In the not so distant past, I wrote a blog detailing how Northern Ireland beat the mighty West Germans twice and came within ten minutes of qualifying for Euro 84. An achievement that was outstanding and agonising at the same time, thrilling and heartbreaking, triumphant but frustrating. Yet there is another story of a country from the United Kingdom that outranks the Northern Ireland tale in terms of so near and yet so far. A qualification campaign that was both nine minutes and then just seconds away from a happy ending. Welcome to Wales and their 1984 European Championship qualification tale; twinned with despair.
The players, supporters and officials had unfortunately experienced pain before. Whilst England, Scotland and Northern Ireland supporters were sunning themselves in Spain during the summer of 1982, Welsh fans watched on from home thinking about the prize they could have won. A shocking 2-2 draw at home to Iceland resulted in Wales missing out on the UK World Cup party on goal difference, manager Mike England criticised heavily for his tactics in the critical match, and with only seven nations able to join France at Euro 1984, it looked as if righting the wrong would not be that straight forward.
The draw for the European Championship qualification saw the Welsh grouped with Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Norway, and with only the group winner progressing to France, the task facing Wales was difficult to say the least. Yugoslavia had qualified for the previous World Cup, only denied a second round spot by Northern Ireland's shock win over Spain, and although they had a new manager in the ultimate tinkerman Todor Veselinovic, they were still favourites to win the group. Bulgaria were a slightly unknown quantity, but would steadily improve as the qualification group developed. And Norway would provide a stern test to all, their win over England in 1981 - complete with that section of commentary - evidence that they would be no pushover.
That Wales were to get so close was a credit to Mike England and his players. The undoubted star of the team was the rising force of Liverpool's Ian Rush, aged just 20 when the qualification programme commenced. There was experience in the team in the shape of Joey Jones, Mickey Thomas, Brian Flynn and Robbie James but, that apart, the squad was full of players trying to establish themselves in the top flight - Neville Southall and Kevin Ratcliffe (Everton), Kenny Jackett (Watford) - and others playing in the lower divisions, such as Jeff Hopkins and Gordon Davies (Fulham), and Nigel Vaughan (Newport County and then Cardiff). On top of that, players such as Paul Price (Tottenham) and Peter Nicholas (Arsenal) were struggling to gain a lot of first team action at their clubs. But somehow this mix managed to work.
Wales kicked off the group with a slightly fortunate win over Norway at Swansea's Vetch Field. Four Swansea players made the starting line-up - Chris Marustik and Nigel Stevenson (who both never played again for Wales), Alan Curtis, and Robbie James - but there would be no place in the team for experienced keeper Dai Davies, England electing to opt for the potential of Southall instead. England's decision was fully justified on the night, Southall pulling off a number of fine saves, as Norway gave an indication that they would be a dangerous team in the group.
Wales scored after half an hour through Ian Rush, although the goal could have been credited to Norwegian keeper Nygard who hardly covered himself in glory, yet the winner was very much against the run of play. Tom Lund, who travelled to the game via boat and train due to his aviophobia, was denied at various points by Southall, debutant Jackett, and the post, with Marustik also clearing an effort off the line from a corner, one of seven corners in a row during a frantic period in the second half.
"Lloyd George's boys looked as though they might take a bit of a beating, too," wrote The Times' Richard Eaton in reference to Bjørge Lillelien's famous commentary at the end of Norway's win over England. The majority of the small 4,340 crowd left the ground happy but knowing that Wales would have to make improvements with bigger tests to come.
The lack of a whipping boy was apparent when Norway shocked everyone by beating Yugoslavia 3-1 in Oslo, and then claimed a point in Bulgaria, leaving the group wide open. Yugoslavia would get back on track with a win over a Bulgarian team that had started the campaign with one point out of four at home, yet would come strong in the latter stages. Wales travelled to Yugoslavia for a midday kick off (British time) knowing a draw would be a great result. They would get it, but hardly in a conventional manner.
Mike England had a number of injury concerns before the match. Southall was out with infected feet (ulcerated toes) meaning a 52nd and final cap for Davies. Both Gordon Davies and Alan Curtis were ruled out, although the latter then played on the Saturday before the trip to Yugoslavia, much to the bemusement of the Welsh FA. Swansea's John Mahoney was recalled at the age of 36 to win his 50th cap, and tough tackling Peter Nicholas was back, although he had only played reserve team football at Arsenal after his return from an operation on his knee. Kevin Ratcliffe was selected and would be a permanent fixture in the Welsh defence for the rest of the campaign.
