Football: Yorath keen to play the exorcist: As Wales seek to lay the ghosts of a painful past, England's manager faces an uncertain future. Peter Corrigan looks back in anguish at a nation's near misses

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FRIENDS, Romanians, countrymen . . . we have come to bury Wales in that self-deepening grave in which are interred the dreams that have perished with debilitating regularity every few years for as long as most of us can remember. The number of times the Welsh soccer team have been thwarted by one calamity or another when on the very threshold of a major championship since their one, and only, appearance in the World Cup in 1958 defies mortal explanation.

The Welsh rugby team's brave attempt to absorb the nation's disaster ration for the month of November is a sacrifice much appreciated but even the chance that they have distracted the hoodoo by losing to Canada will not prevent us pessimists from watching Wednesday's action from between closed fingers if we are at the Arms Park or from behind the sofa if we're at home.

This nation of nervous wrecks will attract sympathy only from those who are fully acquainted with the disappointments that for 35 years have been stunning us like a pendulum with a boxing glove on. Nevertheless, the Welsh can be depended upon to find hope by the heartful when their team sets out to beat Romania by the necessary margin to qualify for the World Cup finals in the US next year. There is, however, a distinct difference between hope and optimism, and we desperately seek the alchemy that can turn one into the other.

Any search for convincing reasons why it could be different this time must start with the blessing that at least we are not playing Scotland. The Scots are deeply implicated in the plot, having twice gone to a World Cup at our expense, but their present form fails to make their absence from the scene a massive advantage. For a man who has personally witnessed the worst of fate's excesses, the Welsh manager Terry Yorath is remarkably unpsyched by the weight of history.

'I get upset only when people talk as if all these near misses were due to some weakness in our make up,' he told me recently. 'Some excellent Welsh teams have unluckily failed by the thinnest of margins to qualify but it has never happened to us at the Arms Park and this team is strong enough in character to ignore any echoes of the past.'

The loudest echo in Yorath's ear is that in which he featured large. In the European Championship of 1976, Wales beat Hungary and Austria to become the only British team to reach the quarter-finals, which were then played over two legs home and away.

Wales were drawn against Yugoslavia, who beat them 2-0 in Zagreb. In the second leg at Ninian Park the referee was an East German called Gloeckner who proceeded to inspire a movement to legalise referee- lynching that I believe still meets in Cardiff. He first endeared himself by giving Yugoslavia an early penalty. Ian Evans equalised and Wales went on to score in the second half from an overhead kick by John Mahoney. Herr Gloeckner disallowed it for dangerous play. The crowd erupted and he took the teams off the pitch for five minutes.

After play resumed, Wales scored again. Mr Gloeckner disallowed it. Then he silenced the uproar by giving Wales a penalty. Terry Yorath missed it amd Wales were out. 'It was,' Yorath admits, 'the worst penalty kick I've ever seen.' Yorath was also in the team 18 months later when Wales needed to beat Scotland at home to qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. They sacrificed home advantage to go for the bigger gate at Anfield where the Scottish fans outnumbered the 'home' supporters five to one. Joe Jordan, the Scottish centre forward, blatantly handled the ball when jumping for a high cross with the Welsh centre half Dave Jones. The referee thought it was the Welshman's hand and gave a penalty. Jordan still refuses to talk about it, but wishes Wales all the best against Romania.

Four years later, Wales needed to beat Iceland at the Vetch Field to qualify for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. They packed the team with attackers and were 1-0 up and coasting when the floodlights failed. When play resumed 20 minutes later, Iceland came back into the game and forced a 2-2 draw.

At Ninian Park in 1985, Wales, having previously won at Hampden, were again playing Scotland needing a win to qualify for Mexico '86. They were winning 1-0 when Scot David Speedie hit the ball straight at defender Dave Phillips's midriff from a yard or two away. His arm came up instinctively in protection. The referee gave a penalty and Scotland went through with a 1-1 draw.

Since then Wales have slipped down the seedings and have found themselves in groups with such teams as West Germany and Holland. They've done well but the qualifying is getting progressively tougher. It has also become more crucial since England and Scotland decided in 1984 to scrap the Home Championship which was the financial lifeblood of Wales and Northern Ireland.

Welsh soccer has suffered from the often unfair image of being the second class winter sport since the Welsh FA was founded in 1876. If its greatest hour coincides with rugby's darkest it will be one of the great ironies. If omens are needed then that provided by Norwich City's Jeremy Goss has a certain appeal. Although Mark Hughes is unable to play against Romania through suspension, Wales are still not exactly short of world class forwards with Ian Rush, Dean Saunders and Ryan Giggs. But Hughes had been doing his stuff from the midfield from which direction Goss recently hammered Bayern Munich out of the Uefa Cup. It seems that God has provided.

We must not forget the size of the Welsh task. Romania beat them 5-0 in the opening match and the architect of that victory, Gheorghe Hagi, will be there on Wednesday. Given my record as a tipster perhaps the best favour I could do for Wales is to tip Romania. But who in their right mind could do that?