As Bad As Things Got: Wales At The Euros, 16th November 1994
It could have all been so different. A team that had failed to qualify for every major international tournament it had entered over the previous three and a half decades had just missed out on World Cup qualification, only for the next opportunity to come up to be hosted by the only country with which it shares a border. There had been several close shaves over the previous two decades or longer, but this time around they had a talented team, including one of the most exciting young players in the world at the time.
If there was a tournament that a team was destined to reach, then surely it should have been Wales and the 1996 European Championships. Somehow, though, the legacy of the team’s narrowly failed attempt to make the 1994 World Cup finals was squandered in the most spectacular way possible, with the Football Association of Wales contriving to find a way to turn a team that was the width of a crossbar from making the finals of the World Cup into something approaching an also-ran for the next two decades.
It took just 364 days for Welsh football to descend from its highest height. On the 17th November 1993, they’d been tied at 1-1 with Romania in their final World Cup qualifying match when Paul Bodin stepped up to take a penalty kick. Wales needed a win to qualify, but as a nation held its breath, Bodin’s kick bounced out off the bar and into infamy. Romania won the match 2-1 and Wales best chance of qualifying for the finals of a major tournament since 1958 vanished into the night.
The morning after the Romania defeat, manager Terry Yorath’s contract expired. Yorath had already expressed his dissatisfaction at the fact that the FAW hadn’t even spoken to him about extending his contract. He was aware that they were waiting to see whether his team qualified for USA ’94, but he’d come about as close as it was possible to get and believed that he was due a modest pay increase for his troubles. It was suggested that the sticking point came down to an extra £30 a week, and the FAW weren’t going to back down. Yorath’s contract was not extended.
His replacement was John Toshack, but the circumstances surrounding his appointment cast doubt over whether either he or the FAW considered the Welsh national football team to be that important. Toshack was taking the job in a part-time capacity, and he quickly stated his intention that his other job, in Spain with Real Sociedad, would remain his first priority if any other international matches should clash with domestic ones.
Toshack took charge for his first game, a friendly against Norway, in March 1994, but he arrived in Wales only two nights before the match and only took a single training session with the team before the match. Norway beat Wales 3-1, and the team was booed from the pitch at both half-time and full-time. Four days later, he resigned amid talk of “political war”, telling the press that “I want to wash my hands of the whole affair”. The manager, who’d made forty appearances over eleven years for Wales, had lasted just 48 days as their manager.
There was conjecture that Toshack’s departure might create an opening for Terry Yorath to return, but by this time Yorath was suing the FAW for wrongful dismissal, having described their treatment of him as “humiliating”. The bad blood engendered by the nature of his departure proved too thick to move past. John Toshack had, after all, told the press that the FAW never had any intention of renewing Yorath’s contract.
None of this was to say, though, that the FAW was averse to looking back in order to look forward. Mike Smith had been in charge of the team when they reached the quarter-finals of the 1976 European Championships and then narrowly failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup finals. After this, Smith had been the manager of Hull City for three years before being sacked in 1982, and had then gone on to lead Egypt to the 1986 African Cup of Nations. He hadn’t managed in Britain for almost a decade and a half, but this didn’t seem to be an issue for the FAW, who appointed him anyway.
Smith’s immediate task was daunting. The 1996 European Championships had been awarded to England, raising the stakes still further, with the narrow failure of 1993 still hanging heavy in the mind. And even though the Euros had been expanded from eight to sixteen teams, circumstances had conspired against Wales. The qualifying draw had put them in a group with Germany, a Bulgaria team which had been one of the surprise packages of the 1994 World Cup finals, two relatively unknown quantities just starting out following the fall of the Soviet Union, Moldova and Georgia, and makeweights Albania.
The scale of the task ahead of Smith became apparent with his first match, a friendly against Sweden. In a sign of just how rapidly the stock of the national team had fallen, just 4,700 people turned out at The Racecourse Ground in Wrexham to see Sweden win comfortably, by two goals to nil. Five weeks later Smith recorded his first win, by two goals to one against Estonia in Tallinn. It was a win, and that was about the most positive thing that they could take from it.
September 1994 brought the first round of qualifying matches for Euro 96, and Wales started in a perfunctory style, with a 2-0 win against Albania at Cardiff Arms Park, thanks to goals from Chris Coleman and Ryan Giggs. This had been expected and was welcome, but it was only really a warm-up for greater challenges to come. The next four matches, against Moldova, Georgia, and then a double-header against Bulgaria, would determine how realistic their chances of making the finals would be.
A month after the Albania game, Wales travelled to Chisinau to play Moldova. It was Moldova’s first home competitive match as an independent nation, and the idea soon started to form within the FAW that they hadn’t put a great deal of thought into how they might accommodate others. The experience of having visited as a UEFA representative meant that Alun Evans of the FAW was fully aware of the issues that such a trip presented and, with food poisoning having blighted his previous trip, Wales travelled for the first time with their own personal chef.
It was what – or, rather, who – they travelled without that turned out to be more damaging for Wales’ chances. Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes and Dean Saunders all missed the trip through a mixture of injury and suspension. They were probably glad to not be going. Training had to be arranged to coincide with the hot water available at the hotel between 11 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon. There were cockroaches in the hotel rooms, and when they turned on the showers the water was brown. Captain Barry Horne was later say that, “If ever poor preparation led to a poor performance this was it.” Moldova won by the match by three goals to two.
