In 1976 Wales had one of the greatest teams in the history of sport. In 2003 the BBC put the Welsh team on a pedestal with other great sporting teams of the past century: Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winners featuring Pele; the 1988 McLaren F1 team with their two legendary drivers Prost and Senna; Michael Jordan’s and Dennis Rodman’s Chicago Bulls NBA team circa 1995/96; plus the Australian cricket team from 1998 to 2003. The BBC opened a vote for the public to vote for the ‘The greatest team in history’. Wales’ team consisted of JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, Phil Bennett, Mervyn Davies plus the legendary Gareth Edwards amongst others – of course no Welsh football team would be up for such a category!
This was Wales’ phenomenal 1976 Grand Slam-winning Rugby Union team. Since the start of the 1970s the team had won 3 Grand Slam and 5 Triple crowns and appeared near enough invincible at times. Not only were the team tough to beat thanks to powerful forwards such as Geoff Wheel and Allan Martin, but they also played exciting, stylish rugby with the guile of Gerald Davies and Bennett. However good the national rugby team were at the time, if it wasn’t perhaps for an incorrect flag going up a flag pole, the Welsh football team of 1976 could have gone on to be more legendary.
The European Championships only really started to become a prominent football tournament at the turn of the 80s, with perhaps most football fans first defining memories of the European Championships being France’s 1984 winning team and their legendary ‘magic square’ of Fernandez, Tigana, Giresse and the elusive Platini. The European Championships (as they were known until it the title was shortened to the ‘Euros’ for ‘Euro 1996’) were first staged in 1960 in France with the Soviet Union controversially emerging victorious (they had a bye through to the semi-finals after Franco’s Spain refused to play them). From 1960-1976 the Finals tournament only consisted of 4 teams playing each other in 2 semi-finals in the host nation with the victors meeting in the final. Although there were technically quarter finals for the tournament, they were not played in the host nation and were instead played over two home and away legs for the teams participating – essentially the quarter finals acted as final qualifiers for the tournament proper. In 1980, the number of participants at the tournament was doubled to 8 and this was the first time that the group stage system was introduced. Unfortunately, for Wales, the increase to 8 teams came 4 years too late for them.
Whilst Edwards and co. were wowing the fans of the oval-ball at the Arms Park, the Welsh football team was beginning to develop into an astute and gifted team, as they went along the 1976 European Championship qualifying path. Wales were placed in a qualifying group with Hungary, Austria and Luxembourg. With only the teams finishing top of the 8 qualifying groups progressing to the quarter final matches, Wales were not fancied to get through, especially with two good teams in Austria and Hungary accompanying them in the group. Hungary were not quite the team that they were in the Puskas-inspired 1950s or 1960s, but they were still a very technically-gifted, efficient unit. Austria also had a very good side at the time with great players such as defender Bruno Pezzey, legendary striker Hans Krankl and classy midfielder Herbert Prohaska, who was voted Austria’s player of the century; all three players would help Austria successfully qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.
Wales’ qualifying campaign would begin out in Austria in front of 30,000 at the Praterstadion in Vienna. Despite Wales leading the game at half-time thanks to a goal from Arfon Griffiths, Austria fought back in the second half to win 2-1 thanks to goals from Kreuz and Krankl. Legendary Wales midfielder Dave Bowen, who captained the national team at the 1958 World Cup, was in charge at the time, as well as managing Northampton Town. The game in Austria would be his last contribution to the qualifying campaign before a new man was to take over the Wales manager role. Wales would not lose another game in their qualifying group.
Mike Smith would be appointed the new manager of Wales with the Englishman becoming the first non-Welsh manager to lead the national team, as well as becoming the nation’s first full-time manager. Smith had had no previous managerial role and was only an amateur footballer, although he did play for the Great Britain football team in the 1960s Olympics in Rome.
Wales’ fortunes would turn around dramatically under Smith, as he set them on an excellent run of results. First came a 2-0 victory in October 1974 against Hungary at Ninian Park with goals from Griffiths again and John Toshack. This impresive result was followed up one month later with a 5-0 hammering of Luxembourg at the Vetch. Wales then impressively grabbed victory in Budapest’s Nepstadion as they defeated the Hungarians once again, this time 2-1. In May 1975, a customary 3-1 victory against Luxembourg led to Wales finding themselves at the top of their qualifying group thanks to Austria and Hungary playing out a 0-0 draw in early April. All Wales needed to do was to beat Austria at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground and they would be through to the quarter final stage; Wales would be just a two-legged tie away from qualfiying for their first major tournament since their only other tournament experience in the 1958 Wold Cup in Sweden where they were knocked out by some chap called Pele.
Wales’ two home fixtures in the qualifying group had drawn fairly measly crowds with around 8,000 fans turning up to watch Wales’ impresive triumph over Hungary at Ninian Park and 10,000 going through the gates at the Vetch to watch Wales trounce Luxembourg 5-0. For Wales’ decisive group game, 27,000 fans turned up to see if Wales could prevail against the Austrian team that had defeated them at the start of the qualifying campaign.
