Finally!

CoymayWhen England hosted the European Championships in 1996, what I think of as one of the better football songs reached number one on the wave of optimism which swept through that country at the time.

In saying that, “Three Lions” was unusual for a football song because it’s lyrics spoke of failure and the “thirty years of hurt” England football fans had suffered since their country had lifted the World Cup  as hosts of the event in 1966. Even so, every time I heard about their three decades of hurt, I used to think “you don’t know the half of it, try supporting the Welsh football team, then you’ll find out what suffering really means”.

For a start, I’m 60 in four months time and, as far as I’m aware, Wales have never qualified as hosts for a World or European international football tournament at any level or age group in the men’s game in my lifetime – although the fact that we hosted the UEFA Women’s Under 19 competition in 2013 offers the hope that I may still see it happen in my lifetime.

The luxury of pre qualifying for a tournament has never been open to Wales’ senior teams in either gender. No, we’ve always had to pre-qualify and, in the men’s game at least, this process has a history for which the term “long suffering” might have been invented.

It didn't take long for the Welsh players and management to learn of Israel's defeat - when Gareth Bale was asked if it would take a while for what the team had achieved to sink in, his answer was a short and sweet

It didn’t take long for the Welsh players and management to learn of Israel’s defeat – when Gareth Bale was asked if it would take a while for what the team had achieved to sink in, his answer was a short and sweet “no”!*

It might have have hurt for Baddiel and Skinner back in the mid nineties, but these things are relative – they didn’t have a clue what real hurt is!

Try being denied a World Cup Finals place twice by Scotland, first thanks to a blatantly wrong penalty decision, and then, eight years later in 1985, by a distinctly dodgy one.

Try listening to Yugolslavia and Bulgaria both going hammer and tongs for a winning goal while knowing that a draw would see Wales through to the European Championship Finals in 1984 (of course, Yugolslavia scored the goal to send them through at our expense in added time at the end of the game) and try being denied a place at the 1994 World Cup by a missed penalty against Romania.

Even when we have “qualified” there has been only heartbreak. In 1976 we topped our European Qualifying group, but that only brought a two leg Quarter Final to earn the right to go the main event and this was lost amid more penalties of the dodgy and missed kind, disallowed goals, an eccentric referee and crowd trouble which led to “home” matches in the following qualification procedure being played in England.

With four games to go in our group, qualification for the 2004 European Championships look assured, but just one point from those matches meant that we had to face Russia in a two leg Play Off to get to Portugal. It was typical that Wales raised hopes first by drawing 0-0 in Moscow in the first match, but a single goal for the visitors in front of a packed Millennium Stadium only meant more deflation and angst.

What needs to be remembered here, is that what I have set out in the last few paragraphs are the times when Wales have at least looked like they could be there competing with the best in the world or their continent. However, for every time this happened, there were another two or three where any optimism soon disappeared as the early losses mounted up - these were the campaigns exemplified by results such as Netherlands 7 Wales 1, Georgia 5 Wales 0 and Wales 1 Slovakia 5.

Now, you can argue, as I do, that reaching a European Quarter Final in 1976 means that it was not correct to assert that our qualification drought dated back to 1958 (even then, we only made it to Sweden as a “lucky loser”), but the truth is that this was how it had always been reported.

The general feeling among Welsh and non Welsh people was that we had gone fifty eight years without qualifying for anything, but, now, the rights and wrongs of that statement are no longer important – it’s just academic, because last night we did it, Wales will be there in France for Euro 2016.

Who cares that our 2-0 defeat by Bosnia-Herzegovina in Zenica meant that I couldn’t help thinking of the film Mike Bassett England Manager where England’s desolation at not getting the home win they needed against Slovenia, turns to joy when they hear they have qualified anyway because rivals Turkey have lost at home to Luxembourg.

I’m not sure if rumours that the Gareth Edwards statue in Cardiff City centre is to be demolished and replaced by one of Walsall’s Jason Demetriou are true. However, he should be elevated to the position of Welsh footballing legend after his goal that enabled Cyprus to snatch the win in Israel which meant it didn’t matter how we did last night – we already had enough points in the bag.

