Climb every mountain

The most hoary old football cliché of them all is surely the mantra of managers since time immemorial to “take one game at a time.” For Cymru that cobwebbed truism can hardly be more appropriate than now, following the draw for the World Cup European qualification play-offs. We stand two victories away from a first World Cup since 1958, but to think ahead to a possible play-off final showdown with either Scotland or Ukraine is to commit the cardinal sin of ignoring the hard-won wisdom of ages. There’s a reason why there are so many phrases warning against the tendency to get ahead of oneself – like “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”, “don’t run before you can walk”, “don’t jump the gun”, “don’t get your hopes up”, “don’t hold your breath”, and so on and so forth. One more barnacle-encrusted formulation sums up the problem: there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip…

All that matters is the play-off semi-final in Cardiff on March the 24th next year. To even think beyond that is asking for trouble. All that matters is Austria.

Ahh…Austria. Hmm…Austria. It would be Austria, it had to be Austria…

I took a footpath up into the mountains until the village was a tiny dot far below me and I was above the tree-line. Alone in a remote valley high in the Tyrolean Alps, beneath deep blue skies in the sweltering sunshine, I lay down in a green Alpine meadow bejewelled with drifts of vetch and rampion, arnica and campanula, orchid and monkshood, gentian and edelweiss. In the company of warblers and flycatchers, swifts and buntings, I drowsed in the long grass to the murmurings of insects and the distant bleats of goats and tinkling of cowbells. I must have fallen asleep. I woke suddenly to the sound of male voices approaching. It was two of the teachers with an Austrian guide. They were very angry. I was never forgiven.

So far Wales and Austria have met ten times. It all began over 67 years ago:

9/5/54 AUSTRIA 2 WALES 0 (Praterstadion, Vienna): For Austria this friendly was useful preparation for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland which kicked off a month later, while for Wales, playing ‘abroad’ for only the 8th time, it was one of the early, tentative forays into the big wide world of international football. Austria had a very good side at this point in time, illustrated by a best-ever third place finish in the imminent World Cup, so the result was no disgrace. In front of 58,000 in the 1931 Praterstadion (the largest attendance at a match between the two countries to this day) the goals came in the second half from Rapid Vienna stars Robert Dienst (1928-2000), still the 32-time Austrian champions’ record league goalscorer with 307 goals in 284 games, and Paul Halla (1931-2005). Keeping a tight grip on Wales’ dangerous forwards Trevor Ford (1923-2003) and Ivor Allchurch (1929-1997) in Vienna was defender Ernst Happel (1925-1992), who would go on to become one of the greatest managers of all time. He was the first of the five managers who have won the European Cup with two different clubs (Feyenoord and Hamburg) and is one of six managers who have won league championships in four different countries (Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Austria). After he died the Praterstadion was renamed Ernst-Happel-Stadion in his honour in 1992 and, much modernised, it remains Austria’s primary home venue today.

The Austria team line up before the 1954 World Cup semi-final v West Germany at St. Jakob Stadium in Basel (Austria lost 6-1 then defeated Uruguay 3-1 in the third place play-off)

23/11/55 WALES 1 AUSTRIA 2 (Racecourse, Wrecsam): 30,000 crammed into the Racecourse to see this rough-house ‘friendly’ which featured x-certificate tackling and serious injuries to Austrian striker Theodor Wagner (1927-2020) and Welsh defender Mel Charles (1935-2016). Wagner, scorer of a sensational hat-trick in an amazing 7-5 win over hosts and arch-rival neighbours Switzerland in the World Cup quarter-final a year earlier, had put Austria ahead with a delicious half-volley in the 5th minute and midfield maestro Gerhard Hanappi (1929-1980) had doubled the lead after 20 minutes. But then Wagner was carried off with a broken leg before Charles departed with ruptured knee ligaments. Henceforth, both players’ careers would be blighted by persistent problems related to these injuries. Barry Town product Derek Tapscott (1932-2008) of Arsenal pulled a goal back for Wales but Austria held on for a deserved win. The match became known as the ‘Battle of Wrexham’ and was called “a disgrace to football” by the Western Mail. Truth be told, it was Wales who were the main villains – particularly ‘Tappy’ and Ford, who persistently charged at goalie Bruno Engelmeier (1927-1991) even when he had the ball in his hands. This match, along with other violent incidents in the late 1950s, was instrumental in the eventual outlawing of the charging and barging of goalies in 1962.

