The Balkan Complex

Wales will round off their 2016-17 season by heading to Belgrade in Serbia on 11 June. In 26 games against Yugoslavia and its composite independent nations dating back to 1953 Wales have triumphed only twice – and never on Balkan soil – and lost 16 times. In this blog Russell Todd looks back through some of these games where drama, farce and tragedy frequently loom large.

Yugoslavia 2-0 Wales, 1976

Wales 1-1 Yugoslavia, 1976

Until 1980 and the expansion to two groups of four teams, the European Championships finals comprised only four teams. Having won a qualifying group for the first, and only, time in its history Wales were drawn with the hosts of the finals, Yugoslavia (this was the last Euros in which the host had to qualify for its own finals).

Sandwiched between the first leg, a 2-0 defeat in Zagreb in April 1976 in which Wales conceded in the opening minute, and the return at Ninian Park a month later was the entire Home Championship. The East German Rudi Glöckner was appointed referee and considered to have pedigree. Three days earlier Glöckner had officiated the second leg of the Uefa Cup Final between triumphant Liverpool and Club Brugge, and six years earlier was considered the neutral choice for the 1970 World Cup final between Italy and Brazil after each country objected to a referee from their opponents’ respective continents; Brazil were content with a referee from a Communist country. He had refereed at the 1974 World Cup too. There had appeared little prospect for controversy before the game in which the odds were stacked against Wales but a fervent, and drunken, Ninian Park crowd was ready to roar their dragons on.

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Glöckner however took centre stage from the off. He inexplicably booked Leighton Phillips when an opponent crashed into him. He bought an obvious dive by Danilo Popivoda and awarded a penalty that the same player converted to put Yugoslavia 3-0 ahead on aggregate with 70 minutes of the tie left to play; away goals did not count in the tie so Wales still needed to score 3 times (which, other than in two games against Luxembourg, they had not done in five years). Wales launched everything at Yugoslavia but Glöckner’s display became ever more eccentric – or bent – as he ignored blatant foul play (Leighton James is spotted on the little Youtube footage that exists drawing to the linesman’s attention a punch in the face); whistled for the most innocuous of challenges; disallowed two John Toshack goals, one for offside and one for interpreting an overhead kick as dangerous play; and for buying the Yugoslavs’ gamesmanship. The Welsh fans’ chants of ‘Sieg Heil’ probably did not help matters. The FAW mistakenly displaying the West German flag before the game definitely did not.

Brian Flynn, playing up front in a little-and-large partnership with Toshack, missed a sitter before Ian Evans pulled one goal back. Terry Yorath missed a late penalty, the first he had ever taken – “I was petrified” – but suggestions of an Iron Curtain conspiracy were difficult to suppress. Fans of both nations invaded the pitch at the end with Glöckner receiving a police escort to protect him from Welsh fans. The ugly scenes led initially to Wales being banned from participating in the 1980 European Championships. The punishment was reduced to being prevented from playing within 200kms of Cardiff. But this still proved costly as it lead indirectly to the scenes at Anfield in 1977 when Wales opted to face Scotland there instead of The Racecourse. For all Glöckner’s faults, Wales had been profligate in front of goal and in commentating Barry Davies concluded that:

“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.”

These blogs by Lost Boyos and The Football Pink tell the story in more detail.

Mickey Thomas’s no.10 shirt from the match in Titograd (picture: @WalesMatchWorn)

Yugoslavia 4-4 Wales, 1982

Having eased into the Euro 1984 qualifying campaign with a 1-0 win over Norway, Wales travelled to Titograd – now Podgorica – and played out a remarkable 4-4 draw. Wearing the sumptuous yellow and green Adidas shirt for the penultimate time, Wales battled back for a draw having been 3-1 and 4-2 down. Joey Jones scored his only international goal and Robbie James scored an 80th minute equaliser before hitting the bar with what would have been an unlikely winner.

Wales 1-1 Yugoslavia, 1983

A win at home to Yugoslavia in Wales’s final qualifier at Ninian Park would have seen Wales qualify for a French European Championships thirty years earlier than they finally did. A Hail Mary of a long ball from Kevin Ratcliffe found James who rounded the keeper but with nine minutes remaining Mehmed Baždarević – who went on to play for Bosnia in unofficial internationals and manage his nation against Wales in Euro 2016 qualifying – scored through a crowd of players. Brian Flynn, captain for the evening and the only survivor of the 1976 Ninian Park encounter, was immediately replaced by Jeremy Charles in an effort to score a winner but the draw meant Wales were relying on the outcome of the group’s final fixture.

