Wales, the European Championships and me.

30 06 2012

The European Championships are still going on, people have written lots about them. Here are some more words, my words, about my connection to them……

The year is Nineteen Seventy Six, the summer’s hot, the queen is a year away from her silver jubilee and Punk is beginning to make its presence felt…………

Nineteen Seventy Six is a year with a certain personal significance. Firstly it was the year of my birth, secondly it was the year that Wales last qualified for something. Have a look here for a video clip if you don’t believe me about the second part.

Unfortunately I wasn’t born until 6 months after the quarter final matches so Wales have never qualified for anything in my lifetime. Of course I’ve seen them nearly qualify but that’s not the point. I’VE NEVER SEEN WALES EFFING QUALIFY, FOR ANYTHING.

I’ve never felt the momentary pride of seeing Kevin Ratcliffe, Barry Horne or Gary Speed leading out Wales’ team at a tournament, I’ve never had the chance to fail at buying tickets for a Welsh tournament match, I’ve never had the chance to see Joe Ledley on a can of Carling.

I long to be whipped into a frothy state of anticipation by the media. I long to ride the wave of hype but these almost desperate longings have yet to be satisfied. I’ve been denied things that other football fans take for granted,in short the world has jibbed me. If you’ve sensed an air of justified bitterness you’ve sensed the keystone of Wales’ cultural architecture.

This post is my personal journey through the European Championship with Wales. If you have ever wondered why the name of Wales has never been seen during the European Championships read on Macduff, read on.

When I think about Wales and the European Championship in my lifetime (A.K.A. Wales and the European Championship since 1976) a circuitous journey comes to mind. I see a journey that reaches the outskirts of success, has a weekend one night in the town centre of despair and endures the traffic jam of incredulity. Here’s my version of that journey.

The fallout from the Yugoslavia quarter final was the first event on the journey. There was a “bit of trouble” during the match in Cardiff so UEFA placed a ban on Wales playing within 100 miles of Cardiff for four years. The ban infamously led to Joe Jordan’s antics at Anfield in 1977.

For the first European Championships of my life, Italia ’80, Wales didn’t come close to qualifying. I wasn’t really aware of something called “The European Championship” at that age so this didn’t bother me. For the record Wales finished third behind W.Germany and Turkey.

For the Euro ’84 qualifying draw Wales were placed in Pot 2 (with Austria, Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Netherlands, East Germany and  Hungary). This obviously meant that Wales weren’t too bad in 1982. We ended up sharing a group with Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Norway. Wales had a bit about them in this campaign, as the match in Yugoslavia shows;

Even though Wales had a very good campaign – we only lost one match against Bulgaria – we still failed to qualify by a point. Those pesky Yugoslavs finished above Wales. I’m glad that I was too young to remember this qualifying campaign.

The qualifiers for Euro ’88 were the first qualifiers that I distinctly remember. By this point in my life I had actually gone to see Wales play (Wales v Spain, 1985) but for some unfathomable reason I didn’t actually go to watch any home games in this group, even though two out of them were played in Wrexham. It’s one of the gnawing regrets of my childhood. My friend Gareth went to both games – a 4-0 victory versus Finland and a 1-1 draw with Czechoslovakia – and he likes to remind me of this fact at every given opportunity. I tried to make up for missing the matches by buying the programmes from a programme shop near Anfield but it was a hollow gesture.

Wales finished 2 points behind Denmark. It was going so well until Wales lost their last two games. At this time this was typical Wales, we were going to qualify until something turned up. Unfortunately history taunts the present with its pattern of narrow misses.

In 1987 I wasn’t aware quite how football worked. One of the Welsh scorers against Finland was unknown to me before the match; Port Vale’s Andy Jones. Even though Andy played for “lowly Port Vale” he had scored in international football. I naturally reasoned that Andy must be brilliant and that it would only be a matter of time before he was playing in the first division. He signed for Charlton but it didn’t work out. Where once you could be forgotten, in today’s blame culture you can’t live things down (See Charlton’s entry).

For years I wondered what had become of him. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t in Shoot and Match all the time like Ian Rush or Dean Saunders. Andy was just like them; he’d scored an international goal. I was so innocent in the ways of football, I knew nothing of form, unfulfilled promise or buckling under the weight of expectation.

At this age I must have been attached to regularity and routine as I remember feeling distinctly miffed that Wales had swapped adidas for hummel. I couldn’t help but feel that the chevrons in the programme were a harbinger about things going in the wrong direction.

For the next draw, Euro ’92, Wales had slipped back into Pot 4 but people weren’t worried as there were major late 20th century events to contend with; it was the last draw before the break-up of Eastern Europe.

Wales’ group reflected those changes. Directly after the draw Wales were in a group 5 teams with both East and West Germany. By the time the matches started there were only 4 teams because East and West Germany had unified. Incidentally this was the first draw to include new countries (San Marino and the Faroe Isles) for several years.