4/9/74 AUSTRIA 2 WALES 1 (Praterstadion): 19 years elapsed before the next meeting, a qualifier for the Euro 1976 tournament in Yugoslavia. It was the first fixture in a group that also contained Hungary and Luxembourg and Wales got off to the worst possible start. Tiny Arfon Griffiths, an astute midfield prompter who went on to set Wrexham’s all-time record of 591 English League appearances (a club record that, irrespective of Hollywood sugar-daddies, will never be beaten), put Wales ahead in the 34th minute with, of all things, a header and it was still 1-0 at half-time. But William Kreuz and Hans Krankl scored in a 10-minute spell in the middle of the second-half to condemn the promising side of meticulous manager Mike Smith (1937-2021) to defeat. Kreuz, newly signed by Feyenoord from Sparta Rotterdam after making his name in the Austrian pyramid with Admira Wacker (a club which today has gone through nearly as many mergers, renamings and relocations in its history as our very own Cardiff Met), was a fine forward and Krankl even better. He notched 34 goals in 69 appearances for Austria between 1973 and 1985, making him the national team’s all-time second-highest scorer (after Toni Polster’s 44 in 95 appearances) and had a marvellous club career too – his total of 267 Bundesliga goals for Rapid Vienna is only exceeded by Dienst (see above) and equalled by pre-War striker Franz Binder (1911-1989). Krankl and Kreuz would be instrumental in Austrian football’s second ‘golden age’ which saw them qualify for the 1978 and 1982 World Cups but, improbably as it seemed after this opening match, Wales were to thwart them in the 1976 Euros, and featherweight Arfan would be the pivotal figure.

Griffiths had a short spell at Arsenal in the early 1960s, but soon returned to the Racecourse

Wales’ qualifying campaign proceeded with four consecutive wins – Wales 2 Hungary 0 (Griffiths, Toshack); Wales 5 Luxembourg 0 (Toshack, England, Phil Roberts, Griffiths, Yorath); Hungary 1 Wales 2 (Toshack, Mahoney); Luxembourg 1 Wales 3 (Reece [1942-2003], James 2) – meaning it all came down to a showdown with Austria in Wrecsam…

19/11/75 WALES 1 AUSTRIA 0 (Racecourse): It was one of the great Racecourse nights. 27,500 were there to witness a gruelling battle that climaxed when who else but Arfon Griffiths, aged 34, scored the only goal of the game in the 69th minute to ensure Wales topped the qualifying group with five wins out of six.

It goes without saying that commentator Gerald Sinstadt (1930-2021) pronounced Arfon’s name incorrectly, cavalier contempt for the Welsh language being written into the job description of the British – but we’re used to that. This was the first time Wales had ever won a tournament qualification group, and would remain the only time until the Nations League in 2020. Here is the evidence that Wales can overcome Austria when it really matters. However, it didn’t actually mean qualification for Euro 1976 – there was still one more hurdle to overcome, but that’s another story

29/4/92 AUSTRIA 1 WALES 1 (Praterstadion): Another big Viennese crowd of 53,000 turned up to watch this friendly at the Prater (afterwards, six more international matches took place at the ground before the name-change in November 1992). The stadium had been turned into an all-seater in the 1980s, reducing capacity from 90,000 to 60,000, so this was an impressive attendance. It can’t have been because of the allure of the two teams since both nations were in a period of football doldrums. Neither had qualified for the upcoming Euro 1992 tournament in Sweden: Wales as per usual; Austria after a humiliating 1-0 defeat to the Faroe Islands playing their first ever competitive game – one of the biggest upsets in footballing history. Manager Terry Yorath, the inspirational captain against Austria 17 years previously, was doing his best to build a competitive side out of slim pickings. This result gave cause for faint hopes, particularly when 21-year-old Crystal Palace defender Chris Coleman, winning the first of his 32 Welsh caps having come on as a substitute, scored in the 83rd minute to equalise the 58th minute goal by another substitute Michael Baur of Tirol Innsbruck. Those hopes would all too soon be smashed to smithereens – but further into the future ‘Cookie’ Coleman would re-emerge to lead Wales to glory.