Actually, it’s that which means that my Mike Bassett analogy was not a very good one. Wales were never in the sort of position England found themselves in the film – I fully expected our qualification to be confirmed in a few days time after we had beaten Andorra (I think this is the only match about which you’ll ever read me saying “we will win” on this blog and, to be frank, I’m not remotely bothered now if I end up being proved wrong!).

I always had our match in Bosnia down as a defeat and, although I became a bit more hopeful when I learned that we would be able to field what was virtually our strongest team, I couldn’t get the fact that we were going to a part of the world where we never do well out of my mind.

You will see the name Yugoslavia among the list I produced of teams to deny us in the past and it is was also them who put us out in “the  Rudi Glockner match” in 1976. We didn’t do well in that part of the world when it was called Yugoslavia and our record in the Balkan countries which replaced it is appalling – I think I’m right in saying we’ve lost every single game we’ve played in old Yugoslavia since that country’s break up.

The mistake I made was in assuming that Israel would beat Cyprus. Israel had defended well in Cardiff last month, but we were comfortably better than them in Haifa even before the sending off and this gave the clue that they are not a team who find it easy when it is they who have to force the pace. Combine this with how Cyprus took us and Belgium right to the wire a few weeks ago, and it was never really the banker home win I took it to be.

As for our match, the funny thing was that Bosnia were nowhere near as good as I believed they’d be – I thought they played better in their game in Cardiff a year ago. For me, we looked pretty comfortable until our long run without conceding a goal ended at 575 minutes in very disappointing fashion.

To concede from what was a pretty basic kick was poor and it was criminal that the ball was able to bounce in our penalty area before Djuric headed over Wayne Hennessey. Ashley Williams should have dealt with things better, but, given his performances over the course of the qualification process, I’m not going to be too critical of him, and his fellow defenders, now – if this Welsh squad has a problem area, it’s certainly not our defence.

A record of just a goal a game in our nine matches in this group so far tells it’s own story – we’ve failed to find the net in nearly half of our games. Tuesday night’s home game with an Andorra side who have conceded thirty four times in losing all of their games so far offers an ideal opportunity for Wales to improve what is a dismal scoring record given how successful they’ve been. Although I accept that it’s not going to be an occasion where they will be going full throttle, I hope a few of our players who are due a goal are able to take the opportunity the game gives them.

I’m thinking in particular here of people like Aaron Ramsey. When you consider how he was finishing two years ago, it was strange to see him miss a pretty easy chance so poorly in what was still a good individual performance by him in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Man United last weekend and he could have done better with a chance he had last night – if he can start feeling confident in front of goal again, he is good enough to make a significant difference to our scoring rate.

Chris Coleman goes through what has become a traditional celebration with sides which achieve some sort of success - like quite a few of his players (including Champions League winner Gareth Bale) , the manager rated Wales' qualification as the highspot of his career.*

Chris Coleman goes through what has become a traditional celebration with sides which achieve some sort of success – like quite a few of his players (including Champions League winner Gareth Bale) , the manager rated Wales’ qualification as the highspot of his career.*

Hal Robson-Kanu could do with a goal and it would be a great reward for what has been a very good individual campaign if Neil Taylor’s efforts to get into more attacking positions could see him finding the net.

I’m sure any big win on Tuesday will be greeted with the words “it was only Andorra”, but we need more players to show that they have it in them to score for us at international level and, to that end, I would be tempted to give Tom Lawrence a first cap.

I was also pleased to see England qualified Harry Wilson get a few minutes to confirm him as a Wales player at the end of our previous qualifying campaign and, if something similar could be done with a youngster in a similar position on Tuesday (West Brom’s Tyler Roberts springs to mind), then  all the better.

Also, a personal thank you to the squad for what they have achieved and the manner in which they have done it. It’s quite common for players to trot our a line about the great spirit in a team which then goes out to prove in their next game that this is anything but the case , but it’s manifestly true of this Welsh side. Post match interviews with team members nearly always referenced this point, but it was classy of Neil Taylor to ask that team group photos taken after the game be taken with the supporters ,who have followed them to some pretty far flung parts over the last year or so, in the background.

