up. I knew he’d miss it. I just knew.

The moment arrived. The Swindon Town player hit the ball with such ferocity that it nearly split the crossbar, the thud was heard across the Arms Park and the ball rebounded almost back to the half-way line. It’s called overcompensation. It’s what happens when you’re so used to losing that winning becomes a more frightening option. It’s what we do.

Florin Răducioiu (b1970) rubbed salt in the wounds of shattered, gutted Wales after 83 minutes and Romania won 2-1. Terry Yorath, unable to take any more, resigned that night. Foiled again. And this time the reason was really alarming: we lack the mental strength to handle pressure.                                                                              

Brazil lifted the World Cup for the 4th time in the USA, while for Wales the situation now looked desperate. Alun Evans had been coaxing the FAW in the only direction with a future by creating the national league and pyramid structure Wales had always lacked. His Herculean efforts in the face of co-ordinated, powerful opposition from vested interests and their mates in the ‘Welsh’ media and establishment took up all his energies. Had Bodin’s penalty been an inch or two lower, he would have had more resources for the foundling league and been able to establish it on a stronger footing. The league was, and is, a vital component in Welsh life because, as FIFA expanded towards 200 members with the break-up of the USSR and Yugoslavia, more and more nations were asking why Wales, not an independent state, without a national league, and in every way that counted just a part of England, had an international team at all. Evans banged heads together across the change-resistant club committees and regional FAs to create the League of Wales (now Welsh Premier League) in 1992 – and it is only because of it that we have just experienced the ecstasy of Euro 2016. Such a pity then, and so typical, that those Cymruphobic British forces are still acting as a veto on the development of the game in Wales by defending the indefensible and highly damaging presence of six Welsh clubs in the English pyramid. This is another wrong that must be righted: a Gareth Bale only comes along once a century.

1998, FRANCE

Not every Welsh attempt to qualify for the World Cup has to be melodrama incarnate; some can be instantly forgettable. We are allowed to be boring sometimes – if only to reduce waiting lists at coronary care units and give the Samaritans a break!  The campaign to get to France ‘98 was a textbook example.

Belgium, Netherlands, San Marino and Turkey were in Wales’ group, from which the winner would qualify automatically and the runner-up go into play-offs to reach the expanded 32-team finals tournament. Welsh international football was in its normal state of crisis. Terry Yorath had been succeeded by first John Toshack, who walked away after one game in charge unwilling to work amidst the internecine warfare going on in the Welsh game, and then Mike Smith, dutifully returning to hold the fort while someone, anyone, could be found to take on the poisoned chalice. The gentlemanly, perceptive Smith was not the manager he was – anybody who thinks it’s a good idea to elevate Vinnie Jones (b1965) to the ranks of international football is obviously losing it (the thoroughly English Wimbledon ‘hard man’ had a grandmother who hailed from Rhuthun). Then in 1995 came the, umm, recherché appointment of Bobby Gould (b1946). Coventry-born Gould, who had more clubs than Tiger Woods [©Tommy Docherty (b1928)] in a colourful playing and managerial career, had no international experience whatsoever, no connection to the Welsh game and an unorthodox set of man-management skills. His tenure would be rather like life itself: nasty, brutish and short.

Wales began with two pyrrhic victory thrashings of San Marino in summer 1996, red herrings perfectly positioned by FIFA to permit us a brief period of pleasant delusion. In Serravalle only 1,613, the lowest crowd ever at a competitive international involving Wales (but a healthy 10% of the population of the Italy-encircled microstate) witnessed a 5-0 win, goals coming from Melville, Hughes (2), Giggs and tidy Merthyr-born midfielder Mark Pembridge (b1970). At 66% empty Cardiff Arms Park it was 6-0, equalling Wales’ record World Cup win of four years earlier. This time the goals flowed via Saunders (2), Hughes (2), Melville and Charlton Athletic’s Zimbabwe-born scuttler John Robinson (b1971), another flag-of-convenience Welshman. Those delusions dissolved when Wales took on heavy-duty opposition: the Netherlands, then ranked 5th in the world. There was one last flight of fancy, as if to make the impending crash to earth even more spectacular, when Dean Saunders put zippy Wales 1-0 up in the 17th minute at the Arms Park. The 35,000 crowd were tempting providence again, singing the hymns and arias – until the equaliser by Pierre Van Hooijdonk (b1969) 18 minutes from time. Wales imploded. Two minutes later Van Hooijdonk scored again and within another four minutes Ajax ace Ronald de Boer (b1970) made it 3-1. That was just a Dutch dress rehearsal. A month later in Eindhoven the Netherlands systematically dismantled Wales in a 7-1 annihilation, a new record World Cup defeat. Flying Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp (b1969) ran riot with his first international hat-trick and other goals came in ghastly clusters of Welsh panic from de Boer, Wim Jonk (b1966), Ronald’s twin brother Frank de Boer (b1970) and Phillip Cocu (b1970); Saunders scored for Wales to put no veneer whatsoever on the thrashing. The Netherlands, the fifth-oldest football country, remain a stand-out bogey team; today the record against the ‘total football’ craftsmen stands at played eight, lost eight. Pass the dutchie.

