In two years, Wales went from Home International wooden spoon holders four times running to 1976 European Football Championship quarter-finalists. Trailing Clouds of Glory: Welsh Football’s Forgotten Heroes of 1976 by Nick Burnell provides the background to qualification, accounts of all matches, examination of the fallout from the campaign’s controversial ending, and a ‘Where are they now?’ section.
“Trailing Clouds of Glory is an instant classic… It’s truly a defining text on the Welsh game, one that readers won’t want to miss.” – ISN Soccer
“This is a superbly researched and sparkily written account of two pivotal years in the history of a Wales team that fully captured the imagination and allegiance of its author’s childhood.” – Jon Gower, Nation.cymru
“In Trailing Clouds of Glory, Nick Burnell chronicles a rare Welsh sporting achievement which deserves a wider telling. But the writer’s own achievement comes in the way he encapsulates the ragged, sometimes rugged, joys of being a football-obsessed kid in the seventies, which will make this book a treat for any fan – Welsh or otherwise – old enough to remember that Gareth Bale hasn’t always been there to save us against Azerbaijan.” – Nick Davies, Wales Arts Review
“Ask most football fans and they will say the only finals Wales ever qualified for were the World Cup in 1958 and the Euros in 2016. Not so. Burnell has trawled the archives and recorded his own interviews to set the record straight. This book details the professionalisation of the Welsh set-up under the new manager Mike Smith and takes you through every game in the qualification. This was a great team…This very readable account is also an homage to the 1970s as Burnell reminds us of the decade that gave us wrestling on TV, Hai Karate aftershave, scarves tied around your wrist and 10CC on the jukebox.” – Tim Hartley, When Saturday Comes Magazine
This is the first chapter of the book…
‘The best of times and those less memorable’
WELSH FOOTBALL WILL rarely be able to afford a ‘clear-out’ of players – there simply aren’t enough of them. However, this, to a degree, is what fate presented to the squad that kicked off the Euro ’76 trail in Vienna, Austria in September 1974. Previously automatic choices like Peter Rodrigues, Ron Davies, Terry Hennessey, Alan Durban and Wyn Davies – any of whom would have walked into the team a year or so earlier – were, for one reason or another, no longer around. Their time as Internationals had passed. Injury, age and indifference had all played their part. Former teammates Gary Sprake, Mike England, John Roberts and Gil Reece would soon follow them into the ranks of ‘former Welsh Internationals’, playing only early cameos in the campaign. These were all Dave Bowen’s men, but now there was a chance to rebuild.
Under Bowen, the recent 1974 World Cup qualifiers had witnessed a couple of promising performances at a time which the more optimistic might describe as ‘lean’. Goals from Leighton James and Trevor Hockey had seen off a strong Poland side in Cardiff. Poland were reigning Olympic champions. They would go on to finish third in the World Cup final stages in West Germany and are remembered as their country’s greatest ever team – Deyna, Lato, Gadocha and Gorgoń among them. In another Group 5 qualifier, at Wembley, John Toshack’s tap-in from Leighton James’ cut-back and an inspired performance from Gary Sprake looked like securing 2 points for Wales, until they were undone by an unlikely thunderbolt from Norman Hunter to level things up. This dropped point would scupper England’s passage to West Germany and the final stages every bit as much as the more famous, agonising 1–1 draw with Poland later in the campaign – the one featuring Jan ‘The Clown’ Tomaszewski, Hunter’s missed tackle on halfway and Domarski’s opener through Shilton – a game that felt like the end of the world for England, and Sir Alf Ramsey in particular. He was asked to step down some six months later. Unfortunately, Wales had succumbed to a sole Colin Bell goal in Cardiff and been crushed 3–0 in the brutal decider in Poland. This was their lot just then: the odd inspired moment, combined with the occasional lapse – or, indeed, collapse.
