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The history of Welsh football is not a narrative that is littered with greatness. Just one major trophy, no team in the top division for 25 years & competition with the dominance (at least internationally) of rugby union. It isn't a record that inspires confidence. Yet the principality has produced many terrific players from the incomparable John Charles, through Ian Rush and Mark Hughes to the modern great that is Ryan Giggs. Additionally, from time to time the Welsh have had their moments of glory and here we celebrate 10 of those, both internationally and at club level.
As every schoolboy knows, the only team to take the FA Cup outside England was Cardiff back in 1927. Two years earlier they had lost in their first cup final against Sheffield United, but this time was to be different. This was the clubs, and Welsh domestic football's high point. Against an Arsenal side managed by the visionary Herbert Chapman, City won the match with a goal sixteen minutes from time by Hughie Ferguson. Ironically the goal was a result of a frankly hilarious mistake by Arsenal’s Welsh international keeper, Dan Lewis. In the aftermath of the fixture, Lewis blamed his jersey for the comedic scrambling that cost his side the match. For the Bluebirds however there was only joy. Captain Fred Keenor lifted the trophy and Wales had a famous victory over her big neighbour.
Video Clips: 1927 Cardiff v Arsenal (YouTube).
The country's 2nd placed team playing against the country's lowest placed team. No contest. About as much chance as winning as choosing a hat-trick of correct numbers on the Wintingo online casino roulette table. Surely ? One nil up with 20 minutes to go and all still looked rosy for George Graham's men, but then one of Wrexham's golden oldie's Mickey Thomas smashed home an unstoppable free-kick before Steve Watkin grabbed the winner. The players went mental and so did the fans - quite rightly invading the pitch to celebrate such a momentous occasion. Amongst some interesting post-match events, one of the best stories was ex-Gunners boss Terry O'Neill ringing up BBC Radio 5's phone-in show and bizarrely demonstrating how to be a bad loser, claiming that "Wrexham are joking if they think they've won that game".
Wales qualified for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden with a 4-0 aggregate victory over Israel in a play-off tie, a curious tale for another time. Wales had only finished second in the group to Czechoslovakia but they were given a second chance thanks to Middle Eastern politics. The Welsh had a number of very good players including keeper Jack Kelsey, Ivor Allchurch and Cliff Jones. But the real star was the great John Charles. Charles, whose brother Mel was a key defender for the team, was equally adept at centre half or centre forward, though it was as a forward where he garnered most of his reputation. The previous summer he had signed for Juventus and was going into the Swedish event on the back of a highly successful opening season. They were managed by Matt Busby’s number two, Jimmy Murphy who, earlier in the year, had the unforgiving but necessary task of rebuilding the Manchester United team in the wake of the Munich air disaster. Wales began with a creditable draw against Hungary. Not the great team of 1954, but still relatively formidable. John Charles scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw. In Stockholm Wales were only denied by an injury time goal for Mexico. Allchurch had laid on a 1st half advantage. They stayed in Stockholm for a final group game against the hosts and held on for a goalless draw. This tied them on 3 points with Hungary and in 1958 that meant another play-off to be squeezed in. In this match they came from behind to beat the rough-house Magyars 2-1 with 2nd half efforts from Allchurch and Medwin and thus create possibly the finest ever achievement for the national team. In the quarter final, Wales were deprived of the great Charles, kicked out of contention by the brutal attentions of Hungary’s thuggish defenders. Yet a heroic, gallant rearguard was only pierced by a moment of magic from the 17 year old Pele. A flick and turn took out two defenders before a clinical finish into Kelsey’s net. For Wales it was the end of a wonderful adventure, and to date their only appearance at a major finals.
Since their only attendance at a major tournament in 1958 Wales have had many, agonising near misses during qualification. Scotland has been a particular bugbear for the Welsh side, controversially hampering them in 1977 and 1985. Even more agonising was the missed penalty by Paul Bodin in 1993 which saw Romania qualify for the American World Cup at their expense. In 2002 after a pretty fallow period, Mark Hughes was breathing new hope into the Welsh dragon. In October 2002 Wales entertained group favourites Italy after starting their Euro 2004 qualification attempt with a fine victory in Finland. The match began at a frantic pace with the crowd fired up by the Manic Street Preachers and Simon Davies gave them what they wanted on 12 minutes after a bursting run from Craig Bellamy. On the half hour a deflected Del Piero free kick brought parity. Wales drove forward in the 2nd half and with twenty minutes to go Bellamy coolly rounded the great Buffon and delivered the knockout blow. This was no grim, defensive victory. Wales outplayed and outfought the Trappatoni's men for large chunks of the game. It helped Wales reach the play offs where they fell narrowly to Russia, but Hughes had revived Welsh football before moving onto Premier League club management.
In 1981 Swansea, led by tyro coach John Toshack, were promoted to the First Division for the first time in their history. The Swans, who were in the old Fourth Division as late as 1978, welcomed Leeds United to the Vetch Field on a gloriously sunny opening day in August 1981. The old ground was packed with a crowd of 23,489 and they gave the vast majority a wonderful introduction to top flight football. The team was packed with Welsh internationals and one of them, Jeremy Charles, gave them a first half lead, only for it to be cancelled out by Leeds' Scottish forward Derek Parlane. But in the 2nd half the home side ran riot. A confident strike by former Everton great Bob Latchford started the fun, before he grabbed a second with a near post finish. The England international then headed in his debut hat trick goal before the explosive finale. A great run, cutting in from the right hand side from Allan Curtis, was embellished with an outstanding finish into John Lukic's near post. A glorious opening season continued into September with them leading the table at one point. Eventually they were to finish sixth. However, it wasn't to last. City were relegated in 1983 and again in 1984. With financial problems mounting the club very nearly wound up in 1985 and relegation again followed in 1986. Yet, that opening day victory, captured by the Match of the Day cameras, provides an enduring memory in that part of south Wales.