It was all up for another four years, and the group was only at the half-way point. Then ensued a stodgy goalless draw with Turkey in an eerily echoing Arms Park and in March 1997 a huffing-and-puffing 2-1 home defeat by Belgium, in which reserve defender Bertrand Crasson (b1971) scored his only international goal and Staelens made it safe before Speed pulled one back in vain. This was Wales’ last game on Taff’s Acre – the demolition gangs moved in shortly afterwards to begin the construction of the Millennium Stadium.

There was still the mind-boggling pantomime of Turkey 6 Wales 4 in Istanbul to endure. Wales were 4-3 up at one point. The aggregate score equalled the all-time record for a Wales match (Wales 8 Ireland 2 in 1885 and Wales 1 England 9 in 1896) and remains the only time Wales have scored four and lost, as well as the only time Turkey have conceded four and won. For completions sake, I’ll bother with the scorers. Turkey: Hakan Şükür (b1971) 4 goals, Saffet Akyüz (b1970), Oğuz Çetin (b1963); Wales: Nathan Blake (b1972), Robbie Savage (b1974), Dean Saunders, Andy Melville. The group ended with a 3-2 defeat in Brussels, where Staelens’ 4th minute penalty and two in seven minutes from Gert Claessens (b1972), his only goal for Belgium, and Marc Wilmots (b1969) put Belgium in complete control. Perhaps getting the qualification jitters as it was mathematically still possible for Turkey to pinch runners-up spot, Belgium were given a late scare by a Pembridge penalty and a Giggs special, leaving Welsh fans with more useless might-have-beens.

Only San Marino came below Wales in the final group table; the Netherlands and Belgium (after a play-off win over Ireland) qualified for France, where the hosts became the 7th different nation to win the World Cup. In Paris it was La Marseillaise in the Champs-Élysées; in Cardiff it was chips’n’gravy in Chippy Alley.

2002, SOUTH KOREA/JAPAN

After 10 consecutive failures to qualify, defeatism was now written into Welsh football’s DNA. All opponents seemed daunting obstacles and expectations were close to zero after Wales were put in a six-team group (one qualifying, one into play-offs) with Armenia, Belarus, Norway, Poland and Ukraine. That lot looked alarming, and appearances were not deceptive: Wales never got a sniff of the enticing prize of a place at the first Asian World Cup (as well as the first to be co-hosted).

Bobby Gould’s execrable era was mercifully over – he did the decent thing and quit in 1999 – and Mark Hughes was in charge for the qualification effort, his first managerial job. The lantern-jawed Rhiwabon bruiser thus became the 7th ex-playing legend to try to turn the tide for Wales. In many ways he did ok, considering he only really had one international-quality player, Giggs, at his disposal. Under his guard everything connected to the Wales team became more professional, with the FAW investing in spanking new training facilities, improved preparation and expert back-up staff, and Hughes impressing with his ability to organise thin playing-resources into a coherent team with a plan, albeit a rather negative one.

Wales’ first ever meeting with Belarus, one of 15 ex-Soviet states that became independent following the 1992 collapse of the USSR, ended 2-1 to the hosts in Minsk in September 2000. Belarus, ranked 120th in the world, had only ever won four competitive games previously but in eight short years, starting from scratch, they were already overtaking Wales (they take nationhood seriously). Flat-footed defending let Alyaksandr Khatskevich (b1973), nowadays the Belarus manager, and Valyantsin Byalkevich (1973-2014) score either side of half-time to send 32,000 into raptures at the Dinamo Stadium. Gary Speed’s injury-time goal did nothing to mitigate the mortifying Minsk misadventure.