Arfon Griffiths had scored in three of Wales’ qualifiers and at the Racecourse he would be playing on a ground familiar to him having notched up over 500 appearances for Wrexham either side of successful stint at Arsenal. It was only right that the man referred to by Wrexham fans as the ‘Prince of Wales’ would score the goal at the Racecourse to take Wales through to quarter finals of the 1976 European Championships. His goal came after 69 minutes and it proved to be a decisive goal in ensuring a 1-0 victory.
Wales would be the only one of the four home nations to make it through to the last 8 with England and Northern Ireland finishing runners up in their groups to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and Scotland finishing third in their group behind Romania and group winners Spain. The last 8 consisted of Wales, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, West Germany, Spain, Holland, Belgium and Yugoslavia: the team that Wales would face in the quarter finals.
Although Wales were not the most fancied team to make the last 8, it is easy to forget how many great players made up the Wales team of the mid-1970s. Captaining the side was Leeds’ Terry Yorath, who had been starring in an excellent Leeds team for many years,; Leighton James, the flying winger for Derby County, who would go on to to be one of star performers in Swansea’s raid on the top flight years later; Burnley’s Brian Flynn patrolling the midfield; Everton’s Dai Davies had made his debut in goal out in Hungary; but the star of the team was John Toshack, Wales’s youngest ever international in 1965 when he entered the national team frame just 16 years 236 days old (a record since broken by Chris Gunter and then Aaron Ramsey during Toshack’s period managing the national team). At the time Toshack was still very much a key player in a highly successful Liverpool side and much of Wales’ success relied on whether Toshack could deliver or not.
Yugoslavia had topped their qualifying group by 4 points ahead of Northern Ireland, Sweden and Norway. Yugoslavia won 5 of their group games, but there was encouragement for Wales in the fact that Northern Ireland had defeated them during qualifying. Yugoslavia were packing a few star names themselves in their line-up. Great players such as Momčilo Vukotić, the verstaile Ivica Surjak – one of very few Eastern bloc footballers to play in Western Europe at clubs such as Paris SG, Udinese and Zaragoza – and midfielder Josip Katalinkski, considered to be one of the greatest players ever to play for the former Yugoslavia. The team also featured gifted full back Džemal Hadžiabdić, a player who would go on to be big fan favourite in the English top flight 4 years later at Swansea City, where he was affectionately known as “Jimmy” – he still has a home in Swansea to this day, despite now managing the UAE national team.
So, on April 24th 1976, Wales travelled to Zagreb for the first leg of their quarter final tie. Any trip beyond the Iron Curtain was always going to be a tough affair and Wales were just hoping to grab something out in Zagreb to take back to Cardiff for the second leg. In a recent interview with BBC Sport Leighton James said:
“We were quietly confident. Provided that we didn’t blow up out in Yugoslavia, we would have a chance in Cardiff.”
All would not go to plan in Zagreb with Wales shipping a goal in the opening minute, scored by midfielder Momčilo Vukotić, before conceding a second in the 54th minute – the scorer this time Danilo Popivoda. Yugoslavia would be hosting the 1976 European Championships and the hosts now looked clear favourites to get to the semi-final stage and the final four team tournament. A second leg in Cardiff would decide the teams’ fate, a game that will go down as one of the most extraordinary and controversial games ever played on Welsh soil.
Wales would have to score to least 3 goals (something they hadn’t done in 5 years) passed a tough Yugoslavian defence to stand any chance of proceeding through to the next round. There would be much expectation on the shoulders of Toshack and Brian Flynn (who was moved further upfield from his usual midfield role) to grab goals, with Smith hoping ‘the big man/little man’ combination, that had been so successful for Toshack at Liverpool when partnering Kevin Keegan, would deliver goals. However, Wales would hinder their chances just before kick-off and give the Yugoslavians a potential extra man by upsetting the referee. The referee, Rudi Glockner, was a native of East Germany and supposedly the FAW calamatiously raised the flag of West Germany by mistake, leaving Glockner not too happy to say the least. Leighton James even claimed that Glockner would not start the game until the East German flag was flown above the stadium. It appeared that the damage to referee’s ego had already been done and many Welsh football fans now rate Glockner’s performance as one of the most biased performance in the history of Welsh football – although some would probably claim of all time.
15 minutes in Leighton Phillips, noticing a player charging him down, smashed the ball out to touch just before the Yugoslav player crashed into him into and collapsed in a heap on the floor. Despite the incident happening behind the referee’s back, on witnessing the Yugoslavian player on the floor Glockner opted to book Phillips – even Barry Davies commentating exclaims “seemingly he had eyes in the back of his head.” Then disaster struck as Glockner harshly awarded Yugoslavia a penalty after Welsh defender Malcolm Page went to ground but pulled out of the tackle just as Popivoda bared down on goals; instead of carrying on his run, Popivoda opted to take a dive, earning the Yugoslavians the chance to score from the spot, which they duly did through Katalinski to make it 3-0 on aggregate. This should have been game over for Wales, but with a strong sense of injustice and a thunderous Ninian Park crowd behind the team, Wales battled on courageously.