After the 1974 Home International tournament witnessed disappointing, mundane 2–0 defeats to both England and Scotland and a single-goal victory over Northern Ireland at Wrexham, the FAW had decided – or were forced – to get serious and appoint a full-time manager for the first time in its history. Something had to change. Wales had had a variety of ‘managers’ prior to Bowen’s appointment in October 1964. Ted Robbins was a diligent and successful Secretary (and the term ‘Secretary-Manager’ was not an uncommon one at the time) for the FAW in the interwar years, something of a boom-time for Wales. He oversaw six Home International Championship titles in Wales’ successful period from 1920 through to 1937, but his role was largely administrative, with tactics then generally devised by the senior players. Former Arsenal full back Walley Barnes could stake a claim to be the first Wales manager, taking up the reins for the 2–0 defeat in Vienna in 1954. Barnes, however, had no say in team selection, which was still done by committee, so maybe ‘manager’ is pushing it a little. Next up, in 1956, was Jimmy Murphy, who divided his time between coaching Busby’s Babes at Manchester United and the country he had represented 15 times whilst also playing as a half back with West Bromwich Albion. Most history books refer to him as Wales’ first proper manager, and he would have his moment with the squad in Sweden in 1958.
However, when Trevor Morris sat in to deputise for the Northern Ireland game in 1964, the writing was on the wall. The demands of the ‘modern’ game, and age, were catching up with Murphy, who left to concentrate on his role at Old Trafford. Former Wales skipper Dave Bowen was appointed on a part-time basis before their next fixture against Scotland. Twelve months later former Spurs legend Ron Burgess filled in for one game when Bowen was unavailable due to his involvement with Northampton Town. In a clear sign of the power wielded by the Football League clubs, particularly over the smaller ‘home’ Associations, the senior Wales team were dancing to Northampton’s tune. When one remembers that Jimmy Murphy had only swerved United’s fatal trip to Belgrade (in the quarter-final of the European Cup, no less) because the Wales team were playing on the same afternoon against Israel, the reduced status of the national team becomes clear.
The successful candidate for the full-time post in 1974 would have responsibility for the full International team, the Under-23s and Youth sides, as well as coaching and development of the game in Wales. Incumbent part-time manager Bowen had given sterling service over the previous ten years. In his day, the boy from Nantyffyllon had been a cultured wing half with Northampton Town and – more famously – Arsenal, as well as winning 19 caps for Wales. At Highbury, alongside Derek Tapscott, Jack Kelsey and Wally Barnes, he had been one of four Welsh Internationals who were fixtures in the first team squad in the mid Fifties. His International teammate Mel Charles recalls his skipper’s influence: ‘Dave Bowen was a great player and a fantastic leader, really good at lifting those around him whenever the chips were down.’2 Qualities that would have marked him out as future management material. He would die in 1995, aged 67, and is remembered at Northampton’s Sixfields Stadium, where a stand carries his name, and in the Duston area of Northampton, where Dave Bowen Close was named in his honour. His son Keith (a Welsh Schoolboy International) would go on to play professionally for Northampton and Brentford before being signed by Cyril Lea at Colchester. A car crash put paid to his professional career and prompted a move to non-league Barnet in their push for Football League status in the 1987/88 season. Ivan Ponting’s touching obituary for Dave Bowen in The Independent pays tribute to the man who gave so much: ‘Through the best of times and those less memorable, the cause of Welsh football had no more devoted, passionate and inspirational champion than Dave Bowen… He was a storming, passionate performer – teammates reckoned he made more noise on the pitch than any dozen fans.’
The Sixties were a somewhat underwhelming time for the national team, regardless of the best efforts of the manager and some of the talent available. Despite the odd spirited performance or worthy victory, the annual Home Internationals had become an exercise in wooden spoon avoidance and tournament qualifying campaigns were soon reduced to a series of ‘dead rubbers’: meaningless fixtures with starting XIs sprinkled with journeymen professionals from the lower leagues – always up for the fight – but devoid of their more influential players, who were happily obliging their club managers by feigning injury and getting some rest.