Bulgaria subsequently travelled to Yugoslavia with both countries able to leapfrog Wales; though a draw suited neither and would have seen Wales through. At 2-2 in injury time, Wales were 40 seconds away from reaching France when a bullet header from the centre back Ljubomir Radanović, who had been sent up front in last-minute desperation, saw the Yugoslavs through instead. As costly as Radanović and Baždarević’s goals were to Welsh qualification fortunes, the price to Wales’s independent footballing status was potentially even greater. With the following year’s Home Championship already signalled to be the last edition of the old tournament, and continued qualification failure, Wales’s revenues and the FAW’s reserves were looking parlous enough to threaten the national team’s future.

Wales 1-2 Yugoslavia, 1988

The last Wales fixture against Yugoslavia before its civil war and fragmentation might have been Brian Clough’s managerial debut in the Welsh dugout. Nottingham Forest’s board however refused him permission to speak with the FAW after Mike England’s services had been dispensed with following yet another qualification near-miss. David Williams, only 33 years old and having made his international debut less than two years earlier, took temporary charge while the FAW waited on Clough’s availability. Williams had previously spent two years in charge of Bristol Rovers as the English Football League’s youngest manager while in his late 20s. Dean Saunders opened the scoring after a free flowing attack, only for Yugoslavia to equalise just before half time through the great Dragan Stoiković and then go on to win when an attempted backpass got stuck in the Vetch mud despite Neville Southall’s best sweeping efforts.

Simon Davies’s spare match shirt vs Croatia (picture: @WalesMatchWorn)

Croatia 1-1 Wales, 2002

After a record-equalling run of games without victory, but becoming increasingly hard to beat in the process, Wales had turned a corner under Mark Hughes and this early season friendly came in the middle of an unbeaten calendar year. Wales wore a one-off mustard yellow kit, never commercially available, because Kappa’s red home and white away kits clashed with Croatia’s. Simon Davies scored one of the great Wales goals but the sublime turned to the ridiculous when a Paul Jones blunder gifted a late goal to Mladen Petric to extend Wales’s then long winless run against Yugoslavia and its independent nations.

Danny Gabbidon’s match worn shirt vs Serbia and Montenegro (picture: @WalesMatchWorn)

Serbia and Montenegro 1-0 Wales, 2003

If the dream of reaching Euro 2004 finally died on my 27th birthday in the play-offs against those juicing Russians, it was down to wounds inflicted in these two earlier games. That Wales were able to reach a play-off with a relatively meagre tally of 13 points and despite suffering 3 defeats was in large part down to Serbia and Montenegro’s failure to take more than a solitary point off Azerbaijan who lost all their other games. Gurban Gurbanov is as much a hero of that campaign as John Hartson, Craig Bellamy or Simon Davies by first pegging back Serbia and Montenegro to rescue a draw and then playing his part in snatching an Azeri victory from the jaws of defeat.

The Belgrade fixture was rearranged to the August due to the assassination of Serbia’s president having originally been scheduled four days after Wales’s 4-0 win over Azerbaijan. The momentum that might have been taken into the fixture had begun to dissipate. It also provided an insight into Mark Hughes’s tactical conservativeness that was cruelly exposed months later against the Russians, as Nathan Blake started up front and was not replaced by Robert Earnshaw until the 78th minute.

Wales 0-0 Slovenia, 2005

This low key August friendly is the only time we have played Slovenia. The fourth fixture of John Toshack’s (second) reign is notable for three things: it was the first Wales game to be played at the Liberty Stadium, and the first in Swansea since 1988; the first time Wales wore the black John Charles memorial Kappa away kit; and for being Craig Davies’s debut. Ok, only two notable things.

Richard Duffy and Dai Partridge started for Wales, while off the bench Gareth Roberts made his final Wales appearance and current Merthyr Town manager Gavin Williams his first. Yawn.