The match itself was a crazy affair played on a bog of a pitch, Wales' players "emerging with mud-spluttered faces and bodies, like Welsh miners emerging from a pit", to use the words of The Times' Clive White. England described the events as "the most amazing international match I've ever been involved in," and it was not hard to see why. An early strike from Flynn silenced the 20,000 home crowd, but two goals from corners but the Welsh on the back foot, and when debutant Kranjcar capitalised on a Paul Price error to make it 3-1, Wales looked like they were in for a trying afternoon. Luckily Rush would pounce when a poor back pass stuck in the mud, his crucial goal just before half time giving Wales hope.
Another goal from a corner saw Wales slip 4-2 behind, though, and with just 20 minutes to go the jig looked up. But Joey Jones reduced the deficit, Wales also scoring from a corner, and amazingly Robbie James made it 4-4 with ten minutes remaining. There was still time for the same player to hit the bar, but despite this late disappointment there could be no disputing that England's team had earned a fine away point. England was personally rewarded with an extension to his current contract which was due to expire four months later, and with Wales strongly placed in the group, the immediate future looked bright.
Charles puts Wales in charge
Another vital 1-0 home victory was achieved against Bulgaria at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham, as substitute Jeremy Charles scored with just 11 minutes remaining, his first international goal putting Wales top of the group. Charles had entered the fray for Ian Rush, Liverpool's 30-goal striker palpably unfit with a groin strain, but his efforts were greatly appreciated after he had made himself available for his country when he had missed his last two club matches.
Wales were again indebted to Southall, his stunning save from Mladenov vital on a night where one goal was likely to decide outcome. The defeat left Bulgaria apparently out of the group at the halfway stage, yet the visitors had given glimpses in North Wales of the possible threat that they could pose in the future.
Bulgaria's comeback started with a win in Norway in September 1983, and two weeks later the Welsh travelled to Oslo knowing a similar result would eliminate the Scandinavians from the group and strengthen their own position. However, injuries did not help the cause, with England forced to reshuffle his defence due to an injury to Jackett - Jeff Hopkins would come in at right back, with Joey Jones switching to left back - and a hamstring strain saw Mickey Thomas withdraw, Nigel Vaughan taking his place.
In what was described in The Times as "a hardworking if somewhat uninspired performance", Wales would gain a point in a goalless draw, with both keepers pulling off fine saves late on. Southall, who was now a permanent fixture in Everton's reserves after Howard Kendall had rung the changes a year earlier due to a 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool, thwarted Albertsen, with Erik Thorsvedt's finger tips pushing Robbie James' effort on to the post. Another late Robbie James strike hitting the woodwork. On such margins are qualification campaigns decided.
"Wales's success proved once again that teamwork, organisation and determination can take a limited but settled team a long way," suggested The Times' Peter Ball, as the British press extolled the virtues of the Welsh and Northern Irish attempts at qualification, as opposed to the lacklustre efforts of England and Scotland. With the proposed abandonment of the British Championship, and the financial implications that would have for both Wales and Northern Ireland, their performances were a timely reminder to the Anglo-Scottish axis that had taken the decision to scrap the tournament. It's just a shame for both that their wasn't the ideal ending to this story.
Defeat at last
The Welsh bandwagon rolled on, a 5-0 friendly win over a Romanian team that would qualify for France an indication that all was rosy in the garden. However, Yugoslavia's home win against Norway had maintained the nip and tuck nature of the group, with Wales' trip to a frozen Bulgaria crucial for all three team still in contention. On a night of frustration, Wales suffered their first defeat in the group, and with just two matches remaining, any one of Wales, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria could still qualify.
Wales had their chances in Sofia. Rush and James went close, and Price struck a post a minute before Bulgaria's winner. It wasn't all one-way traffic, though, with Southall again performing admirably. The teams would be separated after a strike from substitute Rusi Gochev on 54 minutes, on a day to forget for Peter Nicholas. His foul led to the free kick from which Gochev scored, also earning him a booking that would see him miss the vital Yugoslavia match in Cardiff, and when a knee injury forced him off the pitch a few minutes later, his nightmare was complete.