26/3/05 WALES 0 AUSTRIA 2 (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff); 30/3/05 AUSTRIA 1 WALES 0 (Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna): This quick-fire double-header hammered the final nails into the coffin of Wales’ attempt to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The two wins kept Austrian pipe-dreams alive for a little longer, but they too were soon snuffed out. John Toshack’s side carried virtually no goal threat and were very much a work in progress, while Hans Krankl’s men were only marginally superior (Austria managed to qualify for Euro 2008 – but that was only because they were joint hosts with Switzerland).

Krankl in his playing days; he was Austria’s manager from 2002-2005

In both games Wales, with current boss Rob Page doing his best in defence, battled gamely before crumbling to late goals: Croatia-born veteran Ivica Vastić, who had only just come on as substitute, and defender Martin Stranzl scored in the 82nd and 86th minutes in Cardiff; Salzburg defensive midfielder René Aufhauser snatched an 87th minute winner in Vienna. For the gory details of this dismal World Cup qualification campaign see here.

6/2/13 WALES 2 AUSTRIA 1 (Liberty Stadium, Swansea): Having lost three of their first four qualifying fixtures, Wales’ chances of getting to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were more or less already gone by the time of this friendly, whereas Austria would remain in the running in their particular group until a defeat in Sweden in October. Wales under Chris Coleman were still in recovery mode following the shock death of Gary Speed (1969-2011) just over a year previously, while Austria’s Swiss manager Marcel Koller was in the early phase of his six-year stint in charge. Both men would ultimately lead their teams to the Euro 2016 finals in France, and there were hints of the glories to come in this match in front of a derisory 8,200 in Swansea: a 23-year-old called Gareth Bale scored the first goal (his 10th for Wales) – six months later he would move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a world record fee. The Liberty Stadium was the venue because the Wales v Croatia World Cup qualifier was scheduled for there the following month; that game was lost 1-2 in front of another low attendance and the ground has only been used once since (a friendly against the USA in 2020). Today it is apparently called Stadium: I have a longstanding policy of never using sponsors’ here-today-gone-tomorrow stadium names, so that ugly mouthful will mercifully not appear on this website ever again.

6/10/16 AUSTRIA 2 WALES 2 (Ernst-Happel-Stadion): Wales and Austria again found themselves in the same World Cup qualifying group, this time for the Russia 2018 tournament. 44,200 saw an entertaining game in which Marko Arnautović twice quickly equalised shortly after his Stoke City team-mate Joe Allen and an own goal had put Wales ahead (these days the talented but temperamental Arnautović is with Bologna in Italy while Allen remains a Stoke stalwart). Looking on impassively was the Ferris wheel in nearby Prater amusement park, where Orson Welles (1915-1985) and Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) discussed philosophy and humanity in a famous scene in The Third Man, the 1949 Carol Reed (1906-1976) noir masterpiece set in post-War Vienna. I only mention it so I can include this:

Three days later, Wales’ campaign suffered what would turn out to be a fatal blow with a draw against minnows Georgia in Cardiff and Austria’s progress was also derailed by a 3-2 defeat in Serbia.

2/9/17 WALES 1 AUSTRIA 0 (Cardiff City Stadium): This was only four years ago and by then I was comprehensively covering Cymru international football on this blog – so, rather than repeat myself

To sum it all up, the total head-to-head record against Austria is P10, W3, D2, L5, Goals F9-A13. In tournament qualifiers only it is P6 W2, D1, L3, Goals F5-A7, and in World Cup qualifiers P4, W1, D1, L2, Goals F3-A5. Even though Wales are ranked 19th in the World and Austria 30th, even though we have home advantage and are currently undefeated at home for a record 16 games, and even though we have not lost to Austria for nearly 17 years, I still reckon we are the underdogs. You could say we have a mountain to climb.

Pictures/Video: Anton Egger; Pathé/YouTube; Arsenal FC; HTV/YouTube; Oldschool Panini; YouTube