I shouldn’t forget Chris Coleman either, who, just as he has done throughout the campaign, got things right with a dignified post match interviews in which he went out of his way to mention the influence of his predecessor Gary Speed – I hope that somehow, somewhere, he is aware of what happened last night.

Finally, a quick word about the Under 21 side who maintained their promising start to their latest Euro qualifying campaign with a 0-0 draw away to top seeds Denmark on Friday. They have a couple of home games in North Wales next month during the International break set aside for the Play Offs for Euro 2016 – their seniors won’t have to bother with them, but it would be good to see them try to maintain their momentum with a friendly somewhere.

Pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/

 

 

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10 Responses to Finally!

  1. Geoff Lewis says:

    Hi Paul,
    You are still a youngster at 60. As usual, a very good report, it brought back memories of Wales being undone by by the hand of God and poor refereeing and missed penalties. Paul, you have done your homework.
    Being 11 years older than you and 14 years of age at the time I can recall Wales being in the World Cup in 1958. It was a great time with Wales just being edged out by a Pele goal to make it 1-0 to Brazil.
    I think in the squad besides John Charles, Ivor Allchurch etc was an ex Cardiff player namely Ron Hewitt played inside forward for Cardiff a great trier and favourite with the crowds. I remember him always winding the opposition “up”.
    Good luck to Wales into Europe 2015.
    Regards
    Geoff

  2. Geoff Lewis says:

    Getting carried away old age should read 2016

  3. Dai Woosnam says:

    Thanks Paul, for your reports on all the Welsh qualifying games.
    I too, also congratulate the Welsh squad. But at the risk of seeming a Jeremiah, I am not fully convinced Wales will get out of their group in France. And even if we are drawn in the weakest group there…with the likes of Northern Ireland, Iceland and Estonia/Turkey as possible group members!
    Just not direct enough for my liking. Did not test Begovic much yesterday.
    Give me a goal like Ireland’s winner against the Germans.
    I am still on a high from that Shane Long goal.
    One long ball took three defenders out, and Shane finished with aplomb.
    The ball did all the work.
    And now a word to Geoff.
    Yes I too recall Ron Hewitt with much affection. The best regular penalty taker I ever saw playing for City.. Never missed. Always the same place: high to the goalkeeper’s left. Richard Statto Holt may be able to tell me if I am right re his 100% rate at Ninian Park.
    I cannot google* something else re Ron Hewitt, because when I click another app (like Google) on this iPad, I invariably lose all my composed text when I get back to Mauve & Yellow !!!
    So I will take a flyer here, and say that my memory tells me that Ron died a few hours before the terrible events of 9/11.
    [And what is that supposed to prove Dai?]
    Well…nothing. Why does it have to prove anything? Just one of those strange facts I have in my head.
    I guess though, dates of death always fascinate me.
    Take Geoffrey Howe just dying. Can it be a coincidence that he dies within a day or two of his great adversary Denis Healey? The man who famously said of his criticism that it was “like being savaged by a dead sheep” !?
    Will sign off now. Thanks again Paul for all the reports during the qualifying games.

    * deliberate lower case.
    Kindest,
    Dai.

  4. The other Bob Wilson says:

    Thank you both for your replies.
    Regarding Ron Hewitt. He gained five caps (which all came in 1958) and scored one goal for Wales. His debut came against Israel in what I presume was one of the games we played against them to qualify for the tournament. He was in the Wales squad for Sweden, but did not feature in the first two games – his first chance came in the 0-0 draw with the competition hosts which ended the “regular” fixtures in Group C and he kept his place in the team for both the Play Off match with Hungary and the Quarter Final with Brazil.
    Dai, your memory is not quite spot on as to when Ron died – it was twelve days after 9/11 according to Wikipedia.
    One other thing about Wales’ 1958 adventure. Apparently, when Mel Charles arrived home from the tournament and got out of his train at Swansea station he was greeted by a friend with the words “Hello Mel, I’ve not seen you for a while – been on holiday have you?”! Youngsters today would be amazed that Wales’ participation in one of the biggest sporting tournaments in the world could pass by unnoticed by some – in fact, as someone who was 2 at the time, I’m amazed by it!