The Euro’ 92 qualifiers were the first regularly televised (on BBC Wales) Welsh internationals that I was able to watch on TV so this was the first campaign that I remember quite a lot about. By this time Wales were playing all their home games in Cardiff and I grew to like the sight of the Arms Park at night.

We started our matches with a great home win against Belgium and I remember thinking that this was a good sign. Then came the 1-0 away win in Luxembourg that I ran home from a paper round to catch. Apart from Mark Hughes’ goal the name of Luxembourg’s Roby Langers was quite interesting.

Next up was Belgium away during a school trip to France. Thankfully there were a couple of Wales fans in my chalet and one of them had a battery powered radio. On the Wednesday evening of the trip three of us huddled around the radio. All we needed was a featherlight touch on the dial.

We tweaked the dial until we found anything that sounded like a football match. Following Wales by radio on the continent wasn’t as easy as I’ve just made it sound. The crackly reception and our shaky grasp of foreign languages meant that we didn’t know if we were listening to Germany, France, Spain or even Italy. Chris put us all out of our misery with a phone call home; his Dad told us that Wales had drawn 1-1.

The next match was the big one; Germany at home. I recall this match was odd as there was a definite sense of belief that Wales could beat the world champions. I don’t remember the exact details of  how I came to this conclusion but BBC Wales’ news  must have been quite positive in the days leading up to the match, twitter was just a twisted dream in 1991.

When Matthaus limped off in the first half our chances of victory suddenly became greater. Big Nev’s gave us hope, his Llandudno upbringing writ large. Then Paul Bodin had the chance to launch a high pass forward. Ian Rush controlled the ball before hitting it past Bodo Illgner. The rest is history.

All we had to do was avoid defeat in Germany and we’d be at a major championship…..

There have been some infamous moments in Welsh international matches since 1976, Paul Bodin and Joe Jordan are two of the more well-known names in the hall of infamy, but the first infamous moment that I actually saw revolves around Gavin Maguire’s head. I can’t adequately describe how much distress hearing his name still causes me. Let’s start with South Wales Echo’s version;

“Wales went to Germany in November 1991 full of optimism after beating them in June. Under no pressure, Portsmouth defender Maguire headed back to goal – but straight to Rudi Voeller, who made it 2-0. Game over. Wales lost 4-1, Dean Saunders was sent off, Ryan Giggs made his debut and Maguire, replaced by Gary Speed at half-time, never wore Welsh red again”

Have a look for yourself if you can take it. (It’s from 3:25 onwards);

If only Maguire hadn’t made the backpass!! I’m sure that if he had just launched it Wales would have weathered the storm, as they say. If he’d have launched it I’m positive that the match would have remained at 1-0 into the second half. I’m certain that in the last twenty minutes Paul Bodin would have had at least one chance to knock the ball up to Ian Rush and I’m certain this would have led to an equaliser. Wales would have had the point they needed and we would have been in Sweden during the next summer. But Maguire made that backpass so there you are……….at least the match was the Wales debut for Ryan Giggs.

In the end Wales finished the group one point behind Germany. The pattern of narrow misses continues!!!!!

Now let us turn to the Euro ’96 qualifiers. This was the first draw where the full force of the wind of change whistled through the letterbox. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union collapsed and the three countries become twenty. The next few years were an exotic adventure for intrepid fans and viewers of televised football.

In hindsight this was a watershed time for Wales; ever since this enlargement of UEFA’s membership Wales have struggled to qualify. It’s all due to the maths; before 1994 Wales could have faced 3 technically good teams; Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the USSR. After 1994 there were at least 10 technically good teams in the same area, and 10 other teams that were also capable of playing good football.

Anyway back to the story….. At the time of the draw for the Euro ’96 the USA ’94 qualifiers were still fresh in our minds so our prospects appeared to be quite good; Wales had Hughes, Rush, Giggs, Speed, Saunders, Southall…………..

Wales had very nearly qualified for USA ’94 so we  were back up to Pot 2…………..

The draw told us that our group was going to be a piece of piss …………..

The  only team that were any good were Germany  and we’d beaten them recently. Bulgaria didn’t have the highest profile, Albania were just odd and the other teams were the “forgotten” parts of the Soviet empire…………

Then the World Cup happened and it turned out that Bulgaria were actually rather good. Then we started the qualifiers and it turned out that these “forgotten” parts of the Soviet Empire were actually handy at football. By the end of December 1994, roughly 3 and a half months after the beginning of the qualifiers, Wales had lost three out four matches;  Bulgaria at home, Moldova away and Georgia away.

