LET’S GET ONE thing straight. This is not the first time Wales have qualified for the latter stages of a major tournament since 1958. This is, however, the first time Wales have made it through to a “finals” since the World Cup in Sweden. Everyone seems to have forgotten 1976, when Wales reached the last eight of the European Championship, losing out to a fine Yugoslavia team.
Of course, it suits the media to make grand statements about Wales’ feat – 57 years is a much better headline than 39, and further underlines the achievement of Chris Coleman and his team. Arguably, 1976 was much more noteworthy. Harsh assessment, perhaps, especially as the bars and pubs of Cardiff are probably packed with people enjoying the moment right now. But in this European Championship, of all European Championships, you need to be inept – or indeed, the under-performing Netherlands – not to gain access to the 24-team finals.
That’s not to say Wales have not excelled, because they have, but in 1976, the Welsh came top of a four-team group that included Hungary and Austria, who were both decent and heading for World Cup 1978 two years later. And oh yes, there was Luxembourg. Wales won five of their six games and had players like Leighton James, Brian Flynn, John Toshack, John Mahoney and Terry Yorath in their line-up. They also had Arfon Griffiths, who at 34 years of age, scored the goal that sent Wales through – the winner against Austria.
Wales won in the famous Nep stadium in their 1976 campaign
In today’s qualifiers, you get grouped with an assortment of teams that would struggle to get out of England’s Championship or League One. Wales finished second to Belgium, but the rest of the group doesn’t exactly read like a who’s who of international football in 2015 – Bosnia, Cyprus, Israel and Andorra. The same could be concluded about England’s group – that’s the nature of international football these days.
Back to 1976, though. England had started well under Don Revie, beating eventual European champions Czechoslavakia. Draws against Portugal cost them dear, but it was a 2-1 defeat in Bratislava that lost the group. Scotland and Northern Ireland came in behind Spain and Yugoslavia respectively. Wales were Britain’s only representative in the quarter finals, but Yugoslavia were highly-ranked after a respectable showing in the 1974 World Cup.
The first leg was played in Zagreb and Wales, for all their industry, were beaten 2-0. The second leg, in Cardiff, saw Yugoslavia go ahead from the penalty spot through Josep Katalinski. This virtually killed the tie. Wales came back, urged on by 30,000 people, and Ian Evans of Crystal Palace scored to make it 1-1.
In a frantic, and frequently bad tempered second half, Toshack had a diving header ruled-out and Yorath missed a penalty. It was a brave effort, but Yugoslavia had too much class, and luck, for the Welsh.
So often Wales have been cast as gallant losers and also-rans, and not even Ryan Giggs could change their luck. Their major competition record has not been good:
|Year||Comp.||Group place||Wins||Pts off Q||Major opponents|
|1978||World Cup||3/3||1||4||Scotland, Czechoslavakia|
|1982||World Cup||3/5||4||4||USSR, Czechoslavakia|
|1986||World Cup||3/4||3||1||Spain, Scotland|
|1990||World Cup||4/4||0||8||Netherlands, West Germany|
|1994||World Cup||4/6||5||3||Romania, Belgium|
|1998||World Cup||4/5||2||11||Netherlands, Belgium|
|2002||World Cup||5/6||1||8||Poland, Ukraine|
|2006||World Cup||5/6||2||16||England, Poland|
|2008||Euros||5/7||4||12||Czech Rep., Germany|
|2010||World Cup||4/6||4||10||Germany, Russia|
|2014||World Cup||5/6||3||7||Belgium, Croatia|
Wales only lost one game in their Euro 2016 campaign and that was against Bosnia & Herzegovina, a result that proved meaningless given they also qualified in that game.
But what of Wales and their happy band? Gareth Bale is undoubtedly one of the world’s most high-profile players right now, and it is not unkind to say that Wales would not be getting out their French phrase books without the former Tottenham man. His record speaks for itself – 50-plus caps, 19 goals. And of those 19 goals, 15 have helped Wales win matches. It’s almost the type of scenario that prevailed for so long when a fellow Welshman, Ian Rush, scored for Liverpool. Creating that sort of record with a country like Wales is significant
Bale has done what Best and Giggs could never do
Bale has certainly moved from being a quietly-spoken Welsh lad with a huge, Arsenal-type hair piece to cutting the look of a European galactico, with his tied-back hair and “hey, I’m chilled and a day away from a shave” image.
He has managed to achieve what George Best and Ryan Giggs could never do – make Northern Ireland and Wales into contenders. And Bale has done it with a team that, minus his contribution, would struggle to make much of an impact.
Is that being unkind? Maybe, but it is also high praise for what Wales have achieved. For example, goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, cousin of former Nottingham Forest and Derby defender Terry, has played just six times in the Premier, but he’s won 50-odd caps. And he’s 28. Aside from skipper Ashley Williams, who has played almost 300 times for Swansea, and Aaron Ramsey, who many hoped would develop into the sort of player Bale is, most of the squad has played below the spotlight.
Wales have punched above their weight and they could still achieve more. Look at Northern Ireland in 1982 and to some extent, although they had a greater depth of talent, the Republic of Ireland under Jack Charlton. Just mention Greece 2004 and you know that teams with limited resources can create a tale of the unexpected.
Nobody foresees Wales making a huge impact in France, but then again, did anyone anticipate the Welsh Dragon would be unfurled at the 2016 finals? Bale will be looking to shine in France – it may be a shop window for his next move.
Comparing the decades
|1958 (6 D1, 4 D2, 1 Overseas)||1976 (7 D1, 2 D2, 2 D3)||2015 (6 PL, 4 CH, 1 Overseas)|
|Jack Kelsey (Arsenal)||Dai Davies (Everton)||Wayne Hennessey (C.Palace)|
|Stuart Williams (WBA)||Malcolm Page (Birmingham)||Chris Gunter (Reading)|
|Mel Hopkins (Spurs)||Dave Roberts (Hull)||James Chester (WBA)|
|Derek Sullivan (Cardiff)||Ian Evans (C.Palace)||Ben Davies (Tottenham)|
|Mel Charles (Spurs)||Leighton Phillips (Aston V)||Ashley Williams (Swansea)|
|Dave Bowen (Arsenal)||John Mahoney (Stoke)||Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal)|
|Terry Medwin (Spurs)||Leighton James (Derby)||David Vaughan (N.Forest)|
|John Charles (Juventus)||Terry Yorath (Leeds)||Jonathan Williams (C.Palace)|
|Ron Hewitt (Cardiff)||Arfon Griffiths (Wrexham)||Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading)|
|Ivor Allchurch (Swansea)||Brian Flynn (Burnley)||Sam Vokes (Burnley)|
|Cliff Jones (Spurs)||John Toshack (Liverpool)||Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)|