Sixty years is a long time, too long for fans of the Red Dragon. Wales’ only World Cup appearance came in 1958, a spirited run to the quarterfinals halted by a certain 17-year-old from the Brazilian streets of Bauru called Pele. The 1960’s and early 70’s were campaigns to forget, a quarterfinal appearance in the 1976 European Championships gave hope for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. With only one country advancing to Argentina from a group containing Czechoslovakia and fellow home nation Scotland, a good start was essential.
First up was a trip to Scotland in front of over 63,000 partisan fans. The Tartan Army had already been comfortably beaten in Prague 2-0 in their opening game. Antonin Panenka opening the scoring for Czechoslovakia fresh from introducing the world to his inventive penalty technique in the European Championships earlier that year.
It would be Scotland who got off to the stronger start winning 1-0. Bruce Rioch being released down the right flank before cutting the ball back to Kenny Dalglish, his back heel diverted in by Welsh defender Ian Evans. Joe Jordan was tripped by the hapless Evans later on in the half but German referee Ferdinand Biwersi waved away the penalty appeals. This wouldn’t be the only controversial moment Jordan would be involved in during these qualifiers.
With Wales bottom of the group after the opening games, a return home would prove to be a welcome sight. A rampant Wales pressed, pushed and harried the Czechs into submission. Brian Flynn and Leighton James combining for two of the three goals in a one-sided affair at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham.
The Czechs proved to be poor travellers when they slid to a second consecutive away defeat to Scotland. The 3-1 defeat left the group evenly poised, Scotland heading to Wales in what would prove to be a deciding match. Except it wasn’t Wales that the Tartan Army would be heading to. The Welsh FA, in their infinite wisdom, decided to move the tie to England. Crowd trouble at Ninian Park during a game with Yugoslavia the year before ruled out a return to Cardiff and with hopes of cashing in on 50,000 ticket sales, Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground was deemed too small. The FAW moved the game to Anfield, the home of Liverpool and Scotland’s key man Kenny Dalglish.
A packed Anfield swayed and pulsed, over 50,000 fans undeterred by the cold, damp October evening. The Tartan Army outnumbered their Welsh counterparts and descended on the city in their droves. The tension in the air was palpable, a win for Wales and they would be in the group seven driving seat. Players spoke of the possibility of going to the finals in Argentina the following summer, with talks of a trip to the Welsh-speaking region of Patagonia at the southern end of the country. Players Rob Thomas and Terry Yorath were keen horse racing fans and had been invited to meet some people in the business whilst there, the Welsh were daring to dream.
Despite the obvious threat of Dalglish, it would be Jordan again who would be the thorn in Welsh sides. The stakes were high but both teams attacked with riotous abandon in what was an open, end to end affair. The decisive blow came 12 minutes from time, Asa Hartford launched a throw-in into the Welsh penalty area. Jordan leapt to challenge David Jones in the air, the Scot’s flailing arm knocking the ball towards goal. French referee Robert Wurtz blew his whistle and in a case of mistaken identity pointed to the spot. Welsh players remonstrated but his mind was made up, Don Masson sent Dai Davies the wrong way with his spot-kick. Wales poured forward in search of an equaliser but Scotland broke, Dalglish stretched to power a superb header into the far corner. For Wales, the World Cup wait continued.
A tough draw for Wales in the Spain ’82 qualifiers saw their strongest challenge come from Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia had built strong squads throughout the 1970’s boasting players like Oleg Blokhin and the aforementioned Antonin Panenka. The Czechs had already finished a commendable third place in the European Championships in Italy earlier that year.
Wales hit the ground running though, consecutive 4-0 wins over Iceland and Turkey set them up for their first big test. A close affair at Ninian Park saw Mike England’s men come away with a crucial 1-0 win, which kept Wales top of the group at the years end. Victory in Ankara the following March was the prelude for a 0-0 draw with a stubborn, well drilled Soviet Union, the first points dropped in a so far impressive campaign. The Czechs, however, were hitting form at just the right time, drubbing Iceland 6-1 at home, a trip to Prague next up for the Red Dragons.
Wales had gone 475 minutes without conceding a goal, when a seemingly innocuous Czech free kick spun off Byron Stevenson, ricocheted against the post into goalkeeper Dai Davies and over the line. Wales struggled to match the tempo of their hosts and a second followed, a slick move down the left saw an unmarked Werner Licka head home. A brace from Oleg Blokhin gave the USSR a comfortable 3-0 win in Turkey and three teams were now tied at the top of group three with nine points.