Video Clips: Match highlights Swansea v Leeds (YouTube).
The Welsh love to put one over their big neighbours as much as the Scots. In recent times they've had little opportunity with only two defeats in the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup since the Home International Championship finished in 1984. But four years before a packed Racecourse Ground in Wrexham witnessed Wales' first home victory over England since 1955, 13 games without a win. England were preparing for the 1980 European Championships in Italy and had just beaten world champions Argentina 3-1 at Wembley with a superb display. Wales had missed out and new boss Mike England was making his international debut as manager. With Leighton James tormenting Trevor Cherry Wales ran amok after Paul Mariner had grabbed the lead on 16 minutes. Within three minutes Wales were level through Micky Thomas and then took the lead on the half hour through an Ian Walsh header. James himself scored the third before bewildering Phil Thompson into scoring an own goal and concluding the scoring.
It was Wales biggest ever victory over England, orchestrated by a man called England. Quite remarkable.
Although the national team beat the Germans again in 2002 this was the real deal. The 2002 game was a World Cup warm up for a German side that had lost 5-1 at home to England 8 months previously. By contrast the 1991 match was a European Championship qualifier. Even more impressively the Welsh beat the reigning world champions. The match took place just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with much comment about how unbeatable they would be with the addition of the 'Ossies' - East German players coached under the former Communist regime. Well none of that mattered on a passionate night at the Arms Park. For the home side all their great players of the era were present. Southall was still a massive authority in goal, Ratcliffe commanded the back four and Rush, Hughes and Saunders marauded further forward. With 20 minutes to go Rush got to a long ball to give the Welsh a lead they didn't give up. It was Germany's first defeat for 16 matches though they were hobbled by the ill-disciplined Thomas Berthold, sent off for stamping on Ratcliffe. The Welsh players celebrated in style, with a post-match curry and a late visit to the bingo. Unfortunately it wasn't to end in qualification for Wales but it was a memorable match in the history of the Welsh national team.
Despite not winning the Welsh Cup in 1984, Wrexham represented the country in the following seasons European Cup Winners Cup. The winners of the tournament, Shrewsbury, were English and thus ineligible to enter. Wrexham's European sojourn more than made up for losing that tournament. Wrexham were a Fourth Division club at the time. Two relegations since 1982 had meant financial restrictions and the loss of established players. In the first round they were drawn against mighty Porto who were beaten 1-0 at the Racecourse Ground thanks to an effort from big centre forward Jim Steel. Porto had made it to the final of the previous season's tournament and they weren't going to lie down to these honest upstarts back in Portugal. And with just 38 minutes gone Wrexham were 3-0 down and facing a massacre. But with the rain-soaked pitch beginning to bog down the hosts and suit the visitor's game, captain Jake King scored twice to put them back ahead on away goals. Porto scored again but still the team from North Wales refused to lie down. A then little known Barry Horne was the hero and Bobby Roberts team had performed genuine heroics against a seriously good side. They went to lose creditably to Sven Goran Eriksson's Roma in round two. Roma had also lost a major European final, the big one, but with Falcao, Conti and others to contend with it was too much for the Fourth Division side and they went out 0:3 on aggregate.
In the mid 1980s Welsh football had produced its greatest concentration of world class players than at any time in its history. The magnificent Neville Southall was in goal, his Everton captain Kevin Ratcliffe was at the heart of defence while up front there was the legendary Ian Rush, here at his peak, and a young tyro alongside him in Mark Hughes. This glorious win on an atmospheric night in Wrexham was against a Spanish team that were in the European Championship final only a year previously. The match is probably best remembered for the wonderful scissor kicked goal by Mark Hughes. This win really raised hopes of qualification for the Mexico World Cup but eventually they fell short. A pivotal match against Scotland ended in a draw when a contentious penalty decision went against them with only a few minutes remaining.
Video Clips: Match highlights Spain v Wales (YouTube).
In the early 1980s were relatively golden times for Newport County. In 1980 they were promoted to the 3rd Division and won their only Welsh Cup to qualify for the Cup Winners Cup. They breezed past Crusaders (Northern Ireland) and Haugar (Norway) to reach the quarter finals where they were to play the East German side Carl Zeiss Jena. The first leg was played behind the Iron Curtain and County produced a wonderful performance to draw 2-2 and raise expectations of a scarcely credible place in the semi finals of a European competition. County boasted a prolific goalscoring duo in Tommy Tynan and a young John Aldridge. Yet with Aldridge injured for both legs it fell to Tynan to be the hero, scoring both goals in Jena, the second of which came in the last minute. Over 18,000 packed into Somerton Park for the second leg but the Germans ended the dream with a one goal victory. Since 1981 both teams have seen their fortunes suffer. County fell out of the league in 1988 and have never been close to returning. Carl Zeiss meanwhile went on to reach the final where they lost to fellow Soviet bloc outfit Dynamo Tbilisi in front of a tiny crowd in Dusseldorf. They then fell into the familiar post-unification decline of most eastern German sides. However, they did make it to the semi finals of the 2008 German Cup before losing to Borussia Dortmund.