Then followed a run of four consecutive draws – which hadn’t happened to Wales in tournament football since the 1958 World Cup. The stalemates were both frustrating, because they eliminated Wales from the World Cup, and encouraging, because Hughesie was building a more resolute Wales around talented, if fallible, defenders like Chris Coleman (b1970), Mark Delaney (b1976) and Robert Page (b1974) and lead-by-example captain Gary Speed. There was a 1-1 against Norway at the Millennium Stadium, Wales’ first competitive game in the WRU’s newly-opened cauldron (a friendly against Finland earlier in 2000 was the first) – Nathan Blake scored with a humungous header on the hour but Wales conceded to Thorstein Helstad (b1977) 10 minutes from the end. It was a scrappy goal keeper Paul Jones (b1967) should have saved, and it sent the 53,360 crowd home deflated. After that, a grindingly gritty 0-0 in Warsaw against Poland encapsulated how Wales were becoming a serious side.  But next old defensive frailties returned in a lackadaisical 2-2 in Yerevan against Armenia: another first encounter, another ex-Soviet satellite, another team ranked outside the top 100, another novice nation finding their feet in international football; another flawed performance. Arthur Minasyan (b1977), with the only goal he ever got for Armenia, and Russian-born (FIFA’s ever-slackening qualification rules are exploited everywhere) Andrey Movsisyan (b1975), with a once-in-a-lifetime dipping projectile, scored for the home side, while big John Hartson (b1975), vying with big Iwan Roberts (b1968) for the big bloke up front role, scored twice for Wales. Hartson scored again with a lovely volley early on in the fourth draw back at the Millennium Stadium in March 2001. 48,000 were there, a new generation of fans with hope in their hearts and the confidence of post-devolution Wales lifting their expectations, but Andriy  Shevchenko (b1976) put them right and levelled for Ukraine in the group’s third introductory meeting for Wales against a third brand-new nation. FAW councillors sure get to travel the world, visit interesting places and meet interesting people!

It was all over bar the recriminations. Wales lost 2-1 at home to Poland in the summer, again unable to hold onto an early lead (Nathan Blake) and overhauled by goals from Nigerian-born Emmanuel Olisadebe (b1978) and Pawel Kryszalowicz (b1974). Unaware defending by Andy Melville and two ancestry.com Welshmen, Darren Barnard (b1971) and Kit Symons (b1971), allowed simple long passes to cut Wales open. A good point was gleaned in front of 33,000 partisans in Kiev four days later with another 1-1 against Ukraine – Mark Pembridge’s 74th minute strike from distance cancelling out a Hennadiy Zubov (b1977) goal on the stroke of half-time. I will draw a veil over the goalless draw with Armenia in Cardiff – impressionable youngsters might be reading – and, as for the subsequent 3-2 defeat in Norway, words fail me. This will have to do: before Ryan Giggs got sent off (he does care!) in the last minute, Robbie Savage and Craig Bellamy (b1979) scored for Wales, Ronny Johnsen (b1969), John Carew (b1979) and Frode Johnsen (b1974), with the 87th minute winner, scored for Norway. The Norwegian would.

Wales had now played nine, won none, an all-time record winless run in tournament football. More than that, including all games, the result left Wales without a win in 12 games, equalling the worst sequence in Welsh history set in 1896-1900 and 1968-70. Finally, 7,000 with nothing better to do swung by the 75,000-capacity Millennium Stadium for the denouement, the long-overdue win, much much too late but still a relief for those of us who thought Wales might never win again: 1-0 over Belarus (Hartson). Wales finished 5th out of six having drawn six of the 10 games. Poland topped the group, but flopped in the Far East, while runners-up Ukraine lost in play-offs and didn’t get there – confirming what a weak group it was. Brazil won the World Cup for the 5th time in Yokohama. Puns involving Japanese and/or Korean nomenclature, syntax, phonology and cultural signifiers are so fraught with racist honey-traps I think I’ll give them a miss.