The pressure was mounting as Wales welcomed Iceland to Swansea’s Vetch Field. With a trip to Moscow to come, two points here were a must. Robbie James opened the scoring at his home ground yet the Welsh bad luck reared its ugly head again when the Vetch Field suffered two floodlight failures. The second of which on the verge of half-time caused the referee to take the players off the pitch. A quick turnaround at the break was decided on with hopes that the South Wales electricity board could keep the lights on long enough for the game to finish.
Shortly after the game resumed, Iceland were on level terms when Asveir Sigurvinsson beat Davies to a cross flicking the ball under the Welsh keeper. The Welsh fought back and within seven minutes two Swansea players combined, Alan Curtis heading home a Robbie James corner. Perhaps with too much confidence Wales committed men forward, lost the ball and Iceland broke down the left. Failing to deal with a delivery into the box the ball landed at the feet of Sigurvinsson who rifled a shot past Davies for his second goal of the game. Despite the introduction of young Liverpool striker Ian Rush, Wales could not find another way through and the game ended in a disappointing 2-2 draw.
Wales were comfortably dispatched the next month by the Soviet Union in Moscow, losing 3-0. All hopes rested with the Soviets now, victory in Prague in their final game and Wales would be off to Argentina as group runners-up. Early hope was raised when Blokhin gave USSR the lead, his fifth of the qualifiers, after 14 minutes. Rostislav Vojacek equalised with ten minutes of the first half remaining, with what would be his only international goal. Both sides played out the second half securing a draw and their qualifications. Rumours of a pact being agreed between the two communist countries still spoke about to this day.
The FAW had saw finances plummet over the years, exacerbated by missing out on yet another tournament and an estimated income of £250,000. Fresh hope arrived with Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Neville Southall now firmly ensconced in the starting XI. Old rivals Scotland would join Wales in a four-team group along with Iceland and Spain, eager to improve on the disappointing performance at their home World Cup.
Wales got off to the worst possible start, losing the first two games, away to Iceland and Spain. The sluggish start was forgotten with back to back wins over the Icelanders and an impressive 1-0 away victory against Scotland, Ian Rush rifling in the winning goal from the edge of the box. Rush also impressed in the next game against Spain, scoring a brace at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham. The most memorable moment of the game though came in the 53rd minute from Mark Hughes, playing at his hometown ground. First to react to a failed heading clearance Hughes thrust himself into the air firing a spectacular scissor-kick volley past Luis Arconada in the Spain goal.
The Racecourse Ground was becoming a fortress for Wales, now unbeaten there in eight games. The players pushed for the remaining home game against Scotland to be played there but again, the FAW put finances before football. In a post-Heysel football environment all eyes were on British football, hooliganism was growing and becoming more ingrained in the public’s mind.
This time around there would be no taking the game to England, the FAW still smarting from the ill-fated selection of Anfield for the Scotland qualifier in 1977. The decision was made for Ninian Park to host the decider. Spain were through as group winners with the runners-up heading to a playoff. A warm Cardiff evening set up a nail-biting encounter, any Welsh nerves were settled after 14 minutes though. A David Phillips long throw was half cleared, Luton Town’s Peter Nicholas charged through two Scottish defenders with the ball and fired a cross towards Mark Hughes. With a flash of his left foot the ball shot past Jim Leighton to send the Welsh faithful into rapture.
Wales held the lead until the 80th minute, a hopeful ball was headed into the area where Kenny Dalglish flicked it at Phillips from close quarters. The ball struck his raised arm, handball or ball to hand? Dutch referee Jan Keizer pointed to the spot with Southall’s remonstrations waved away. Yet another crucial game involving the two sides decided by a controversial penalty.
Davie Cooper stepped up and placed his kick to Southall’s left. The Welsh keeper got fingertips on the ball but could not keep it out. Scotland were level, the Tartan Army waving flags by the dozen and heading for second place and a playoff. Wales poured forward but Scotland held firm, fans and photographers raced onto the pitch at full-time. Any celebrations and Welsh commiserations, however, were overshadowed by the tragic news of Scotland manager Jock Stein’s collapse in the dugout at full time. He subsequently passed away in the ambulance putting everything else into perspective.
