BACK in June, a strange and wonderful thing happened. Strange, because although we’re all familiar with Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau from rugby internationals, it never sounded more stirring than when those Wales football fans decided that the 69th minute of the Euro qualifier against Belgium was as good a moment as any for the lustiest of renditions.
Wonderful, because as the TV commentator pointed out, the anthem seemed to stop the team then ranked second-best in the world, at that stage losing 2-0, dead in their tracks. “Something is happening in Welsh football,” he said.
We get peeved when it’s said we’ve qualified for nothing since ’58
Indeed it is, boyo. If Chris Coleman’s side beat Israel tonight then they’re going to France, which will be the first time Wales have qualified for a major tournament since 1958, and you’d have to be churlish indeed not to be pleased for them. Though if you feel like bursting into song, resist. They’re so much better at that than the rest of us.
Welsh football and its attempts to be represented at the swankiest parties seem littered with near-misses, cock-ups, punch-ups and the kind of misfortunes which in the hyperbolic world of football get called tragedies. But there were also proper tragedies such as Gary Speed taking his own life; a Welsh supporter, John Hill, being killed by a flare which travelled all the way across Cardiff Arms Park; and Jock Stein dying in the dug-out at the end of a qualifier which had seemed like the most important event in the world but suddenly wasn’t any more. After all that, Welsh football surely deserves a break, a moment in the sun, the opportunity to join those international gatherings of mid-life-crisis accountants who squeeze into replica shirts to glug beer beside fountains.
We in Scotland, especially, should be big enough to say, “On yez go”, for twice we qualified for World Cups to leave the Welsh blowing dragon-fire of rage. In 1977 there was the Hand of Jord. Dave Jones didn’t handle the ball at Anfield; it was Joe Jordan. Then there was the penalty awarded us in Cardiff the night Big Jock died – soft indeed. Spot-kicks are given all the time these days for incidents similar to how the ball shot up and struck David Phillips’ arm, but you didn’t see that very often back in 1985.
The history of the round-ball game in the rugby-mad principality has also, until now, under-represented itself. Neville Southall and Mickey Thomas were scruffbags, for sure; nevertheless they served. Look, though, at what they chose to call their memoirs, respectively The Binman Chronicles and Kick-Ups, Hiccups & Lock-ups. If there are football biogs out there with more unprepossessing titles then I don’t know about them.
Look, in delving further into the Welsh saga, at how Wales’ only other appearance in major finals has been under-represented. Hang on, I thought we agreed the 1958 World Cup was their lot? Well, there was the oddity of the 1976 European Championship when just four countries gathered in Yugoslavia for the latter stages and Wales almost got there. Leighton James, the old left-wing flying-machine, calls it the forgotten campaign. “Whenever that team meet up we still talk about it,” he said recently. “We get a little peeved when Welsh people say we’ve qualified for nothing since ’58.”
Captained by Terry Yorath and with John Toshack a giant leek up front, Wales reached the quarter-finals when every other British team failed to get out of the groups. Against Yugoslavia – the host nation were required to qualify for their own tournament – they lost 2-0 in Zagreb and weren’t allowed to start the second leg in Cardiff until the East German referee saw his country’s flag flying above the stadium. The official then awarded the Yugoslavs a ridiculous penalty and disallowed two Welsh goals before one of his linesmen was crowned by a flying rock.
Look, too, at the story of Wales’ greatest footballing superstar. Just as ’76 was the forgotten campaign, so biographer Spencer Vignes reckons this fellow to be the forgotten hero. What, Gareth Bale? Ryan Giggs? No, Leigh Richmond Roose (1877-1916), the finest goalkeeper of his era and the man who might well have invented the concept of custodian eccentricity.
He wore white gloves and a top hat, though only the former when playing. LRR swung from his crossbar, turned his back on the action and joked with the crowd. He played for Stoke, Sunderland and, on one occasion, Celtic. Small boys chased his carriage, women swooned over him, and music-hall star Marie Lloyd (My Old Man Said Follow the Van) was among his conquests. Wales could have done with him in ’77 and ’85 because he was expert at stopping penalties. His party-piece was bowling over centre-forwards and bouncing the ball all the way to halfway (goalies could do this until the FA decided they’d had enough of LRR’s showmanship and changed the laws). He represented Wales 24 times, helping them win their first-ever British Championship in 1907.
Roose features in the earliest recorded moving pictures of an international but it seems staggering there’s never been a biopic of the Edwardian idol who had HG Wells as a schoolteacher, submitted expenses reading “Used toilet (twice): 2d”, and, because of his civilian attributes, led the grenade-throwing when called up for the First World War. More staggering still is that 99 years after he died at the Somme his name on the memorial still reads “Rouse”, although following a long campaign a correction is imminent.
What price Wales reaching major finals in the centenary of his death? It’s finally looking good for the nation that has produced such noted oval-ball deniers as Billy Meredith, John and Mel Charles (who were brothers), Ron and Wyn Davies (who weren’t), Ian Rush and Mark Hughes, with the latter’s incredible bicycle-kick goal against Spain in 1985 meriting qualification all by itself but, the Welsh being the Welsh, this didn’t happen.
In 1998, Wales manager Bobby Gould, to settle his differences with John Hartson, proposed a wrestling match. Needless to say this wasn’t Oliver Reed vs Alan Bates in Women in Love. Under-prepared in the past, Gould’s successor Hughes seemed overprepared when the team plane bound for Belarus was grounded by a ton and a half of extra kit. There’s a running theme to this saga and it’s transport snags. Southall, trying to help his country qualify for the 1994 World Cup, lost his car keys and had to be rushed to the stadium in a police car, siren blaring, all stressed out. During the last campaign Chris Coleman, the current manager, misplaced his passport and missed the team’s flight to Serbia where they were hammered 6-1. Neither man possessed the dragon-may-care of LLR who once chartered a private train to travel in solitary splendour to a game at Aston Villa. But finally, at long last, Wales are getting somewhere.