2006, GERMANY   

After narrowly missing out on qualifying for Euro 2004 in play-off heartbreak against Russia, Mark Hughes was still manager when Wales set off on the next campaign, drawn in an unappetising group with Austria, Azerbaijan, England, Northern Ireland and Poland – the winners qualifying for Germany automatically and the runners-up either going into play-offs or qualifying automatically if one of the best two European runners-ups. Hughes’ pragmatic, efficient side had been rising up the rankings for a couple of years, stringing together sequences of positive results, so optimistic noises came from the Welsh camp, from Welsh fans clutching at straws, and from FAW corridors where David Collins (b1945), secretary since Alun Evans was ousted for treading on too many toes in 1995, busied himself stirring up lethargy.

That optimism quickly crumbled. In Baku in September 2004 Wales contrived to get a 1-1 draw when they should have won handsomely. Chances galore were spurned before Speed scored and then goalie Paul Jones did what Welsh goalies always seem prone to doing and made a perplexing boo-boo, letting an extra-long distance Rǝşad Sadiqov (b1982) swerver go right through him. At the death a Robert Earnshaw (b1981) header hit the Azerbaijan post to compound the so-near-but-so-far narrative.  A few days later Wales drew 2-2 with Northern Ireland in front of 63,500 at the Millennium Stadium, fighting back from 2-0 down in a classic British-style thriller (ie: error-strewn, crap football and punch-ups). Michael Hughes (b1971) and Wales’ whirling dervish Robbie Savage were sent off in the 9th minute for fighting, Zambian-born Jeff Whitley (b1979) then caught Wales napping and NI’s all-time leading scorer David Healy (b1979) made it two on 20 minutes, before promptly getting himself sent off for “obscene gesture” celebrations. It was 10 versus 9, Wales surged back through John Hartson and Earnshaw, Wales’ own re-naturalised Zambian, but couldn’t buy a winner. The sitter missed by substitute Paul Parry (b1980) in the last moments put the tin lid on more disappointment and dropped points.

Nevertheless, going into the match against England in October, Wales had to be confident. England were hardly setting the world alight, having dropped points in Austria and stolen a win in Poland, while Wales seemed to have kicked the losing habit and for once would have the full panoply of their attacking threats – Giggs, Hartson, Bellamy, Earnshaw, Simon Davies (b1979) and Jason Koumas (b1979) – available at Old Trafford (Wales’ first ever game at the Manchester United ground, being utilised while Wembley Stadium was rebuilt).

Frank Lampard (b1978) 4th minute, David Beckham (b1975) 76th minute. I don’t want to talk about it.

Within a few more days Wales were effectively out, beaten 3-2 by Poland in front of 56,685 innocents at the Millennium in a match that featured the now traditional Calamitous Sudden Collapse in all its twisted malevolence. Tomasz Frankowski (b1974), Maciej Zurawski (b1976) and Jacek Krzynówek (b1976) in the 72nd, 81st and 85th minutes did the business in a savage 13 minute spell after ‘Earnie’ had put Wales ahead. John Hartson’s stoppage-time goal added to the growing frequency of a putative new tradition: the Pointless Gesture. Another campaign, another failure. Mark Hughes resigned to become boss at Blackburn Rovers and John Toshack stepped up to the plate. This time he would have a proper crack at the job.

While Toshack considered long-term strategic plans for a viable international future, the group continued to its surreal conclusion. Against Austria in Cardiff there was another large crowd (47,760) and Wales did not disappoint – by which I mean they did disappoint, losing 2-0 to goals in the 82nd and 86th minutes by Ivica Vastić (b1969) and Martin Stranzl (b1980). Austria got a quick double over Wales in the return in Vienna four days later (bringing the head-to-head record to P7, W1, D1, L5) – this time the mandatory Dramatic Late Killer, scored by René Aufhauser (b1976), was delayed until the 87th minute. Goodnight Vienna. Tosh, who had made senior player Giggs captain, was facing a long haul.

There was then the little matter of the 99th meeting with England to suffer. Joe Cole (b1981) scored the only goal after 54 minutes – it says here – but, more importantly, a bumper crowd of 70,715 kept the FAW solvent. A resilient 1-0 defeat in Poland to a Maciej Zurawski penalty gave more faint but distinct signs that Toshack was on the right track, lowering the average age of the squad, gradually jettisoning the old guard and shifting Wales away from the discredited ‘British’ method and down the more technical and skilful ‘European’ path. However, these vague aims couldn’t alter the fact that Wales’ head-to-head record against Poland now stood at P7, W1, D2, L4.