This was a setback, but surely things couldn’t go so badly again a month later in Georgia. Ian Rush, Dean Saunders and Mark Hughes were all available, the first time all three had been available for more than a year, but still there was a suspicion that all wasn’t right within the Welsh camp, with rumours circulating that Hughes wasn’t making the trip because of Smith’s involvement as manager.
Tblisi was hosting its second ever Georgia match, and the trip there proved to be at least as difficult as their previous trip to Chisinau. Georgia was designated an official United Nations war zone. The country had separated from Russia less than three years earlier and was by this time dealing with civil conflicts as Abkhazia and South Ossetia fought secessionist battles across the region. There were reports that the manager of the hotel in which they were staying had been shot inside the hotel just weeks earlier. When asked about the situation in the country, Ian Rush told the press that, “If it’s as dangerous as we are led to believe, UEFA surely wouldn’t have sent us here. It’s not the right preparation for such an important game. Maybe the less we know about it the better.”
Upon arriving at the hotel, the Wales delegation were greeted by metal detectors and signs signalling no guns allowed outside the hotel, which was protected by armed guards but lit by candles. They decided to head straight to the stadium to train – Tblisi is four hours ahead of UK time – only to find it locked. When the players tried to relax in the hotel, they were interrupted by the sound of gunfire in the distance. A grand total of eleven supporters made the trip, few enough for them to be able to travel with the players. For all the preparation, this trip was just uncomfortable as their previous one to Moldova had been.
Georgia had started 1994 by finishing as runners-up to Slovenia in the Malta International Tournament, but since then their form had been patchy, losing friendly matches against Israel and Nigeria, snatching a win and a draw from further friendlies against Latvia and Malta, and then losing their first two World Cup qualifiers, 1-0 against Moldova and 2-0 in Bulgaria. For all this, though, there was obvious talent in their team. Georgi Kinkladze and Temuri Ketsbaia would both go on to shine in the Premier League, while Shola Arveladze would do likewise in Scotland, the Netherlands and Spain.
Somehow, though, the warnings were missed. For half an hour Wales weathered the storm, but after half an hour the Welsh defence went absent without leave, allowing Ketsbaia all the time in the world to control the ball and loft it over Neville Southall for his and his team’s first home competitive international goal.
What followed was probably the most disastrous hour in the history of the Welsh national football team. Four minutes from half-time, with the Wales defence apparently having forgotten that they needed to defend both sides of their penalty area, Kinkladze added a second goal. Half-time may have brought fifteen minutes’ respite for Wales, but it didn’t seem to make any difference to their prospects of getting something from the game. Four minutes into the second half Ketsbaia scored his second of the night, again from the left hand side of the penalty area. Eight minutes later, Gocha Gogrichiani added a fourth. After 67 minutes, Arveladze scored the fifth. This wasn’t just a repeat of Moldova. This had found a way to be even worse. It was the tiniest of consolations that Georgia didn’t make the final score even worse for them than 5-0 in its final quarter.
By the following March, Bulgaria had extinguished whatever remaining hopes that the most optimistic might have had might have clung onto that Wales might join England and Scotland at Euro 96. Four weeks after the Georgia debacle, Bulgaria arrived in Cardiff for the next match, and two by three goals to nil. Three and a half months later, they won the return match in Sofia 3-1. Mike Smith did start to turn a corner of sorts with this team. They drew their next match in Dusseldorf against Germany – their best result in several years – and, after losing at home to Georgia in June 1995, picked up their second win with a 1-0 win against Moldova at the start of September.
By this time, though, it was over. Just 6,271 turned out at Cardiff Arms Park for the Moldova game, and Smith left soon afterwards. Almost miraculously, though, things managed to get even worse under his replacement, Bobby Gould. Wales played out their Euro 96 campaign with a home defeat against Germany and a draw in Albania, but with their 1998 World Cup qualifiers de to start with a double-header against San Marino, Gould decided that it would be a good idea to prepare for the match by playing lower league British clubs. So it was that, on the 26th May 1996, Welsh football reached its actual lowest ebb, a 2-1 defeat away to Leyton Orient which has been considered the worst result in their entire history. Somehow, Gould remained in his job until 1999. It would take until 2016 for Wales to finally qualify for the finals of a major international tournament.
Wales’ failures during the mid-1990s were a conflation of events set in motion by the decision not to renew Terry Yorath’s contract after their missing out on a place at the 1994 World Cup finals. To a point, it was bad luck. Moldova and Georgia were some way beyond ‘tricky’ places to visit in 1994, of that there’s no doubt, and it’s similarly true to say that by this time their most talented players – Neville Southall, Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and Dean Saunders – were all past their peaks, while wunderkid Ryan Giggs already seemed more attached his club team than his national team.
But the John Toshack debacle and the decision to reappoint Mike Smith after a break of fifteen years following Toshack’s decision to walk away were both self-inflicted, while it has also since been admitted by a couple of players of the time that a degree of complacency had spread into the team. As Dean Saunders said of the Georgia game, “We’d become used to winning and I think we thought we could just turn up with the players we had and get the job done.”
It took a long time to exorcise the ghosts of 1993, but the team’s outstanding performance at Euro 2016 went a long way towards doing so, and qualification for this summer’s tournament has wiped away the disappointment of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals. Getting though a group which also contains Italy, Turkey and Switzerland would be almost as big an achievement as anything they achieved in France five years ago, but even if they don’t, then there is at least the consolation of knowing that they got to the finals in the first place, and that things aren’t likely to be as bad again as they were on the 16th November 1994.