The permutations after this result were lengthy, but the bottom line was that if Wales could beat Yugoslavia at home in their final match then they would qualify for France. Wales were just 90 minutes away from putting their previous World Cup disappointment behind them.
"If the Football Association and the Football League possess even a grain of sympathy for those alleged underdogs from Wales, they will give urgent consideration to helping Mike England's team become the only British qualifiers for next summer's European Championship finals in France". David Miller's statement in The Times was a response to the FA of Wales' request for a postponement of a number of fixtures the weekend before their decision day against Yugoslavia, yet unsurprisingly it was met with a negative reaction from Football League Secretary Graham Kelly.
Mike England was fully aware of the size of the match, calling it "the biggest game we have had for a long, long time." Qualification would earn an estimated £100,000 for the Welsh FA, a vital boost, as England suggested: "It is vitally important financially as well because the cancellation of the home championships was a big blow." England recalled Jackett in place of the suspended Nicholas, the small playing pool of the Welsh helping to create consistency in team selection and a team spirit that the manager said had been based on the fact that the players "are a bunch of friends."
Possessing a settled squad was hardly something that Yugoslavia could be accused of. In his 13 months in charge, Todor Veselinovic had selected 31 different players - Drobjnak would be the 32nd for the Wales match - and only one player remained from the frantic 4-4 draw between the sides. "We have not come here to defend," Veselinovic admitted. "But Wales do not score many goals." Realistically a draw would be enough for Yugoslavia, and so it would transpire. But only just.
"Eleven broken hearts" was how England described the players in his dressing room post-match, and with France just nine minutes away, it was an understandable proclamation. Robbie James had given Wales the lead after 54 minutes, latching on to Ratcliffe's through ball, but try as they might, the home team could not find a clinching goal. When Bazdarevic fired a 20-yard effort past Southall, who probably should have done better, Ninian Park was stunned into silence, the Yugoslav celebrations an indication of the relief felt by the visitors.
"Sickening is the only way to describe our feelings," stated England after the match. "We played exceptionally well and were just minutes from glory." Wales' fate was now in the hands of both Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, as the press referred endlessly to the 'Split decision' that would be taken just seven days later.
The qualification possibilities of the December 21 date in Yugoslavia were simple(ish). A Yugoslavia win would see them through, with Wales relying on a draw or a 1-0 win for Bulgaria. A 2-1 Bulgarian win would see lots drawn between Wales and Bulgaria, but a 3-2 win or a victory by two goals or more would complete the Bulgarian renaissance in the group. Easy.
Two goals from Safet Susic put Yugoslavia 2-1 up and appeared to put hosts in control, but the continued improvement of Bulgaria was evident when Dimitrov equalised after an hour, and then threatened to win the match in the closing stages. Desperately seeking a winner, Yugoslavia threw caution to the wind with injury time approaching, and in the last minute Yugoslav keeper Zoran Simovic somehow thwarted a three-on-one attack to deny Bulgaria, and also keep both Yugoslavia and Wales in contention. And then heartbreak.
Yugoslavia broke, and with just seconds remaining, a strike from Ljubomir Radanovic sent the home fans into ecstasy, and crushed the dreams of two teams simultaneously. An afternoon involving a roller coaster of emotions, bringing reactions ranging from "I am so excited that I can hardly speak" (Veselinovic) to "This is a sports tragedy" (Bulgarian skipper Dimitrov), ultimately resulted in the outcome everyone expected at the start of the qualification. But what a painful way to arrive at this conclusion.
"That's the worst experience of my career, and I feel like death," declared a devastated England as he listened on from his Prestatyn home. It's the hope that kills you. To get within nine minutes at Cardiff was bad enough, but to then have the carrot dangled in front of them until the final minute of the last match was simply too cruel for the Welsh.
So like Northern Ireland, Wales' brave attempt would fall just short in the final furlong, but both could hold their heads up high, which is more than can be said about the feeble campaigns of England and Scotland. Unfortunately Mike England, his team, and Welsh supporters were getting used to near things, and there would more of the same come the conclusion of the 1986 World Cup qualification campaign. However, that is a story for another day.