Wales were determined to get back into the tie, as they began to throw everything at Yugoslavia. As well as battling an efficient Yugoslavian side, Wales were also contending with a referee who clearly wanted to be the centre of attention, awarding freekicks for the most innocuous of challenges. However, Wales did not help their plight by wasting chance after chance with the best opportunity coming to Flynn who hit the post unmarked from 5 yards out with it looking easier to score.
Eventually from a Wales corner and with Toshack causing chaos, a scramble in the box led to the ball rolling out to Ian Evans on the edge of box who hit a powerful sidefooted shot through a crowd of players and into an unguarded net to make it 1-1. Wales now needed to score twice to keep the tie alive (away goals did not count), something which looked very possible to achieve with over a half of the match left. Game on.
The second half carried on in a similar vein with Wales keeping Yugoslavia under constant pressure, but wasting their chances. Then after a cross into the box, Toshack headed the ball onto John Mahoney who leaped into the air , attempting an acrobatic volley which he did not connect with properly; the ball came out to Toshack who thundered a volley past goalkeeper Envar Maric and into the net. The roar around Ninian Park was deafening, so much so that many fans did not hear the referee whistle for a foul before Toshack scored and thus disallowing the goal. Glockner had blwon up for dangerous play having adjudged Mahoney’s flying volley to be a high foot – it is hard to judge whether the decision is correct or not, but I certainly think these days Mahoney would have been penalised. Right or wrong decision, the home fans didn’t care as the crowd’s temper hit a new level, as many felt completely defrauded by the East German referee; many fans saw red and started climbing the fencing to get at the referee. Eventually Glockner headed over to the Welsh bench to tell Mike Smith that the game was in danger of being abandoned if the unruly Welsh fans could not calm their tempers. One fan had to be restrained by Flynn as he savagely tried to make his way to the referee. The Welsh fans were now baying for blood with the referee not helping himself by ruling out another Toshack goal – this time correctly as Toshack had wandered offside before burying a diving header. Even though the goal was rightly ruled out the Welsh fans saw the incident as another injustice against them.
Glockner may have tried to seek sympathy from the Welsh crowd after eventually awarding the home side a penalty. After a cross into the box, Mahoney found himself falling over on the edge of the penalty area; just as he was landing on the floor he amazingly pulled off a powerful header that was flying over the goalkeeper; just as Maric fingertipped the ball away, Toshack came running in and tripped over the keeper’s trailing foot to earn his side a penalty – a chance to really ignite an unlikely comeback. Unfortunately, Wales have never been particularly good at penalties and Terry Yorath’s tame effort, saved by Maric, will go down in the Wales Hall of Shame with Paul Bodin’s 1993 penalty against the Romanians – both crucial; both missed. That was it for Wales, the penalty seemed to be the last chance to launch a late surge, but the missed spot kick completely knocked the wind out of their sails and the task of getting to the semi-finals looked impossible.
With the crowd now at fever pitch, Glockner blew the whistle just after the 90 minute mark and prepared to make his getaway. Yugoslavian fans burst onto the playing field to celebrate their route through to the semi-finals, whilst Welsh fans had also charged onto the pitch in hunt of the East German ref. As well as the two sets of fans, a large police contingent was streaming across the pitch to encircle and protect Glockner. Glockner was bombarded with abuse and several missiles as he made his way down the Ninian Park tunnel with the Yugoslavian players also getting a tirade of verbal thrown their way – so much so that Jurica Jerkovic entered the players’ tunnel before walking back out and punching a Welsh fan overhanging the tunnel.
The game had begun with such promise, but was ultimately overshadowed by the ugly performance of the referee and the ugly scenes in the stands. In his closing remarks of the commentary of the game, Barry Davies was clearly disgusted by the events going on around him with him even hinting that the volatile atmosphere may well have hindered the team’s performance instead of encouraging the team:
“The Welsh team, to a great extent, were their own worst enemies because they allowed the fire, too often, to get between them and the football they are capable of playing.”
The violence at the Ninian Park quarter final jeopardised Wales’ chances of participating the 1980 European Championships, after UEFA initially banned Wales from entering. The sanction was later reduced to UEFA just banning Wales fixtures from being held in Cardiff for the near future.
Despite being tournament hosts, Yugoslavia were beaten 4-2 (after Extra Time) by West Germany in the semi-final and they finished the tournament in 4th place after losing the Third Place Playoff to the Netherlands. The tournament was considered a success and was the last of the four team format before the introduction of group stages in 1980. 76 also delivered one of the most iconic moments in European football with Panenka scoring the decisive penalty in the final in the most audacious fashion to win the trophy for Czechoslovakia –perhaps Wales need to learn to be as cool with penalties as Panenka.
Another false dawn in Welsh football – something Welsh football fans are now all but used to.
To see footage of the quarter final second leg – Wales 1-1 Yugoslavia- you can watch the 25 minute highlights programme from 1976 here on the BBC Sport website. It is well worth a watch!