The Mike England era ended in 1987 following defeat to Czechoslovakia which concluded a fruitless European Championship qualifying campaign. Although the failures were numerous under England, Wales had gone agonisingly close to qualification with several memorable results and an introduction of new blood to the squad.
Former captain Terry Yorath took the job of taking Wales to the next level, first combining the role with his position at Swansea City. Conflict on this double-role caused Yorath to leave the Swans for Bradford City before returning to the Welsh coast one year later. Following a poor run of nine defeats, Yorath left Swansea for a second time and took the Wales job on full time from 1991. Victories over Brazil and Germany and a six-team group with the top two qualifying had given Wales hope heading into the World Cup ’94 campaign.
A humbling at the hands of Gherghe Hagi and Romania in Bucharest brought Wales crashing down to earth. Hagi and Ioan Lupescu scoring a brace each in a 5-1 hammering, Romania leading 5-0 at halftime. Five days later on May 25th Yorath suffered the tragedy of losing his son from an undiagnosed heart condition. Fifteen-year-old Daniel collapsed whilst they played football together in the garden. As he did when suffering a first-hand experience of the Bradford stadium fire seven years earlier, Yorath threw himself back into football. Two expected wins over minnows Faroe Islands and Cyprus got them back on track although Belgium and Czechoslovakia would pose stiffer tests.
Back to back games with Belgium produced the same score-line but each team winning their respective home game 2-0. A Ryan Giggs free-kick the pick of the Wales goals, his curling left-footed effort giving Michel Preud’homme in the Belgian goal no chance. Czechoslovakia, now playing under the RCS name following the peaceful dissolution of the former state were held to draws home and away. All eyes would be on Romania’s visit to the Cardiff Arms Park on November 17th. Unbeaten there in 10 games, Wales would again go into a final game with their fate in their own hands.
Romania knew a point would see them through, Wales needed a win to qualify as runner-up and Britain’s sole representative at USA ’94. A 40,000 crowd roared Wales on from the kickoff but it would be Romania who took the lead. The Welsh destroyer from the first tie Gheorghe Hagi was given space to advance down the right before cutting inside onto his trusted left foot. His speculative drive bounced in-front of Southall and skidded underneath him to give the visitors the lead. The usually dependable custodian looked on in dismay, a rare error at the worst possible time.
The second half saw Wales on the front foot and on the hour mark they were back on level terms. A Giggs free-kick was headed on by Eric Young and Gary Speed before Dean Saunders prodded in from close range. Sensing the game was there for the taking, Rush grabbed the ball and headed back to the centre circle. Wales poured into the Romanian half from the re-start, 60 seconds after the equaliser substitute Jeremy Goss looped a ball towards Gary Speed on the edge of the box. Speed with his back to goal, brought the ball down and spun between two Romanian defenders, an outstretched arm from Dan Petrescu hauled him to the ground. Swiss referee Kurt Rothlisberger was in no doubt, penalty to Wales.
Paul Bodin was a perfect three out of three from the spot for Wales, the Swindon Town left back had no hesitation when the moment came. Florin Prunea in the Romania goal used every trick in the book to break Bodin’s concentration, picking the ball up and kissing it before tossing it back then adjusting his socks to delay proceedings even further. Fans from over the border were brought the action when the BBC cut from England’s standard thrashing of San Marino to Cardiff. Viewing figures in the Wales game rising from 2.2 to 12.9 million.
Bodin strode purposely toward the ball and thrust his left boot through the ball. Prunea guessed correctly and dived to his right but the pace gave him no chance. The ball smashed against the crossbar, bouncing out of the 18-yard box to safety. An eerie silence fell across the stadium, many sensing the chance had come and gone. Romania sat deep, hitting Wales on the counter-attack. In the 82nd minute, Ilie Dumitrescu received the ball, beat two players before playing in Florin Raducioiu who slotted under Southall to put Romania 2-1 ahead.
The game was over, Wales falling at the final hurdle yet again. In scenes horribly reminiscent of 1985 tragedy struck at full-time, a Wales fan senselessly killed when hit by a distress flare shot from one stand across the pitch into the crowd.
Twenty-four years later, Wales sit second in their qualifying group and face two key games to make the 2018 World Cup in Russia with the Republic of Ireland last up in Cardiff. The past fortunes of Wales rested on two handballs and three penalty kicks. Will the fates conspire to deny them once again?