Witnessing three defeats was bad enough but the results made it far worse; Wales lost 5-0 in Georgia and 3-2 in Moldova. The fact the Welsh team still contained most of the team that nearly qualified for USA ’94; Rush, Hughes, Speed, Giggs, Goss, Southall et at, made the situation even more depressing. Mind you when the opposition score goals like Moldova did it’s no wonder you’ll lose;

On the day of the Georgia away match I had my very own “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’ moment, well apart from the fact that I didn’t know I had to avoid the result.

When I read the Daily Post and saw that the match was going to be broadcast at 3pm I assumed it would be live (there was no twitter in 1994). When I tried to find the latest football news on teletext at 2pm I received a horrible shock.  A stark headline announced Wales’ humiliation.

From what I remember of the match Georgi Kinkladze was rather good. One charming detail of the those two away matches was that they happened in the time before standardised coverage. These matches were the last to give me the feeling that I was actually watching football from a place that was far, far away. The grainy coverage, and commentary down a phone line, now feels magically exotic.

The best moments in this group were the two games against Germany. We only just lost in Cardiff and drew the away match thanks to Dean Saunders’ goal. The rest of the games made mostly horrible viewing. If I had to choose one thing that stood out I would plump for the second infamous moment of my time watching Wales; the international career of the hollywood actor Vincent Jones. Watch him tread on Georgi Kinkladze’s testicles;

This group was so wretched that even when we won, Moldova at home,  it felt meaningless. I watched that match whilst ducking in and out of the Llandudno F.C.’s clubhouse on a horribly wet night. I think Llandudno lost too.

The games against Bulgaria were particularly depressive; the Bulgarians slowly put us out of our misery with a deftness of touch that our players simply didn’t have. Our run of nearly qualifying was over; we’d finished bottom of a group containing Albania.

For the Euro 2000 campaign narrowly missing out on qualification seemed to be an unobtainable dream. The group began with “The spat”, perked up for a few games before ending in the now obligatory shambles. In these qualifiers Wales played matches away from Wales because the Arms Park was slowly becoming being turned in to the Millenium Stadium. Qualifiers also took place on Saturdays as well now.

Our first match was against Italy at Anfield and the weekend began with “The Spat”, a pointless waste of time that involved the new golden hope of the Welsh midfield, Robbie Savage, and Wales’ asinine manager Bobby Robert Gould.

Bobby Robert Gould  was the fucking idiot that once joked he should sign Tony Yeboah for Wales because Yeboah’s name sounded like an anagram of “Boyo”. On one hand Gould the dude took the Welsh national side on a PR tour of Wales, on the other Gould the wanker asked Rhyl to “play like Holland” because Wales were going to play Holland a fortnight later, Wales lost against Holland if you’re wondering.

When Gould dropped Savage it was another lead balloon for Wales’ fans. The atmosphere that Gould helped to foster found expression in the banner on the Kop that catalogued our massive drop in the world rankings. The banner spoke for all of us. We all wanted Gould to do one. During the match Wales flattered to deceive for half an hour before Italy took advantage of the obligatory defensive lapse. The second goal was a formality.

The inconsiderate bastards then decided to give us hope by winning the next two matches against Denmark;

and Belarus;

I managed to hear Welsh radio describe the Denmark match whilst I was in Oxford. Urban legend tells us that Nathan Blake wasn’t too happy about “keeping that nugget in a job.” After winning the matches Welsh football was on a high for months. We were happy for literally months, right up to the next match against Switzerland.

Needless to say we lost and they beat us without trying. We lost the next match, against Italy, too. Fortunately this was the last straw for the FAW and they sacked Gould. Nev Southall and Mark Hughes were named as joint-managers for the rest of the qualifiers.

We completed the campaign with two more defeats; against Denmark at Anfield ,where a bouncer called Stig Toftig scored a penalty, and Switzerland at the Racecourse, where the FAW charged fans 25 quid to see a dead rubber. (Incidentally this was the last qualifier to be played up north.) We also played away in Belarus but I can’t remember what happened, Wales may have won.  The best thing you can say about this campaign is that it only lasted 15 months. Sadly our run of nearly qualifying was definitely over.

I grew to know the Euro 2004 qualifiers like the back of my hand. We were in Pot D for the draw but hope had returned.  By the time of the matches Wales had been on an unbeaten run for nearly a year. We’d beaten Germany and avoided defeat against Croatia, Argentina and the Czech Republic.

The qualifiers commenced whilst I was returning from France. Wales won in Finland. Then we played Italy and famously won;

Then we beat Azerbaijan twice.

The first half the campaign was amazing (four straight wins) but the second half wasn’t so good (2 draws, 4 defeats). Things started to go wrong when the Serbia & Montenegro match was called off because of political instability. When we eventually played we lost. the abiding memory of this game was  a miraculous sliding clearance that denied Rob Earnshaw an equaliser .