  5. Dai Woosnam says:

    Thanks, Paul, for putting me right re Ron’s date of departure from this world.
    I remember reading an obit at the time and thinking “golly he leaves this world with the thought in his head that Armageddon has arrived!”. And this morphed 14 years later into me thinking of him dying just BEFORE the cataclysmic event …instead of just after.
    Still, I should not be too hard on myself, eh? After all, I can leave that option to my many critics! (Weak joke!)
    No, I should be proud of my memory! It is pretty good for 68. It works in all the IMPORTANT aspects…that is to say that I remembered this morning to put toothpaste on my toothbrush and not Nivea Cream, and put my socks on before I put on my shoes.
    And it works with laser-like forensic intensity re the summer of 1958.
    I had just passed the “11 Plus” exam to the local Dotheboys Hall. That summer of 58 is etched in my memory in exquisite detail.
    And trust me, there was mega publicity in Wales for the World Cup. Us kids could talk about little else.
    Now, we never got our first telly until the late autumn of 1958, so I cannot say with 100% certainty that the games were not televised live. But I would bet my shirt on the fact that they were not.
    So, my eyebrows were raised somewhat listening to Bobby Gould on Talksport last Friday night, say that he watched the Pele winner live on his family’s “12 inch TV with its grainy picture”, in his boyhood home in Coventry.
    Is he fibbing? No, not really…for he genuinely BELIEVES that he did.
    But trust me…he did not.
    Had the games been televised live, I would have made a beeline for friends’ houses with TVs: that was how I saw the FA Cup Finals from 1955-58 live.
    For the record, I heard the Brazil game broadcast live on the Welsh Home Service with Alun Williams commentating. I heard it in a house next door to the first family home of my late parents, at 17 Troedyrhiw, Porth, Rhondda. The family (Mr and Mrs Blake) had been next door neighbours of my folks.
    Amazing that I have never been back to that street in the 57 years since! Not only are the Blakes there no more, another thing that will have gone was a massive piece of painted graffiti. In white paint on a wall at the bottom of the hilly street, were these words in big letters: “Welcome Home Sid and Alec”.
    On inquiring, it appeared that these were two young men from the street, who had survived the hell of WW2, to make it back to the UK (and Porth) from POW camps in Germany.
    But enough of my memories. I can bore for Britain and get at least a bronze or even a silver!
    Now, before signing off, let me say Paul that I laughed heartily at the Mel Charles anecdote in your last comment above.
    Why?
    Because I reckon it is a sublimely droll joke: an example of Swansea humour at its best.
    How come?
    Well…the guy asks Mel if he has been on holiday, precisely BECAUSE of all the World Cup ballyhoo throughout Wales at the time! It was impossible for anyone to escape it.
    Hence the joke. A bit like that High Court Judge at the height of Beatlemania famously asking “Who are The Beatles?”
    Kindest,
    Dai.

  6. Wonderfully expressed and incisive comments as usual from everyone. Looking back, as I tend to do, the 1958 team was certainly “a golden generation”. Jack Kelsey of Arsenal in goal was like a bullet from a gun when he came out to throw himself at an opponent’s feet. Stuart Williams (WBA) and Mel Hopkins were both excellent full backs, and we even had a couple of steady Cardiff wing-halves in the squad (Derek Sullivan and Colin Baker). There was also Dave Bowen of Arsenal as captain (who, as I’ve written before) grew up in my very street in Pontypridd). At inside forward was the incomparable Ivor Allchurch, with Roy Vernon also available as a striker. On the left wing was the veritable flying machine of Cliff Jones who was also blessed with outstanding heading ability coming onto high crosses at the far post. Terry Medwin on the right wing was no mean performer, too. Then there were the brothers Mel Charles and John Charles, both equally at home as centre-half or centre-forward. John Charles, in particular, was absolutely world class – and a gentleman to boot. Though “to boot” is perhaps the wrong term – because that’s what happened to him 1958.
    Most of the players I have mentioned would walk into today’s Welsh team, but my big fear is that our one world class star, namely Gareth Bale, will suffer the same fate as John Charles against Hungary in 1958 and be kicked and kicked and kicked, until he is unavailable for selection. I hope I’m wrong but referees need to be warned!
    I enjoyed the anecdote of Mel Charles being greeted when he arrived back in Swansea after the World Cup, but I totally agree with Dai Woosnam that it was typical ironic wit rather than lack of knowledge that underlay his welcome back. Incidentally, when he joined Arsenal (so I was once told) the players were given a long lecture on what used to be called “the wall pass”. Mel might have missed the point, however, because when the players were then told to go and practise the wall pass, he ran to the end of the training ground and practised kicking the ball AGAINST A WALL!

