Wales, Terry Yorath and the world-class nearly men

Wales, Terry Yorath and the world-class nearly men

JUNE 20, 2016. STADE DE TOULOUSE. It was minutes after Wales had truly announced themselves as a genuine force at Euro 2016. A resounding 3-0 win over Russia that was as stylish as it was emphatic had just seen Chris Coleman’s team finish top of the group. And for all the gusty strains of Don’t Take Me Home and Men of Harlech filling the air, I stood silently staring into space, joyous disbelief etched across my face. 

On the way out, in the concrete bowl’s concourse, I literally bumped into another fan – a complete stranger – who wore the exact same expression as me. We recognised each other’s mutual bewilderment. He embraced me and, almost crying, said: “All these years … all these years and the shit we’ve been through. It’s all finally worth it.”

Before 2016’s staggering summer, being a Wales supporter required levels of faith, resilience, even a sense of masochism, that would challenge the most resolute of Jesuit priests. Fans of all but the most successful teams will feel their own side is persistently the victim of poor refereeing or bad luck, but Wales’ contemporary footballing history is so littered with narrow misses and strange injustices, as well as genuine tragedy, that it was hardly surprising that the delirious fan in Toulouse should display such emotion as he hugged me.

In seven out of eight qualifying campaigns from the 1974 World Cup through to the 1988 European Championship, Wales would reach their final game needing a win or draw to progress. They failed every time. Even when Wales finished their fixtures on top of their group, as happened in the qualifiers for the 1984 Euros in France, Yugoslavia pipped them with an injury-time winner in their final match played a month later.

But two campaigns of the early 1990s perhaps exemplify the Welsh qualifying curse more than all others. With Terry Yorath as national manager, a country fell in love with its team, and behemoths of world football were toppled on some crazy Cardiff nights. And, for many long-suffering fans, nothing symbolises that hoodoo more than the image of a ball hitting the crossbar and rebounding high into the autumn sky.

Terry Yorath was appointed in 1988. It was a controversial decision by the FA of Wales having recently sacked the popular Mike England who had taken the team so close to four major tournaments. Before Yorath’s appointment, the FAW had sounded out managerial legends Bob Paisley and Brian Clough, the latter of whom was especially keen to take on an international job. The cash-strapped FAW, however, could only offer the role on a part-time basis and Clough’s club Nottingham Forest swiftly extinguished any hopes of the maverick manager casting his spell on Welsh football.

So, after the protracted fluttering of eyelids at two giants of the game, Wales instead turned to the largely unproven manager of Fourth Division Swansea City. Yorath’s appointment was greeted by fans with little more than a collective shrug of shoulders.

In Yorath’s favour was a distinguished playing career for Wales and at club level for Leeds. Capped 59 times – including 42 appearances as captain – he had a reputation as a passionate and sometimes ferocious midfielder. Yorath was no stranger to qualification disappointment himself. He actually remains the only Wales skipper to lead his team to the top of a qualifying group when his Welsh side reached the last eight of the 1976 European Championship.

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In those days, the quarter-finals were played on a two-legged basis with only four teams in the final tournament. Wales faced a strong Yugoslavia team, losing the away match 2-0 before a brutal, controversial encounter in Cardiff ended 1-1 and another dream was over. For Yorath, defeat was doubly tough as it was his missed penalty with the scores at 1-1 which ended any remaining hope of turning the tie around.

The Wales team Yorath inherited in 1988 contained some world-class talent, extraordinary for such a small country. Neville Southall was acknowledged as one of Europe’s best goalkeepers and his Everton captain Kevin Ratcliffe was a ball-playing centre-half ahead of his time, while there were few attacking partnerships in the world to rival the front pairing of Ian Rush and Mark Hughes. Rush, at the time, was enduring a difficult season at Juventus and would soon return to his beloved Liverpool, while Hughes was also plying his trade on the continent, on a successful loan spell with Bayern Munich, before himself returning home to Manchester United.

But a small nation’s playing pool is, naturally, limited and the elite players shared a dressing room with journeymen and lower league regulars. The Independent would later describe Yorath’s charges as “a hotch-potch of disparate talents.”

Yorath’s first qualifying campaign, for the 1990 World Cup, was a disappointment even by Wales’ standards. In a group containing reigning European champions the Netherlands along with eventual World Cup winners West Germany, it was always an impossible task to qualify. But while just a single point from two games against an ordinary Finland side raised some doubts over Yorath’s authority, the team’s resolute performances versus the Germans and the Dutch, albeit without victory, demonstrated a steeliness that boded well for the future.

