As World Cup fever sweeps the world, Lost Boyos looks back on 1958 – arguably the most important year in Welsh football history. The year the Red Dragons qualified for the World Cup in Sweden. In this first part of two, we look at the road Wales took to the World Cup and the unorthodox nature to how they qualified.
FIFA President Jules Rimet’s vision of a worldwide football tournament finally came to fruition in 1930, as Uruguay became the inaugural hosts of the first ever World Cup and also the eventual first champions. Rimet’s idea for such a tournament had come about having been inspired by the football tournaments held in the Olympics during the early 1900s. However, it is perhaps fair to say that the early FIFA World Cups during the 1930s were not universally well-received with Rimet having to cajole European teams to attend the 1930 tournament and subsequently then South American teams to cross the Atlantic for the 1934 and 1938 tournaments in Italy and France.
After a hiatus during the 1940s as the world found itself at war, the competition returned in 1950 and has since been played every 4 years. This is where Wales enter the story. Wales’ first conquest on a World Cup qualifying campaign would come in 1950; 16 campaigns later, and Wales still haven’t qualified for a World Cup – apart from the one: 1958. Although some may even suggest that Wales did not even qualify for that one – or at least not in the ordinary manner. Technically their actual qualifying group was not a successful one for the Welsh and instead the nation would qualify for the World Cup in perhaps the strangest circumstances in World Cup history.
In 1950 and 54, the Home Nations tournament between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland was used as the qualification decider for the World Cups in Brazil and Switzerland with the top two teams proceeding to the World Cups. 1950 saw England and Scotland qualify, although Scotland pulled out of the tournament, and the same two British nations would also qualify for the 1954 World Cup with Scotland actually going to the World Cup this time. However, for the 1958 World Cup, which was to be hosted by Sweden, the Home Nations Championships were no longer used as a World Cup qualification determiner and for the first time the British clubs would be drawn in groups with other European teams.
Wales would find themselves with a tough looking 3 team group alongside Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Tough group or not, there was a lot of expectation on the Welsh team to qualify as the 1950s saw the emergence of a genuine ‘golden generation’ of Welsh footballers. There was the ‘golden boy’ himself Ivor Allchurch and his brother Len Allchurch; the other Swansea-born brothers of Mel and John Charles with John ‘The Gentle Giant’ Charles being genuinely considered one of the greatest players in world football at the time (and in two positions) having just signed for Juventus for a world record fee from Leeds United; alongside the two sets of brothers was Cliff Jones, a player who was on the move from Swansea to Tottenham, where he would go on to be one of the stars of Bill Nicholson’s double winning team and to be generally considered the best left winger in the world. Plus, throw in players such as Roy Paul, Terry Medwin and goalkeeper Jack Kelsey to name just a few and you have yourself one talented looking squad.
As well as, the famous red shirts of Wales being draped on star players, the touchline was also patrolled by a footballing legend: Jimmy Murphy. At the time, Murphy was Matt Busby’s right hand man at Manchester United and was helping the Scotsman forge the iconic ‘Busby Babes’ into one of the most formidable teams this country had ever seen. Being a club manager never appealed to Murphy, as he was always far happier on the training pitch coaching players, especially young players, yet the allure of leading his nation and taking on the challenge of taking Wales to the World Cup was too much for Rhondda-born Murphy to resist. As of 1956, Murphy would juggle his role of nurturing United’s youthful team with leading Welsh football’s golden age.
Of course, the history of the Welsh national team is littered with talented-looking squads which have gone on to largely underwhelm. Despite making a good start to qualifying with a 1-0 win over Czechoslovakia at Ninian Park courtesy of a Roy Vernon goal, there were soon signs that this may well be a disappointing campaign – something that Wales fans would get use to over the subsequent 50 odd years later.
An Eastern European double whammy saw Wales head to East Germany and Czechoslovakia in the space of a week and arrive back home empty-handed. In front of a bumper 120,000 spectators in Leipzig, Wales lost 2-1 to the East Germans in their first ever competitive fixture, despite Mel Charles giving Wales an earlier lead. 7 days later on the 26th May 1957, the Czechs comfortably beat Wales 2-0 in Prague and followed their triumph over Wales with two wins over East Germany. Despite high hopes coming into the qualifying group, Wales’ qualification dream was over.
Wales showed how destructive they could be on their day four months after their defeat to Czechoslovakia by absolutely demolishing East Germany with a 4-1 win at Ninian Park. By now, Juventus had begun the ritual of hindering Wales by refusing to release John Charles regularly for international duty, but in his place stepped in Des Palmer, who scored a hatrick to aid Wales’ rout of East Germany.