Then we all went to Italy to be showered with piss and batteries. We did well for a hour; we held them to 0-0. After 90 minutes it was 4-0 to Italy. Four days later we drew against Finland and there was much cheering and whooping because we were in the play-offs. Unfortunately it wasn’t as good as it looked. Gareth and I realised that if we’d have beaten Finland we’d have been top of the group with one home match to play because Italy had drawn with Serbia & Montenegro. This was the reasonable point that John Toshack made at the time, and it was such a reasonable point that it led to the feud between Tosh and Savage et al.

We lost the last match against Serbia & Montenegro in a subdued Millennium stadium. Rather infuriatingly Wales finished 4 points behind Italy, meaning that if we’d  have won the last two games in the group we’d qualified automatically. Wales went into the play-offs and the less I say about Russia’s 1-0 aggregate victory the better. Let’s move before I remember that fucker Vadim Evseev, ooops too late.

When I think about this campiagn now I don’t feel pride, I feel empty. The joy of the good parts has been poisoned by a Welsh team that was seduced by their self-proclaimed brilliance. They insisted on a much vaunted “most professional approach in the history of Welsh Football” and then used it swallow their own hype and tell the doubters they didn’t have a clue. When I think of cloying siege mentality of Savage and the others. I shudder. Sav lad, you jibbed it, you jibbed it.

I went to most of the games in this qualifying campaign and it all felt really good at the time. In hindsight the campaign wasn’t really as good as it felt. To gain a taste of just how disappointing the campiagn was picture a magazine interview with Robbie Savage whilst he’s had one too many hubris cocktails. Imagine his humble opinion generator telling everyone that his Welsh team was definitely the greatest ever, imagine him posing like one of Charlie’s Angels on the front cover.

The Euro 2008 qualifiers were a little bit of nothing. The draw saw Wales in pot 5 and for the first time we were in a group of 7. We started off by getting jibbed in the Czech Republic; we fought back only for the ref to ignore the foul on Paul Jones for the Czech winner. Then there was possibly the most bizarre Welsh match I’ve ever been to; Wales lost 5-1 to Slovakia in Cardiff. In the match the Slovaks only had 5 shots. Cyprus at home was a Wednesday night of fun, there won’t be many times in your life when you’re called a Sheepshagger by a 3rd generation Greek cypriot from London.

Apart from the qualifier Ireland away was fun. I went to watch Shelborne on the Friday night and met Rhys and Ian for the first time. Dundalk fans thought we were the Soul Crew. During Saturday’s main event  I was so far away from the pitch the other end of the Croke Park was covered by a misty haze. We lost a wretched match and at some point during the evening I was told to “Fuck off back to England” by an effete moron.

The rest of the matches petered out. We beat San Marino twice , which was nice, drew 0-0 with the Czech Rep in Giggs’ last ever international and then beat Slovakia away (5-2) in another weird match. We lost to Germany at home in routine fashion before regaining a little pride with a 0-0 draw in Germany. There was also the worst Welsh defeat that I can remember; 3-1 away in Cyprus.

For the Euro 2012 qualifiers we’d gone back up to Pot 4 and drew England, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Montenegro. For roughly the first year this group was an exercise in futility. It opened with two 1-0 defeats (Montenegro away, Bulgaria home) and followed that up with two more defeats (4-1 against diving Switzerland in Basel and 2-0 against England at home). Then just as we feared being marooned at the bottom of the group it got better!! We beat Montenegro at home (2-1) then lost narrowly to England at Wembley (1-0) then won our last two games; Switzerland home, Bulgaria away. Things went from forlorn to finishing 3 points of second-placed Montenegro.

I would like to tell you more details about matches or experiences but thanks to having a job with fixed holidays I only managed to go to one match; England at home. I’ll say one thing about that match, I didn’t like being up close and personal with Ashley Cole. I only saw one match because UEFA made the decision to aid the glorious oligarchs of Europe by playing most of international matches on Fridays and Tuesdays.

Thanks to bullshit and twitter, it’s common knowledge that Wales are going to qualify for Brazil 2014. I’m told it stands to reason; in the last two qualifiers Wales managed to beat two unmotivated opponents.

At the end of this analysis I suppose you could say that Wales have had their ups and down. We were always “nearly qualifying” until the early 1990s, then we hid the skids until the early 2000s, when we nearly qualified once, then we were on the skids again.

You can chart Wales’ progress, and the course of European self-determination, in another way. In 1983 the Socialist Republic of Federal Yugoslavia beat Wales. In 2002 Serbia and Montenegro beat Wales. In 2011 Montenegro beat Wales. In other words Wales are being defeated by parts of Eastern Europe that are getting gradually smaller and smaller. I’m off to check the odds on Belgrade beating Wales by 2032.

PS. Gavin Maguire is now a hairdresser according to Wikipedia.

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