  7. The other Bob Wilson says:

    You and Dai have the advantage of me Anthony because you saw the 1958 team play. Certainly, John Charles and Ivor Allchurch would be realistic candidates for the title of best Wales player ever and I know my Dad rated Jack Kelsey very highly, while Cliff Jones’ role as a very prominent member of the Spurs double team is a testament to his quality.
    Derrick Sullivan had left the club by the time I started watching City – I saw Colin Baker play a few times, but it was ten years later when I worked with him for a year in Cardiff Law Courts that I became a confirmed fan of the man. Colin was a lovely bloke who would only talk about his football days if asked and although, as a 20 year old City fanatic, I could have done that with him all of the time, I found him to be intelligent and interesting company anyway and so I never really got to bore him with endless questions about City – he was probably the best friend I made in my time in that job.
    I’m going to defend the current team a bit though – you acknowledge Gareth Bale as a world class player, but I’d say Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams and Joe Allen would join him as being good enough to get into most, if not all, Welsh sides I’ve seen. Going 575 minutes without conceding a goal and ten competitive games unbeaten are outstanding achievements for a country like Wales and, although it would have been good to see some more attacking sharpness, this squad is as spirited and resilient as they come.
    Regarding the Mel Charles remark, once again you and Dai have the advantage of me because you not only lived through the 1958 campaign, but also are old enough to remember it. However, I read the comment in two separate places. I can’t recall who told the story the first time, but it was Cliff Jones who recounted it a second time and, on both occasions, it was offered as an illustration that the team’s exploits had hardly captured the imagination of those back home. Now, to me, what you and Dai say makes sense and sounds like it could be the correct interpretation to put on what was said, but it seems that a few who were around at the time have got the wrong end of the stick as well.

  8. The other Bob Wilson says:

    59 and three quarters please Geoff!!

  9. Dai Woosnam says:

    Excuse these belated words.
    Just put my brain into gear and realised that Bobby Gould was talking cobblers when he said on Talksport that he “saw the whole game in grainy black and white on the family television in Coventry”.
    How do I know the 1958 Brazil game was not broadcast LIVE ?
    Easy.
    I recall the Joe Meek TELSTAR single that got to the top of the hit parade in the early 1960s. That celebrated the launch of the Telstar satellite…circa 1962.
    I remember watching a special programme to mark its launch on our 14 inch TV at home. And seeing a ghostly live picture of Calais Town Hall…and then BOSTON in Massachusetts, and thinking – along with Richard Dimbleby – that it was a miracle.
    So live pictures from Sweden in 1958 were just not technically possible.
    Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield will not be surprised that Bobby Gould got a bit carried away with this story…I seem to recall that when he was Wales boss, they were his biggest critics, and they always suggested that he was not telling it as it was.
    I guess he got that job on the strength of living in Portishead…!!
    DW.

  10. The other Bob Wilson says:

    I can still remember how I took an awful lot of persuading that Bobby Gould had been appointed as Wales manager Dai. It took the person who told me around two hours to get me to acknowledge that they weren’t winding me up – to be fair to Gould, his club management career up to then had been quite successful, but he struck me as totally unsuited to managing at international level, especially when Wales had prominent players like Hughes, Rush, Saunders, Giggs, Speed and Southall who had probably never encountered anything like him before in their careers. There are plenty of good managers who have their eccentricities, but I think a manager of Wales who arranges friendlies against Leyton Orient (we lost!) and Cwmbran Town who brings himself on as a sub in the latter at the age of fifty odd is taking things a bit far!

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