To boost morale, and vital FIFA ranking points, this campaign ended in a low-key flourish with wins over Northern Ireland in Belfast and Azerbaijan in Cardiff. At Windsor Park Wales won 3-2 with goals from Simon Davies, Llandrindod-born Carl Robinson (b1976) and Ryan Giggs outnumbering those from Keith Gillespie (b1975) and Steve Davis (b1985). The result took Wales’ head-to-head record against Northern Ireland (including games versus the pre-partition All Ireland team) to a strangely satisfying P92, W43, D22, L27. After Wales’ Euro 2016 quarter-final triumph over the divided ‘province’ the overall record is currently P97, W45, D24, L28. If only we could play the Irish more. A Giggs double in front of another healthy crowd at the Millennium Stadium finalised the group. England came top, Poland runners-up (and qualified for Germany without needing play-offs), Wales 5th and Azerbaijan bottom. If only we could play the Azerbaijanis more. In Germany Italy beat France on penalties to win the World Cup for the fourth time. Here’s a thing: 10 years ago Zizou did a head-butt, now Zizou’s Gareth’s head, butty…

2010, SOUTH AFRICA

Lawd-a-mercy – I’ve reached within living memory! But if a week is a long time in politics, six years is a geological epoch in Welsh football.  Who now can, or would want to, remember Wales’ abysmal attempt to qualify for the first World Cup on the African continent? So much has changed since then; above all the miraculous immaculate conception of Cardiffian Gareth Bale, who somehow or other developed an immunity to the congenital Welsh inferiority complex, and then spread that immunity throughout the Welsh game.

The losing mentality was still thoroughly embedded though when the draw landed John Toshack’s work-in-progress in a gruesome group with Azerbaijan, Finland, Germany, Liechtenstein and Russia, the winner to qualify and the runner-up going into the play-offs. This wild mix of insuperable giants and banana-skins-in-waiting boded ill, and the arduous struggle to beat atrocious Azerbaijan in the opener in Cardiff in September 2008 did nothing to lift spirits. Only 17,000 were in the Millennium Stadium to see 18-year-old Bournemouth product Sam Vokes, who had a Welsh grandparent, came on as a substitute to score the winner and his first international goal in the 83rd minute. Toshack was assiduously sifting and testing every youthful Welsh-qualified possibility, and amongst the shale-grit he was discovering and then refining some nuggets of gold. Joe Allen and Andy King would be other such finds, and in that same side as Vokes against Azerbaijan were others: Chris Gunter (b1989), Wayne Hennessey (b1987), Joe Ledley (b1987), Ashley Williams (b1984) – and Bale, who had won his first cap against Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 aged 16 years 315 days to become the youngest ever to play for Wales – a record since broken by Wrecsam-born Liverpool reserve Harry Wilson (b1997) when he came on against Belgium in 2013 at age 16 years 207 days.

Those callow youths were given valuable instruction in the high demands of international football in Moscow the following week, losing 2-1 in front of 28,800 at the 30,000-capacity Lokomotiv Stadium. Bale, oozing world-class quality, won and then missed a 15th minute penalty before Roman Pavlyuchenko (b1981), then Bale’s team-mate at Tottenham Hotspur, scored a contentious penalty himself eight minutes later, a blatant dive from Konstantin Zyryanov (b1977) conning the Slovenian ref. Joe Ledley got a beautiful, Bale-created equaliser in the 66th minute and it was all Wales until Pavel Pogrebnyak (b1983), only on the field for five minutes, got the inevitable late winner for Russia on the counter-attack in the 81st minute. Wales should have won it…but should-haves don’t butter the parsnips, he added with uncertain understanding of English idiom.

Next Wales unconvincingly beat Liechtenstein, a land-locked principality with the population of Carmarthen, permanently ranked outside the top 150 and only played once before in a friendly. It was 2-0 in Cardiff, but Wales made heavy weather of turning unfamiliar quantities of possession into goals. Shropshire lad David Edwards (b1986) of Wolverhampton Wanderers, who had a Welshpool mam, flagged up his emergence as an important utility player with his first Wales goal, but the win had to be sealed by a late own-goal from Mario Frick (b1974), holder of Liechtenstein’s all-time record for both appearances and goals (125/16).