The home fixture against West Germany heralded a new dawn for Welsh football. Previously, Wales had played all home matches at its three professional club grounds in Cardiff, Wrexham and Swansea, all of them hampered by poor facilities and limited capacities. For the game against the Germans, the FAW made the radical decision to switch the game to the home of Welsh rugby – the National Ground, Cardiff Arms Park. It was a development treated with suspicion by some long-in-the-tooth supporters but, as well as increasing crowd numbers, the change of ground also diluted the parochial inter-club rivalries that occasionally seeped into Wales’ international nights.

Come the qualifying campaign for Euro 92, Yorath successfully canvassed for all home matches to take place at the Arms Park. It was a bold move and it paid off handsomely. The next three years would see the stadium become a fortress, its unique atmosphere propelling Wales to new heights. Yorath’s team was going to need all the support it could get after finding itself in a tough group with Belgium, Luxembourg and the now reunified world champions Germany. Only one team would qualify.

With just six games to play, a confident start in the opening match at home to Belgium was vital. An underdog’s best chance is to race quickly out of the blocks and then pray that momentum might see them through. This was a strong if ageing Belgian team that had been unfortunate not to go beyond the last 16 at the recent Italia 90. That team of Enzo Scifo, Eric Gerets and Franky van der Elst was a match for any in Europe and so Wales started second favourites. Scifo was mesmeric in the first half and pulled Wales’ midfield of Peter Nicholas and Barry Horne apart. It was his neat pass and Bruno Versavel’s long-range shot that gave Belgium a deserved one-goal lead. But something was stirring in Yorath’s team.

Veteran striker Jan Ceulemans later admitted that while his teammates knew all about the threat of Rush and Hughes, they were caught unawares by the third member of Wales’ attacking triumvirate, the pacey and ever-willing Dean Saunders. Saunders turned the game, scoring once and providing assists for both his fellow strikers to give the Welsh a thrilling 3-1 win. It was an all-important opening victory that instilled a sense of belief in the team and its raucous support, now firmly settled in its new home.

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Yorath deserved great credit for setting up his Wales team in a continental 3-4-1-2 formation, with the cultured Ratcliffe at sweeper, raiding full-backs, and then Hughes tucked in behind Rush and Saunders. It was the perfect system for fitting the world-class players into the side without forsaking rigid defensive organisation.

Next up were two away matches. A scrappy win in Luxembourg was followed by an excellent 1-1 draw away to Belgium that displayed the growing maturity in Yorath’s team. Halfway through the campaign and Wales were perched proudly at the top of the group, but next up were two fixtures against the world’s best team.

Germany were world champions and boasted some of that decade’s greatest players with the likes of Lothar Matthäus, Rudi Völler and Jürgen Klinsmann. Wales were the group’s upstarts but most observers now expected Germany to put them firmly in their place. Not Terry Yorath, however, who declared the day before the match he believed Wales would win by a single goal.

A fervent crowd packed into the Arms Park, boisterous and expectant. For Wales fans it was one of those rare nights when their team was on form and one of the world game’s powerhouses came rolling into town. We were all too pleased to play David to the German Goliath.

The players responded to the electric atmosphere, harrying and pressing their opponents at every opportunity in an early unconstructed form of gegenpressing. The usually assured German players looked distinctly off rhythm as the men in red snapped and snarled at their heels. Passes went awry and chances were missed, each one to ironic cheers from the crowd, and Wales started to create some opportunities of their own.

Then, in the second half, Thomas Berthold lost his cool and needlessly kicked out at Ratcliffe. A red card saw the Germans down to 10 men. Wales sensed blood, and when Paul Bodin found space in the left-back position, the whole crowd roared for him to launch it in the direction of Ian Rush who was peeling away from Guido Buchwald. 

Bodin did something better, though, and arched a perfect pass – like a quarterback’s long throw – into Rush’s path. Rush dashed ahead of Buchwald like a thoroughbred against a pit pony and arrowed the ball past Bodo Illgner into the German net. It was the first time I remember cheering so hard – the whole crowd cheering so hard – that the entire world went silent, just for a moment, before my ears popped back to hear that stunning, ecstatic roar once again.