Gary Sprake remembers the problems faced by Bowen: ‘Poor old Dave, it was a very difficult job for him as on many occasions we could only put out the bare eleven, and under those circumstances a disciplinary management style was impossible.’ Sprake’s name would regularly crop up amid rumours that players were being paid their match fees by their clubs in order not to show up for International duty, as he relates in his book, Careless Hands: ‘It was expected of you as a Leeds player that you put the club first; it was the unwritten law.’ Only 37 caps for a keeper who made his debut as a 16 year old with Leeds, and at 19 with Wales, tells its own story. His understudy, the ever-willing Tony Millington, who spent his career mostly in the lower reaches of the Football League, would pick up 21 caps in the same period. Sprake’s club colleague Terry Yorath confirms: ‘Don (Revie) always hinted that he didn’t like his players going away on International duty – he actually said that he would rather we stayed at Elland Road and the rewards would be better if we did.’
Bowen was powerless against the might of the Football League clubs – not just Leeds United – who decided that club, invariably, came before country. ‘It’s no use moaning about our hardships. We just make the best of things, and get on with the job,’ he reasoned. Looking back on it all, he regarded the 1–1 draw at Wembley in the 1974 World Cup qualifiers as one of his greatest moments: ‘No match sent me home happier… Beating Poland in the first game (in the same group) was another tremendous moment, so was beating Russia at Cardiff in the qualifying rounds of the 1966 World Cup; and then there was the 1–1 draw against West Germany in Frankfurt in 1969.’ The disappointments must have been many and various, but Bowen picked out the 3–0 defeat against Poland at the Stadion Śląski, Chorzow, which snuffed out Wales’ 1974 World Cup qualification hopes: ‘We were so near.’
Dave Roberts, on the bench that night in Poland, sympathised with the man who had introduced him to the U23 set-up, suggesting any blame may have lain elsewhere: ‘Dave did as well as he possibly could with the time he was afforded, the facilities he was afforded and the players available. Maybe the FAW needed to be brought into the twentieth century.’
Roberts, who signed his first pro contract for Bobby Robson at Fulham on the same day as future England centre forward Malcolm Macdonald, had every reason to be grateful as he was one of Bowen’s original clutch of ‘Anglos’, drafted in following the parental qualification rule where a parent’s birthplace was, quite reasonably, deemed sufficient entitlement to wear the International jersey. Previously, one’s own place of birth had been the sole determining factor. Roberts’ parents were WelshT speakers from the village of Talwrn on Anglesey. ‘We had some great guys: people like Ian Evans, John Phillips the goalkeeper and Trevor (Hockey), who was just a gentleman of the first order.’ He remembers his circuitous route into International football: ‘It was just a loose word on a drunken night.
I’d moved to Oxford (from Fulham) and the goalkeeper there, Mick Kearns, had a distinctive Midlands accent and I couldn’t understand why he was playing for Eire. He said, “Well, my mother and father are Irish.” Then I said, “Well, my mother and father are from Anglesey. Does that make me Welsh?” I was too young to think about it too much at the time, but he was a great mate of mine and I thank him completely for it because he went and told the manager. Next thing I know, Dave Bowen turned up to a couple of games.’
‘So, from being a “sarf” London boy, I’m lining up singing the Welsh National anthem. It’s probably one of the nicest times of my life because I could see my mum and dad up in the crowd and they were singing to their hearts’ content. Lovely… It did change my life a little bit because I couldn’t understand why my mum and dad were so Welsh, because I was brought up just outside London. But now I understand.’ He recalls Bowen’s technical advice before his debut against Poland, in Cardiff: ‘I think Dave Bowen said on the night, in his own inimitable way, “Treat the ball like your wife. Kiss it, cuddle it and caress it. But don’t give it away!” And that’s all he said!’