The crunch Germany game at the Borussia Stadium in Mönchengladbach was lost 1-0, but that was no disgrace. SV Hamburg’s Piotr Trochowski (b1984) got the goal in the 72nd minute, the first of only two the second-stringer ever scored for Germany. Wales were definitely developing into a match for the best in the exalted echelons of soccer, without yet having the goalscoring power to be a serious contender: Bale, still being played at left-back, had not yet been unleashed to create goals from all over the pitch. Any lingering qualification fantasies were finished off when the Finns, playing out of their skins, won 2-0 in Cardiff in March 2009. The dark cloud hanging over Welsh football returned, as grizzled veterans Jonatan Johanssen (b1975) of Hibernian and Shefki Kuqi (b1976) of Crystal Palace scored – Kuqi with his first touch of the ball in the 92nd minute having come on as substitute seconds earlier. Even in this desperate defeat there was a thin ray of sunshine in the midfield performance of young Aaron Ramsey, another vital piece in the Tosh jigsaw. Further paradoxical encouragement came in another 2-0 defeat, this time to Germany in Cardiff. Only 26,064 attended, defeats not being popular, and goals came from Michael Ballack (b1976) after 11 minutes and an unfortunate Ashley Williams og at the start of the second-half. The result took the Wales v Germany head-to-head tally (including games versus the pre-unification West Germany team) to: P17, W2, D6, L9.

A 1-0 win in Baku (Edwards, 42 minutes) had to be fought for, Wales displaying more of the calm temperament and steely resolve required to win any international in the passionate atmosphere generated by 27,000 in the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium. The record against Azerbaijan progressed to P6, W5, D1, L0. If only we could play the Azerbaijanis more – or have I said that already? In September in Cardiff a Wales side missing Bale lost 3-1 to Russia to continue the one-step-forward-two-steps-back trajectory. Defender James Collins (b1983) equalised after Igor Semshov (b1978) had undeservedly put Russia ahead and Wales were looking the more likely winners until scary defender Sergey Ignashevich (b1979), on his way to becoming the most capped Russian in history (currently 120), scored 20 minutes from the end. Another injury time sucker punch, this time by Pavlyuchenko, stuck one more hat-pin in the voodoo doll of Welsh torture. Revenge for the Euro 2004 injustice was not forthcoming. We would not make the Russian rue yet…

Hurrying past a 2-1 defeat at the Helsinki Olympiastadion – Roni Porokara (b1983) 5mins, captain Craig Bellamy 17mins, Niklas Moisander (b1985) 77mins – which gave the only non-microstate European side with a worse qualifying track-record than us a famous double and brought the head-to-head summary to P11, W4, D3, L4, the group concluded with a 2-0 win over Liechtenstein in the Rheinpark Stadion, Vaduz. A mere 1,858 souls (and a couple of mountain goats) saw goals from Abergele-born petite Crewe Alexandra product David Vaughan (b1983) and Aaron Ramsey on Wales’ inaugural trip to the enchanting Alpine corporate tax-haven. With six defeats in 10 games Wales ended up a lowly 4th in the group, 14 points behind winners Germany. Russia came second, but were ousted by Slovenia on away goals in an incident-packed play-off. In South Africa Spain’s tika-taka triumphed to the voluminous vibrations of the vuvuzela, and the great underachievers of football had at last claimed the ultimate prize. The bar had been set higher, and soon Gareth Bale would be off to Spain to polish his skills further by learning from the masters first hand.

2014, BRAZIL

In 2010 the FAW acquired a commercially-astute chief executive at last in Jonathan Ford (b1970) and John Toshack stood down, having taken Wales as far as he could. His generation was struggling to relate to a pampered new generation of vain young millionaires. When Cardiff City sold Toshack to Liverpool in 1970 I was so bereft I actually contemplated running away to Liverpool to join him. I loved him then, and I love him now. I will always love Tosh. The campaign for a John Toshack statue in Cardiff starts here, now.

Gary Speed succeeded him as manager and, after a sticky start which saw Wales drop to a lowest-ever FIFA ranking of 117th, reasserted the tangible progress. A string of good results had elevated Wales to 45th when, on 2 November 2011, he took his own life.According to his mother, trying to make sense of the unfathomable afterwards, he was a “glass half-empty person”.

Gary Speed was a special human being. Oh the loss, the loss.

Death had come knocking at the door again and the bombshell left Wales and Welsh football traumatised. Never before had an international football manager committed suicide while in office. Speed’s old pal Chris Coleman took on the onerous challenge in these most taxing of all possible circumstances – and the rest is history. Well, actually no, the rest is happening right now.