The heroics of Southall kept Völler, Klinsmann and company out and Wales nervously held on for possibly the greatest victory in the country’s history. Yorath’s prophecy had come true and Wales were three points clear at the top of the table.

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Before the reverse fixture against Germany, Wales packed the Arms Park once more for a glamour friendly against Brazil. And once again, more accomplished opposition failed to deal with the intensity of an international night in Cardiff, a Saunders goal giving Wales another famous 1-0 win.

Confidence was high going into the away match in Nuremberg, yet the outcome could not have been more different than in Cardiff. German supporters weren’t used to seeing Die Mannschaft challenged for qualification and it was said that the Frankenstadion could have been sold out four times over, such was the demand. This time the upstarts were well and truly put in their place as some appalling defending saw Wales thrashed 4-1. The only ray of light was the late appearance of 17-year-old debutant Ryan Giggs, becoming his country’s youngest ever international.

Wales concluded their campaign with a 1-0 win at home to Luxembourg, meaning Germany were left with two games to play and had to win both to finish top. With one of those being away to Belgium, there was still some lingering Welsh hope but, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. Germany comfortably won against Belgium and Luxembourg, so pipped Wales by a single point.

To torment Welsh fans further, there was briefly talk of Yugoslavia’s place at the finals – following their expulsion from the tournament – going to the runner-up with the strongest record across all the group tables, which would have been Wales. The logical decision, of course, was to award Yugoslavia’s place to the team that finished second in their group, and so it was Denmark who went in as the wildcard and made history by winning the trophy, leaving Wales to ponder what could have been.

Although it was another tournament without Wales, Yorath had restored genuine hope that this was a team capable of something special. Although there’s always been a small but passionate support who follow Wales like a club through thick and thin, the wider public seems to perennially fall in and out of love with the national team. The valiant near-miss to such lofty opponents, and the staging of games at the Arms Park, seemed to strengthen the ties between public and team, and so the road to the 1994 World Cup was viewed with real optimism.

For all the talk of positive starts to qualifying campaigns, few could have begun as disastrously as Wales’ for USA 94. At half-time of the opening match in Bucharest, Wales found themselves 5-0 down to Romania. Gheorghe Hagi strolled through a tired-looking Wales midfield like a dad playing with his children in the garden. It was something of a miracle that further humiliation was avoided with a Rush goal making the final score 5-1.

Fortunately for Wales, the qualifying group proved to be a dogfight with the four top teams scrapping points off one another throughout the campaign, meaning Welsh wins over the group minnows Faroe Islands and Cyprus kept them in contention and restored some pride. However, a loss to old foes Belgium in Brussels saw Yorath’s team lose ground, meaning the home game against Paul van Himst’s Red Devils became a win-or-bust encounter.

Eighteen months on from his debut in Germany, Giggs had been carefully integrated into the international set-up, perhaps as much a demand of his club manager Alex Ferguson as of Terry Yorath’s choosing, earning just five caps, all off the bench. But Yorath knew this Belgium game was no time for caution and started the 19-year-old for the first time. An enthusiastic crowd was baying for Giggs’ inclusion and the announcement of his name was cheered as if a goal had been scored.

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The Wales team rose to the occasion of another high-stakes night under the Cardiff lights. Giggs was like a greyhound let off its leash, a firebolt of pent-up energy demanding the ball and taking on his opposing full-back at every opportunity. For all that he would achieve in his career, there was no more beautiful sight than the teenage Giggs in full flow, his willowy featherweight frame skipping and gliding past more agricultural opponents; a throwback to a more innocent era. When he whipped a superb left-footed free-kick past Michel Preud’homme in the Belgian goal, the Arms Park erupted. A superstar had announced his arrival on the international stage and Wales went on to a 2-0 win.

By the time of the final round of matches, Wales found themselves in another of those all-or-nothing situations. Beat Romania at home and they would be at the World Cup Finals for the first time since 1958. For all the last-gasp disappointments of the previous two decades, there was something special in the air that night. The nation was in love with the team and the streets around Cardiff in the build-up were filled with beer-fuelled singing and chants of “USA, USA!”  Surely, thisfinally would be Wales’ time.

Just like in Bucharest, Romania were imperious in the first half and deserved to be leading by more than the one Hagi goal at the break. But the second half saw Wales fight their way back in front of a crowd as noisy and raucous as any I have experienced before or since. The Guardian beautifully described “an amazing atmosphere that mixed fear, pride and desire”, and it was those adjectives that neatly summed up Dean Saunders’ equaliser with the striker bundling the ball in after Eric Young and Gary Speed stretched every straining sinew in their necks to keep a goalmouth scramble alive.