Players with the top clubs could see that the Welsh setup was amateurish and somewhat shambolic. Everton’s Dai Davies recalls his introduction to the senior squad around this time: ‘Everything about the preparation of the team reeked of one word: amateurism. There was no feeling of pride in the establishment at all. The shirts and sports kit were old and, almost without exception, full of holes. It was impossible to feel good in such rags… On a bus back from a training session, the whole attitude came into perspective. I can still see the captain, Alan Durban, walking down the bus with an old Woodbine packet in his hand. Off this pack he was announcing names – yes, the names of the players who would be representing Wales… On the night before the game… the players were given full freedom to do as they would. Nobody would have believed that there was an International match facing them, seeing them swilling beer and preparing for a night on the town.’
Striker John Toshack, who had made his debut in the 1–1 draw in Frankfurt under Bowen, conceded that the odds were stacked against the manager: ‘His only assistant was Jack Jones, who was past his 60th birthday, but who still ran on to the field to treat the injured players… The whole set-up was a bit of a shambles in those days, and some of the players with more fashionable clubs were not really too concerned about turning up for the less glamorous matches.’
Terry Yorath admits that the FAW were ‘a little Mickey Mouse’ compared to the ultra-professionalism of the Leeds ‘family’ he had been brought up in: ‘Being with Wales was a bit of a culture shock.’ He recalls the build-up to his debut in Rome: ‘I was told to meet up with the Welsh party at Heathrow Airport but I wasn’t given any directions about a specific gate or terminal number. So I was wandering around the airport clutching my two bags… Switching from a very professional outfit to a part-time, almost amateur set-up actually meant I was far more relaxed about it.’
Leighton Phillips still has an obvious loyalty to the man who gave him his International debut, but realised that times were changing. ‘Dave Bowen was the one who gave me my first cap against Czechoslovakia at Swansea in 1971, so I had a few seasons under him and have to respect him; but preparation wasn’t that good, to be honest with you. I remember going to Czechoslovakia, I think it was, and nothing was arranged for us to do any training when we arrived. So we just trained where there were swings and beautiful gardens and what have you. The local park!’ Shades here of the 1958 squad’s preparation in London’s Hyde Park under Murphy, dodging the attention of the park-keepers, prior to departure to Sweden and the World Cup.
‘Dave would then get his pennies out on the board to show you where to go! That was his team talk! I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to disrespect Dave Bowen, but the organisation wasn’t there. What can you say? Time goes on, football goes on. Dave was getting on and they were crying out for a change. Football was changing, like it’s changed over the last couple of years.’ He realised there was a degree of inevitability to Bowen’s eventual departure: ‘Like all managers, they come and go.’ Time and tide wait for no man.
Former full back Peter Rodrigues, whose Welsh appearances are neatly framed within the Bowen years, makes the point that Wales never built up sufficient momentum to be organised. ‘Organisation was not our strongest point, but I’m not having a go at Dave Bowen because personally I found him great… Whereas England could arrange friendly matches, we couldn’t afford it. I played for Wales for 10 years and won only 40 caps. Four competitive matches a year hardly gave Dave much of a chance to sort out the balance.’
Wales were caught in a trap in this respect. Before glasnost swept across Eastern Europe as the 1980s became the 1990s, qualifying groups were, typically, smaller. After the First World War and the redrawing of Europe’s boundaries, the political combinations of countries like the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia had swallowed up many of the smaller countries that would later enjoy political and footballing independence. Wales were one of only three teams in their qualifying group for the World Cups of 1970, 1974 and 1978, usually as cannon fodder for two better-placed teams. They had yet to experience the pain and ignominy of defeats to countries like Moldova and Belarus. Games were fewer and no momentum, or money, was being generated. After the 3–0 defeat in Poland in September 1973, Wales would have to wait some seven and a half months until their next fixture against England at Cardiff on 11 May 1974 – virtually the whole season. The media profile of the national team in Wales was at ground level, or lower. For this generation, and many who came after, topping up your appearance record in tournament football was a pipe dream.