Chris Coleman settled into the Wales job and matured wonderfully as a manager through the qualifying campaign for the 20th World Cup in Brazil while adding key components to the defence in Ben Davies (b1993) and James Chester (b1989). Drawn with Belgium, Croatia, Macedonia, Scotland and Serbia (one through, one into play-offs), Wales had a torrid time and were never in contention, but Coleman built on the Toshack and Speed groundwork and used the experiences to cohere his men into the team they have become. The matches Wales played in the group seem like an awful long time ago from where I’m sitting, but they are so recent this blog was in existence! For anyone who wants to delve around, the Football category archive extensively covers Wales’ trad trials and tribulations in the group. Here are the bare results (played 2012/13):

WALES 0 BELGIUM 2 – Vincent Kompany (b1986) 42’, Jan Vertonghen (b1987) 83’

SERBIA 6 WALES 1 – Aleksandar Kolarov (b1985) 16’, Zoran Tošić (b1987) 24’; Filip Đuričić (b1992) 37’, Dušan Tadić (b1988) 55’, Branislav Ivanović (b1984) 80’, Miralem Sulejmani (b1988) 90’; Gareth Bale 31’

WALES 2 SCOTLAND 1 – Gareth Bale 2 80’ (pen), 87’; James Morrison (b1986) 27’

CROATIA 2 WALES 0 – Mario Mandžukić (b1986) 27’, Eduardo (b1983) 57’

SCOTLAND 1 WALES 2 – Grant Hanley (b1991) 45’; Aaron Ramsey 72’ (pen), Hal Robson-Kanu (b1989) 74’

WALES 1 CROATIA 2 – Gareth Bale 21’ (pen); Dejan Lovren (b1989) 77’, Eduardo 87’

MACEDONIA 2 WALES 1 – Ivan Tričkovski (b1987) 20’, Aleksandar Trajkovski (b1992) 80’; Aaron Ramsey 39’ (pen)

WALES 0 SERBIA 3 – Filip Đorđević (b1987) 8’, Aleksandar Kolarov 38’, Lazar Marković (b1994) 55’

WALES 1 MACEDONIA 0 – Simon Church (b1988) 67’

BELGIUM 1 WALES 1 – Kevin De Bruyne (b1991) 64’; Aaron Ramsey 88’

As can be seen, Wales were rather like the curate’s egg – good in parts. The draw in Brussels in the last match saw Wales crank up another level to true international class, while some element of revenge was visited upon Scotland for past outrages. Macedonia’s shock win in Skopje ruined that small pleasure: Wales were macerated by a late fluke in the two nations’ first-ever meeting. Both Serbia and Croatia, two more of the now seven new FIFA members to have emerged since the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1992, got the double over Wales. Injuries and withdrawals don’t fully excuse or explain the Serbia thrashings and everything went Croatia’s way both times. What doesn’t break you, makes you. In four matches against each of these crack East European outfits Wales are yet to record a win (nor did Wales win in seven tries against Yugoslavia) and Wales’ record versus Serbia so far is played four, lost four – making Serbia, with the Netherlands, the only countries in the world Wales have played more than three times to have a 100% record against us. Plenty of bogey-men are lurking out there. The Serbian boil is due to be lanced – and when better than this November with qualification for World Cup 2018 in Russia at stake.

Germany won the 2014 World Cup in Rio, the country’s 4th world title. The bar rises ever higher; if you stand still you go backwards. Despite FIFA being a by-word for bribery and corruption, and despite platoons of officials being arrested, prosecuted, jailed and, in the case of Sepp Blatter (b1936) president from 1998-2015, banned from the game, FIFA membership is now up to 211 and little Wales, Euro 2016 semi-finalists, are ranked 10th in the world. Only 1958 can compare. These are the halcyon days. But the massive shadow of past history will always loom over Wales unless and until we can crack the qualification quandary. Wales have failed to qualify for 14 consecutive World Cups and have missed more consecutive finals since their last appearance than any country on the planet bar Cuba and Indonesia (17 finals each since their last appearance). In terms of actual qualification attempts, Wales have the fourth-worst record in the world, 17 attempts/16 failures, behind only Luxemburg (19/19), Finland (18/18) and Palestine/Israel (19/18). By any reckoning these statistics are damning, put particularly for one of football’s founding nations. This can’t go on. Come on Wales, come on Cymru, one last push…