Golden age – definition: (n)
1. An idyllic, often imaginary past time of peace, prosperity, and happiness.
2. The period when a specified art, skill, or activity is at its peak.
The term golden age is a term thrown about regularly in football. Obviously England’s ‘golden age’ will always be Moore, Charlton, Hurst and 66. Liverpool had their golden age under Shankly and then Paisley in the late 70s and for most of the 80s; United obviously ruled the 90s with those ‘kids’ I’d argue eclipsing the ‘golden age’ of the late the Holy Trinity and Busby’s Babes. The national and global media now claim that English football has been in a golden age for the past 20 years with the goliath of the Premier League dominating world football. And then there’s Welsh football…..golden age? Has there been one? Terry Yorath’s team of the early 90s? Mark Hughes’ team of the early noughties? The team of 1976? Of course not, the golden age has to be the heroic Welsh team that dared to try and win the 1958 World Cup, only to undone by 17-year old Pele’s Brazil; well, actually, some might argue that there has been one better and more successful Welsh football team than the 1958 collective that under different circumstances could have been the champions of the world.
The notion that Wales could have won the World Cup in 1934 is a new one to me and the concept was only made aware to me after someone, going by the alias ‘trampie’, commented on our Dai Astley profile making such bold claims. I felt that it was certainly worth a look and see if Wales could have hypothetically won a World Cup they did not even enter.
In 1880 Northern Ireland formed their IFA and soon the four Home Nations were playing each other regularly in friendly competitions. Football was still in its nascent stages and various areas throughout the UK had different rules for the game, let alone each country having a stable set of laws. In December 1882 the four nations met in Manchester to contrive a set of worldwide rules, making the fixtures between themselves much fairer and easier to organise. At the very same meeting the four FAs formed the Home Nations Championship – the four team league tournament between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The tournament began in the 1883-84 season with the English and Scottish teams creating a winning duopoly over the competition’s first decades. Wales were the first nation to win the competition outright outside of England and Scotland in 1906-07. Wales would go on to win the competition three times during the 1920s with the win in 1927-28 perhaps a sign of the golden age that was to come at the beginning of the 30s.
As well as the Welsh national team turning into a force, Cardiff City were beginning to cause quite a stir in the Football League. Cardiff became a solid First Division team during the 1920s, even being one victory away from winning the Football League in the 1923-24 season (they lost it to Huddersfield by the narrowest margin in history of the top flight – 0.024 of a goal cost them thanks to the goal average rule of the time). During the decade they were to fall in love with the FA Cup, as they repeatedly enjoyed memorable cup runs. Cardiff were led by their legendary defender and captain Fred Keenor, not the most able of players but a true leader and highly determined player (like an uber-John Terry but more morally sound). Keenor promised in 1925: “Our followers can be sure that Cardiff City will bring that cup (the FA Cup) to Wales.” Keenor kept his promise and in 1927 Keenor and Cardiff won the FA Cup, the only time a Welsh team has won the competition, defeating Arsenal in the final thanks to a solitary Hughie Ferguson goal, aided by a goalkeeping error from Arsenal’s Rhondda-born goalkeeper Dan Lewis. Keenor is soon to be immortalised with a 9ft statue outside the Cardiff City Stadium. Keenor was a large factor in Wales’ 1920s success and he would aid the country in their further development in the 1930s.
Keenor’s last contribution for the Welsh national team is arguably where the golden age begins – the 1932 Home Nations Championship. Keenor was now a true veteran and had left Cardiff City to finish his career at Crewe Alexandra. Keenor’s last game for Wales and Wales’ opener for the 1932 Championships would come against Scotland up at Tynecastle. In front of over 30,000 spectators Wales hammered Scotalnd 5-2, a result more spectacular considering Wales played 80 minutes with ten men following an injury to Charlie Phillips. An own goal by Scotland’s John Thomson and goals from Tom Griffiths, two from Spurs’ Eugene “Taffy” O’Callaghan had Wales 4-0 up at half-time before Aston Villa’s Dai Astley added another just as the second half kicked off, scoring his first goal for his country.