Cyril Lea had worked as number two to Bowen in the manager’s later days in charge and realised the constraints he had to work under: ‘Dave Bowen did a fine job but he was limited by availability.’ Withdrawals, and a degree of player apathy, were part and parcel of the job.
Alongside his international commitments, Bowen had steered Northampton from the old Fourth to the First Division in double-quick time, culminating in the 1965/66 season, their only one to date in the top tier; but was seemingly helpless as they made the return trip with equal rapidity – although he did step aside from 1967–69, during which time the club were relegated to Division Four.
His friend, the journalist Ken Jones, wrote in The Independent, ‘Defying all logic and in the short space of four years, Dave Bowen had brought Northampton through from the Fourth Division on a budget that now would not cover the laundry bill at Old Trafford. Amazingly, to my mind, he turned a profit in the process… In the summer of 1965 people in Northampton pinched themselves and marvelled at Bowen’s achievement… Shortly after gaining promotion to the top flight, Bowen asked his directors how much money there was to spend on players. All local businessmen, they went into a huddle. When they came up with ￡25,000, Bowen looked at them blankly. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “Sorry,” came the reply, “that’s all we can raise between us.”’
The Eire International Theo Foley, who signed for Northampton from Exeter under Bowen, had the highest regard for his new manager: ‘I absolutely loved him. A very clever man, brought up at Arsenal the right way.’ The side was generally regarded as somewhat over-physical and few tears were shed outside Northampton as they made the reverse journey back to football’s basement.
As well as Bowen, several other candidates were in the running for the full-time Wales manager’s job. The bookies’ favourite was former Busby Babe and United boss Wilf McGuinness, with former Villa manager and Welsh International Vic Crowe also in the frame alongside FAW Director of Coaching at that time, Mike Smith. These three candidates, along with the incumbent part-time manager, had been whittled down from a list of twenty applicants. ‘McGuinness in line for the Welsh job’, ran the Mirror headline of 13 May 1974, two days after the defeat to England in Cardiff. McGuinness was at that point coaching at Aris Thessaloniki in Greece, and it’s conceivable that he’d been tipped off by Murphy about the vacancy. McGuinness’ 18 months or so in charge at Old Trafford are now regarded as the gateway to a miserable relegation from the top tier in 1974 (by which time Tommy Docherty was in charge – after Frank O’Farrell had also had a bash at it), his failure to rejuvenate an ageing squad riddled with cliques and interference from the board proving critical. Senior professionals at the club were said to be largely contemptuous of the appointment and his involvement in the first-team card school may not have helped his cause.
Centre half Dave Roberts looked back fondly and offered his opinion on McGuinness – ‘Wilf was a coach of mine at Hull City. He’d been at Man United for a while. What a jack-in-the box he was! He used to dress up as a dirty old man or whatever and walk into the players’ room or the physio’s room and you’d wonder, “Who is that?” Then all of a sudden he’d whip his coat off and it was Wilf! He was a larger-than-life character. A wonderful character to have around, but I’m not sure if Wilf could have changed his persona that much, to become an International manager!’ Wales may just have dodged the bullet here. McGuinness was soon after appointed manager at Second Division York City, leading them through two successive relegations before leaving as the re-election places at the foot of Division Four beckoned. It was his last senior appointment in football.
Crowe, whose strong Black Country accent belied his Abercynon roots, was fresh to the managerial marketplace, having recently been fired by Villa. He’d led them to the Third Division title and a League Cup Final, but his four years in charge had ended after the board deemed a 14th place finish in the second tier unacceptable. He had travelled with Wales to Sweden for the World Cup in 1958, while signed to Villa, and finished his career with 16 caps.
With respect to those involved, it’s fair to say that the FAW were fumbling around in the bargain bins in their search for their next manager. The door was opening for a bloke called Smith.
Trailing Clouds of Glory: Welsh Football’s Forgotten Heroes of 1976 by Nick Burnell is available now (Y Lolfa, £9.99)