When that goal went in, the previously composed Romanians began to wilt. Heads dropped and teammates argued with one another. The volume increased still further as all of Wales felt victory was in sight.

Almost straight from the restart, Wales charged towards the Romanian goal, red shirts powered forward by the wall of sound behind them. Jeremy Goss arched a pass into the Romania area, their nervous defenders dropping deep but no-one taking responsibility to deal with the Wales attack. The dashing Speed nipped the ball from Dan Petrescu then went down under the Romanian’s challenge. The referee blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty spot.

The fans roared; Saunders punched the air as if the goal was already scored. Wales were so on top, so inspired, it felt like the fates were finally working in their favour. The atmosphere, the spirit – it was an unstoppable force. And then everyone turned to the blond figure jogging up the pitch to take the penalty.

If any man epitomised Yorath’s spirited Wales team, it was the left-back, Paul Bodin. An elegant attacking full-back, he had a phenomenal goalscoring record for a defender at unfashionable Swindon – at that time enjoying their only season in the Premier League – and had been regular penalty-taker at both club and international level. In fact, just six months earlier, it was Bodin’s penalty in a play-off final at Wembley that took Swindon into the top flight for the first time. He was a man used to dealing with pressure.

As Bodin positioned the ball, there was no hush in the crowd as you might imagine: the mood was loud, electric. Expectant. Then the run up, and … slam! I remember watching from the West Upper Stand, the opposite end from the Romania goal. There was that horrible moment – the opposite of the glorious silence I’d experienced when Rush scored against Germany – when everything went quiet as we struggled to comprehend whether that really was the ball flying high into the sky off the woodwork.

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Suddenly, the action felt distant, our brains taking longer to process what we were seeing. If I blinked and opened my eyes again, perhaps I might realise I was mistaken and see the net rippling and the Wales players celebrating – but no, what I’d seen was real, the ball rebounding with such power that it landed safely clear of the opposition penalty area.

There was no time to dwell on the miss. Watching back now, the camera doesn’t train in on Bodin, head in hands, as you’d expect – the match continues at such a frantic pace, there isn’t the chance. But the sound of the crowd says it all; the hopeful hubris replaced by a guttural scream of desperation as the fans realise that perhaps the best chance has gone. Actually, to the fans’ credit, the noise picks up again, but  more in hope than expectation.

The Welsh players piled forward but the final nail in the coffin was delivered by Florin Răducioiu’s 82nd-minute winner on the counter-attack which signalled a 2-1 defeat.

It’s hard to say if Wales failed to qualify because of Bodin’s miss – after all, the Romanians grabbed a second goal – but it was obvious Wales were in the ascendancy when the penalty was awarded and the opposition appeared defeated. Ilie Dumitrescu has since admitted he felt his team would have been finished had Wales taken the lead. The dream was over: this wasn’t to be our time, after all. Wales had never experienced such deflation after a football match. Gary Speed called it “the most painful match of [his] career”. 

“I was devastated by it, to be honest,” he continued, “and I wish I’d handled it better because it affected me for a long time afterwards.” Terry Yorath tells how he broke down in tears at 4am as the realisation set in.

It felt a cruel blow, but one that was put into context when a supporter was killed on the final whistle by a military flare that shot across the ground and into the crowd. A thrilling but frightening feature of that night was the number of fireworks and flares, eventually resulting in tragic consequences. Football isn’t as important as life and death – something Terry Yorath understood more than most, having lost his own teenage son to a heart condition just the previous year. In fact, Yorath’s achievements with Wales are all the more remarkable and admirable given the personal torment he was going through during that period.

The Romania defeat was a watershed for Welsh football. Shamefully, Yorath was soon sacked by his employers who said they couldn’t offer him the job full-time, and Wales slipped into the doldrums. For the next 20 years, they would come close to a major tournament just once.

Only after qualification was secured for Euro 2016 could the ghosts of failures past be finally laid to rest. Terry Yorath’s early-90s heroes never quite made it to the game’s top table, but Welsh supporters still look back fondly at a brief four-year period when hope was restored and the old Arms Park became a bastion of invincibility. And, as articulated by that fan in Toulouse, past disappointments have only made recent success all the sweeter 

By Nick Davies  

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