With Czechoslovakia winning 4-1 out in Leipzig, the group was finished with Czechoslovakia finishing in top spot and ultimately qualifying for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Wales, who finished 2nd in the group, would have to wait another day for their World Cup dreams to come true. Fortunately, for Wales that day was much closer than they could have possibly imagined.
December 1957: unexpected news began to flood through of issues arising in the Asian Group of qualifying, as political tensions saw nations refusing to play Israel, thanks to the Suez crisis of 1956. Turkey downright refused to play Israel, whilst Indonesia stated they would only play Israel on neutral ground – a proposition that was denied by FIFA. Egypt would withdraw themselves from the qualification process, as would Sudan after them. The one remaining team in the final Africa and Asia qualifying group was to be Israel. FIFA rules state that no team can automatically qualify for the World Cup without playing a single match and so the idea of a play-off match was decided on.
Israel’s opponents would be decided by a lottery process placing all the group runners-up in a hat. Italy and Uruguay refused to join the draw leaving nine names placed in the draw, including Wales. Belgium were the team pulled from the hat and given a second shot at qualifying the World Cup, but then opted to not play the play-off game out of pride. The next team out of the hat were the Welsh and unlike the collection of teams before them, they were happy to take on Israel in a two-legged play-off to decide who would go onto the 1958 finals.
The Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv would be the site for the first leg. With Juventus letting John Charles play in Wales crucial play-off games, Wales would leave Israel with the ball very much in their court, as they triumphed 2-0 thanks to goals from Len Allchurch and Dave Bowen (who would go onto to be Wales manager between 1964 and 1974).
Less than a month later, Wales would take on Israel once again in the decisive second leg at Ninian Park. The 2-0 lead had made many believe that Wales would go on to hammer the Israelis in the second leg, yet the Welsh team were to endure a frustrating afternoon courtesy of the away team’s goalkeeper, Ya’acov Chodorov. Chodorov stopped everything that came his way, until Wales finally broke the deadlock in the 76th minute thanks to a Ivor Allchruch goal, which was closely followed by a Cliff Jones to make the game 2-0. Despite the heroic display on the day, Chodorov would not depart Wales with the rest of Israel’s travelling contingent and instead he’d spend the night in a Cardiff hospital. An accidental collision with the ‘Gentle Giant’ himself, John Charles, had seen Chodorov just about the finish game, but in a bad way. Always the gentleman, Charles was the first to visit Chodorov in hospital, followed by many of the Welsh team; in fact, Welsh goalkeeper Jack Kelsey and Chodorov would go onto be friends and Kelsey would even meet up with Chodorov at Highbury, long after Kelsey had retired his number 1 shirt at Arsenal.
Final score: Wales 2-0 Israel – 4-0 on aggregate. Wales were going to the World Cup, yet not representing Europe, but technically as representatives of Asia and Africa having technically qualified through their qualifying group. No-one would care about the technicalities though, as the Welsh national team was representing Wales and that’s all that mattered. This World Cup would also be the first and last time that all four Home Nations would qualify for a World Cup together. Sweden beckoned in a few months time, but for now the Welsh team would party long into the night and into the next morning celebrating their triumph over Israel, yet Wales’ qualification was going to be tinged with tragedy for their manager.
Jimmy Murphy was supposed to be with Manchester United out in Belgrade for their European Cup game against Red Star Belgrade, but Busby had given his good friend permission to head to Cardiff instead and oversee one of the most important days for football on Welsh soil. If Murphy had travelled to Belgrade and been aboard the flight back to Manchester, which was to stop in Munich to refuel, it would have been likely that he would have been sitting in the seat next to Busby. It was to be Bert Whalley who took that seat and died in it, along with 22 others. Murphy arrived back at an eerily quiet Old Trafford the day after Wales’ glorious victory to learn of the tragedy we now know today as the ‘1958 Munich Air Disaster’.
In another article on this very site, I wrote in much more detail about how incredible Murphy’s achievements were with a tragedy-ridden Manchester United whilst Matt Busby lay in a hospital bed in Munich (you can read the article here); however, it must also be remembered that despite carrying a lot of the weight of Manchester United on his shoulders in Busby’s absence and in the aftermath of Munich, Murphy was also preparing Wales for a World Cup only 3 months on from when he had lost many of his colleagues and good friends to one of football’s most horrific tragedies.
It is out in Sweden that we continue our story of 1958 in part 2 coming soon.