As noted in a recent Lost Boyo profile, Astley would go on to play and coach across Europe, even turning up in Inter Milan’s dugout, but the most successful spell of his career would coincide with Wales’ resurgence as he became the star player of the Wales team of the 1930s. Astley was scoring lots of goals for Aston Villa in the First Division (92 goals in 165 appearances 1931-36) and the Merthyr born forward would become a regular on the score sheet for his country.
Alongside Astley there was countless talent in the side that was victorious at Tynecastle. The double goalscorer ‘Taffy’ O’Callaghan was a forward of immense talent: both footed, with an excellent eye for a pass and a thunderbolt of a shot. O’Callaghan joined Spurs from Ebbw Vale and made a very quick impression at the club. He was a key component in Spurs’ famous ‘greyhounds’ so named to reflect the enthusiastic, quick brand of attacking football they played. Another key player, who would later ply their trade in North-East London with Arsenal, was Stoke goalkeeper Roy John. John was considered an exceptional goalkeeper and was well experienced by the time of the 1932-33 Home Nations came around. One football writer even said of John on his debut against Ireland: “dashing and daring – a gay cavalier who laughs fortune in the face.”
Wales’ second game of the 1933 Home Nations Championships would see them take on the all-conquering English at Wrexham’s famous Racecourse Ground. The Welsh team that stepped out at the Racecourse was very similar to the ensemble that performed so well up at Tynecastle, although following Keenor’s retirement, in stepped the legendary Jimmy Murphy of West Brom. Jimmy Murphy is better known for his amazing career following his playing days as Matt Busby’s assistant manager at Manchester United and for being the manager of Wales in their bid to win the 1958 World Cup. Murphy was the man set with the task of gathering new players together following the 1958 Munich Air Disaster that killed and wounded many of United’s first team (there was a poignant BBC drama called United about Murphy’s time at the club with Murphy played excellently by Doctor Who star David Tennant). Heroically Murphy guided a depleted and quickly assembled team to an FA Cup final as caretaker manager. As well as his excellent coaching career, Murphy was a great talent as a player featuring in over 200 games, mainly at wing-half, during his 1928-1939 spell at West Brom.
Wales faced a formidable England team who were looking to secure their fourth Home Nations Championship title in a row. As well as dominating the Home Nations for the duration of the competitions history England were still a team very much feared throughout the continent, largely because of their reputation as the fathers of the game. In 1931, England had defeated La Furia of Spain in a 7-1 thumping at Highbury – revenge for Spain famously being the only non-British team to win on English soil at the time – and they also went on to beat Scotland 3-0 and Ireland 1-0 at the start of the 1932-33 Home Nations. Wales would secure an impressive 0-0 draw at the Racecourse. The result was made to look all the more impressive as England would go on to beat Hugo Meisl’s famous Austrian ‘Wunderteam’ 3-2 in their next fixture.
