Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference

Tim Rich
Wednesday 02 September 2015 14:28 BST
Paul Bodin hits the bar with his penalty against Romania in 1993, which led to them missing the World Cup
Paul Bodin hits the bar with his penalty against Romania in 1993, which led to them missing the World Cup (GETTY IMAGES)

“Been on your holidays again,” said the ticket collector at Swansea station to John and Mel Charles on the day they came back from the World Cup in Sweden.

It was June 1958. Wales had reached the quarter-finals before being narrowly beaten by Brazil. The Welsh had knocked out Hungary and struck the bar and the post three times against the Brazilians in Gothenburg.

When they returned, it was to indifference. “I don’t think anyone in Britain knew we were playing,” Mel Charles remembered. “I can’t recall seeing a single Welsh fan in Sweden.”

They are not indifferent now. The failures to qualify for any major tournament since then run too deep for that. If, on Sunday night, Wales qualify for the European Championship, as they might if they overcome Cyprus and Andorra, the streets of Cardiff will be electric.

On an October night in 2002, you could taste the beer in the air as you walked out of the Millennium Stadium into St Mary’s Street. Wales had beaten Italy 2-1. A pass from John Hartson had bisected Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta, and Craig Bellamy had taken the ball around Gianluigi Buffon.

Wales had already beaten Finland and later they would travel to Azerbaijan, where the streets smelt not of beer but of petrol. Late at night, after a 2-0 victory, Hartson sat in the only open coffee shop at Baku Airport, legs stretched over metal chairs, and reckoned that Wales might take some stopping from reaching Euro 2004.

To Bellamy, the Wales side that sets off for Cyprus today is better than the one he spearheaded a dozen years ago. “It is the best Wales side I have seen in my lifetime,” he remarked. “We were not good enough to get to the Euros in 2004. We ran out of legs. But this team, this team could last for years.”

And yet the side that so nearly reached Portugal was exceptional, with Hartson and Bellamy playing up front and Ryan Giggs, Gary Speed, Robbie Savage and Simon Davies in midfield.

It was a sight better than the one Bellamy had joined for his debut in 1998 when the then manager, Bobby Gould, gathered the squad together and announced he would settle his differences with Hartson in a wrestling match. Gould finished on the floor, his nose filling up with blood.

Gould resigned immediately after a 4-0 defeat by Italy in Bologna, telling the squad he had taken them as far as he could. This provoked a tirade from Speed, who reminded Gould that Wales had been 27th in the Fifa rankings when he took over and were now sandwiched between Syria and Tanzania in 98th place. The only thing that could be said for Gould was that he had not asked for much money to do the job.

Mark Hughes, his successor, was interested in money. He wanted it spent on a proper base hotel, such as the Vale of Glamorgan, he wanted a nutritionist and he wanted proper travel arrangements. He wanted his players to have pool and table tennis tables.

When Hughes turned up for his first flight as Wales manager, which for some reason took off from Stansted, he was asked if he could persuade 13 Wales fans who had paid heavily for the privilege of accompanying the team to Belarus to leave the plane. It had been overloaded with a ton and a half of extra kit.

Hughes had his own ghosts. Just as Chris Coleman’s current side is weighed against the team that almost qualified for Portugal in 2004, so his was compared to the one that should have made it to the 1994 World Cup.

Had they beaten Romania at Cardiff Arms Park, they would have done so. But an evening that began with Neville Southall losing his car keys and having to be driven to the Arms Park in a police car – the keys were in his washbag – climaxed with Paul Bodin striking the bar with his penalty. It finished with a Welsh fan, John Hill, being killed by a flare that was launched from one side of the Arms Park and struck the other.

When the final whistle sounded, Ian Rush looked distraught, Giggs confessed to shallower feelings. The Liverpool striker was 32, he would never now go to a World Cup. Giggs, a dozen years younger, was much more confident about the future.

By 2003, that future was beginning to narrow. Bellamy is probably wrong to say Wales were not good enough to have gone through. What they collectively lacked were nerve and experience.

The Italians were aware of that. They played Wales in Milan at San Siro and the countdown to kick-off was eerie. Spotlights flashed on different parts of the semi-dark stadium while a menacing electronic soundtrack played in the background.

The build-up had been made, if anything, more tense by Newcastle United threatening to sue the Welsh FA if Bellamy, whose knees were suspect, started.

He did start. Giggs struck the frame of the goal but then Wales were swept away by a hat-trick from Pippo Inzaghi, while the Welsh supporters had bottles of urine thrown at them from San Siro’s upper decks. Their team returned to Cardiff in the small hours, their mood bible-black.

It came down to a play-off with Russia. Hughes ordered a private jet for the team and they stayed at the Kempinski Hotel near the Kremlin, something Savage thought would not go down well with the Welsh FA. “I would like to say the whole country was behind us,” Savage wrote in his autobiography. “But there were still some negative voices. I could not believe it.”

Wales drew goallessly in Moscow but Bellamy was right: by the time of the return leg in Cardiff four days later, they were spent. Savage remarked on how silent the dressing room had been in the wake of the 1-0 defeat at home. “Our families were all with us but there was no noise, no party, no beer. We had thrown it away.”

When they left the stadium to walk the streets, they encountered the same mood Mel Charles had recognised at Swansea Station half a century before. Indifference.

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