Wales’ final fixture of the 1933 Home Nations would come against the Irish in another game at the Racecourse. Wales would defeat the Irish comprehensively in a 4-1 thrashing with 2 goals each from Walter Robbins and star man Astley. Wales were confirmed as champions but England still had the chance to draw for the trophy; Wales would have to wait until England travelled up to Scotland in April 1933 to see whether they would win the trophy outright. England would lose 2-1 at Hampden Park, thanks to two goals from the prolific Jimmy McGrory (who still holds the record for most British goals scored), meaning Wales were crowned the outright winners of the championships. Wales had impressed throughout and they were now targeting success in the 1933-34 championships and their first ever back-to-back titles. Wales would begin their defence at Ninian Park with a 3-2 victory over Scotland. The team was relatively similar to the team that had performed so well in the previous Championships, although the inclusion of Ebbw Vale-born Spurs forward Willie Evans added to their attacking threat. Evans would score 1 of the goals at Ninian Park that day alongside Wales’ regular scorers in their previous campaign, Walter Robbins and talisman Dai Astley. Notably, the game also included the debut of a young Scotsman plying his trade at Manchester City called Matt Busby. Wales’ second game would see them travel to Northern Ireland with a depleted squad list. During football’s embryonic years, club still very much ruled country and club’s had the ultimate option on whether to release their players to play for their nation; Wales’ did not have their best team available for their away trip to Northern Ireland but still managed to secure a 1-1 draw, thanks to a goal from Grimsby Town’s Ernest “Pat” Glover. Once again their final fixture of the Championships would be against England, still in dreamland after defeating the Austrian “Wunderteam”, drawing with the impressive Italian side who would go on to host and win the 1934 World Cup, and defeating Ireland 3-0 and Switzerland 4-0. This time Wales would travel up to Newcastle to take on England at St. James Park. Once again, Wales would emerge triumphant beating the English 2-1 on their own turf; goals came from Dai Astley (who else) and Bryn Jones, the Merthyr born forward who excelled at Wolves before making a further name for himself at Arsenal in a £14k that would smash the world record transfer fee for a footballer.
The Guardian website’s excellent feature ‘Joy of Six’, a feature which selects a certain football topic and picks the 6 greatest examples of this topic (best own goal, best volleyed goal, best Premier League game etc.), wrote a feature entitled: ‘The Joy of Six: Great teams that missed out on the World Cup’; the England team of 1934 was included in the six for their omission from the 1934 World Cup Finals. The writer, Scott Murray’s, main argument for this was that following the finals England would go onto to defeat the World Champions Italy at Highbury in the infamous 3-2 victory dubbed the ‘Battle of Highbury’ because of the full-blooded and brutal action displayed on the pitch. The Italians were 3-0 down before battling back to 3-2 – the aura around England as a footballing nation was demonstrated in the Italian press as they dubbed their players heroes and ‘gladiators’ for even daring to challenge England on their own turf. The victory over the World Champions raised the age-old football cliché of ‘what could have been?’ been for England – they maybe could have won their first World Cup 32 years before 1966. But perhaps the ‘what could have been?’ should have been directed towards the Welsh national team of 1934 and how they could have perhaps secured a World Cup.
Wales had proved that they were the undisputed best team in the Home Nations after securing their first ever back-to-back championship wins. Observers cited England as possibly the best team around at the time, so many came to the conclusion that the Welsh had supplanted them as the team to beat with their 1933 and 1934 Home Nations titles. This view of Britain as the birthplace of football and the domain of the football world’s greatest is the arrogant view that led to the Home Nations vying not to enter the 1934 World Cup Finals in Italy. There was a view amongst the four Home Nations that the World Cup was not a competition worth entering as they felt the quality of their foreign counterparts would be far inferior to the British talent. This refusal to enter the grand stage of football continued until 1938 and with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, a British team would not enter the tournament until 1950. The Home Nations opted to join FIFA in 1946 and agreed to play in the World Cup 4 years later; it was decided that the Home Nations Championships would act as the qualifiers with the top 2 teams going through to the finals. This means that had Wales made themselves eligible for the 1934 World Cup they would have qualified as a result of winning the championships.
Could Wales have won it if they were there? Anything is possible in football and on paper (the only way you could analyse such a hypothetical concept) it certainly looked plausible. Many other footballing nations from around the globe were still in awe of the British game, as the forefathers of football; this sense of awe was what led to many visiting nations struggle to win in Britain. It took until 1929 for a foreign team to win on English soil, as Spain’s La Furia defeated England. Without kicking a ball the Welsh would have certainly entered the tournament with an aura surrounding them just for the virtue of being a British team – the best British team in fact.
Wales certainly had the quality, but the concept of Wales winning the 1934 World Cup comes into question when looking at the line-up of teams that played in the tournament. There was an excellent Czechoslovakia team at the tournament that would get all the way tot he final; there was La Furia of Spain, a nation constantly improving; there was the technically-gifted Hungarians – not quitethe ‘Magical Magyars’ of the 1950s and 60s but still a formidable team – who would get to the quarter finals before being defeated by Austria’s ‘Wunderteam’.
The 1934 World Cup was supposed to be the year that the ‘Wunderteam’ of Austria ruled the footballing world. For the early years of the 1930s they had been invincible. Austrian football had exploded into life in the 1920s after the introduction of a professional league in 1924 and the coffee-house culture in which tactics and footballing philosophy were discussed and debated at length. The undeniable star of the ‘Wunderteam’ was Matthias Sindelar – a player nicknamed ‘Der Papierene’ (The Paper Man) because of his slight built. Theatre critic Alfred Polgar would say in Sindelar’s obituary: “He would play football as a grandmaster plays chess: with a broad mental conception, calculating moves and countermoves in advance, always choosing the most promising of all possibilities.” Some argued that if the World Cup had been two years earlier that the result would be a foregone conclusion with Austria certain champions. In 1934, soem dared to suggest that the great ‘Wunderteam’ was running out of steam and this proved to be the case as they were defeated by Italy in the semi-final in a shock and highly controversial result – which brings me onto the hosts.
Italy were hosting the 1934 World Cup under the Mussolini regime. Mussolini was desperate for Italy to win the World Cup on home soil to show the world what a great country Italy had become under his dictatorship and to spread his fascist propaganda. Italy were managed by the militant-like Vittorio Pozzo, whose style of management is best summed up with his famous quote: “If they can die for Italy then they can play for Italy!” Pozzo deployed an innovative 2-3-2-3 (the WW formation) with the star player Giuseppe Meazza leading the line. Many people know the name Meazza from the San Siro’s alternative name the Stadio Giueseppe Meazza. Meazza was an extraordinary player and many compared him to a bull fighter with his elegance and showmanship; Jonathan Wilson in his must-read Inverting the Pyramid mentions that there was a song at the time that described how Meazza ‘scored to the rhythm of the foxtrot’. Alongside Meazza were the likes of Angelo Schiavo, Raimundo Orsi and Luis Monti – all excellent players. Although the Italians defeated the ‘Wunderteam’, some suggested that Mussolini’s determination to become world champions had led to some underhand tactics. Jules Rimet, who was FIFA president at the time and would eventually have the World Cup trophy named after him, stated: “FIFA are not organising this tournament, he [Mussolini] is.” After some controversial decisions that went in Italy’s favour in both the semi-final against Austria and the final against Czechoslovakia, allegations of bribing referee’s began to circulate – Mussolini even selected which referees would referee Italy’s games. As well on field talents, Mussolini’s influence would have a huge impact on Italy’s fortunes with some people labeling the team ‘Mussolini’s Azzurri’.
In conclusion, do I think Wales could have won the 1934 tournament? They could have certainly had a good go at it and with confidence high in the Welsh camp it would have been the perfect time to have an impact on football’s grandest stage. Although there were some excellent teams at the tournament, Wales could beat anyone on the day and especially with players such as Astley they would have feared no–one. If England could defeat the Austrian ‘Wunderteam’ and the Sapnish team 7-1, why couldn’t the Welsh? Soem may argue that aside from Astley, there were not enough star names gracing the Welsh team to launch a significant effort on becoming World Champions, but this clearly had not hindered them during their impressive Home Nations showings. My doubts about the concept of Wales as 1934 World Champions arise when I think of the host nation Italy. Italy were an excellent team and it seemed inevitable that they would win the tournament. The determined nature of Pozzo to win mixed in with the politcal presure of Mussolini on teh team (and the refs) would have made them a very formidable opposition. There is also the fact that Wales had rarely played teams outside of the four Home Nations so the alien tactical style of Pozzo’s Italy could well have been a shock to the system for the Welsh. Anyway, it’s always nice to think that we certainly would have challenged for the title. What could have been?