Craig Davies’s shirt vs Slovenia (picture: @WalesMatchWorn)

Montenegro 1-0 Wales, 2010

A new campaign but the same evaporation of hope. ‘Judge me on the 2010 World Cup’ said John Toshack. That came and went in the usual manner but Tosh got one more shot at qualification. Though he had evolved the Wales set-up on the pitch, off it it had stagnated. In his book Together Stronger Chris Wathan cites players’ frustration with a lack of sport science and boredom in camp that suggested it urgently needed modernising.

Wales showed more attacking threat than usual with Bale and Bellamy in wide roles supporting Steve Morison in his first competitive start. But the performance was the embodiment of Toshack’s favoured duvet metaphor: he may have been covering his head but his exposed feet felt the cold. Montenegro cut Wales apart with ease. The outstanding Mirko Vucinic made a mug of James Collins for the winner and although Simon Church hit the bar and had an equaliser ruled out for offside, Montenegro could easily have won by more. With yet another campaign stalling on the starting grid John Toshack fell on his sword in the belief  it “might be better for everyone concerned” if a successor could be found to revive the campaign.

Wales 2-1 Montenegro

“What a night for Gary Speed and his young men!”

These were the Sky commentator’s words as Aaron Ramsey swept home to double Wales’s lead on 50 minutes. At the 16th time of asking Wales got the monkey of its back and finally defeated a Balkan nation. Steve Morison scored his solitary international goal from a delicious David Vaughan cross. Three weeks earlier Wales had been poor at home to Australia in what had been the first occasion that Speed’s coaching team had felt the players had not executed their intended game plan, irrespective of result. Speed’s criticism of his charges elicited the desired response as Wales played with verve and intent. The final 20 minutes were nervy after Macedonia pulled a goal back, but the win was thoroughly deserved and helped spur a team on to subsequently outplay England at Wembley, Switzerland, Bulgaria and then smash Norway. A self-respect, self-esteem and belief had been restored to the playing set-up and the supporters that was too soon cruelly tested in the most tragic of circumstances.

Serbia 6-1 Wales, 2012

Grim, grim, grim. And that was just the slate grey away kit that Wales wore. This is the nadir of Coleman’s reign, though the 3-0 drubbing in the return fixture runs it close. This Serbia team was on a pretty poor run itself with a toothlessness up front that was wholly belied by Wales’s defensive and organisational ineptitude. Wales too were shy in front of goal having yet to score under Coleman in defeats to Mexico, Bosnia and Belgium as well as in the Gary Speed memorial game against Costa Rica. The free-flowing and free-scoring performance in the 4-1 victory over Norway seemed longer than a mere 10 months ago.

Bale’s thunderbolt free kick was a rare treat in a game that started badly and got worse. It was the first of 31 he scored for club and country in his iconic, goal-laden 2012/13 season that ultimately secured his galactico status. By that point Wales were already 2-0 down in a performance that resembled the shambolic ones that characterised Bobby Gould’s reign; indeed, the defeat was the worst in 16 years since that one in Eindhoven.

Aaron Ramsey had yet to be replaced as captain and laboured under the responsibility. Boaz Myhill’s organisation and distribution were very poor and he was replaced by Lewis Price for the next pair of qualifiers. Adam Matthews and Darcy Blake were also inept. That the line-up also featured the likes of Sam Ricketts, Andrew Crofts, Steve Morison and a past-it Danny Gabbidon proves how much the depth and quality of the Wales squad has improved. Crucially so has its belief and resolve. Never has the location for a Wales game been so apt: Novi Sad.

Wales 1-0 Macedonia, 2013

I’m indebted to Podcast Pêl-droed compadre Leon for drawing to my attention the fact that Simon Church has played in more semi-finals of major tournaments than Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. You can add Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luka Modric, Robert Lewandowski and Eden Hazard to that list too. As much fun as that game is, it doesn’t mask the incredulity among most Welsh fans that he remains in Chris Coleman’s thoughts (notwithstanding his injury problems this season). It might have something to do with Church, by Coleman’s own admission, saving his job in late 2013 in this match which is also the first in the current run of 17 qualifiers in which Wales have lost only once.

A beautifully-weighted through-ball by Aaron Ramsey allowed Craig Bellamy to lay the ball on the plate for Church’s emphatic finish into the roof of the net. It is only the second time Wales have triumphed over a Balkan nation. There was no Gareth Bale, Joe Allen or Ashley Williams and the bench featured the likes of Daniel Alfei, Owain Tudur-Jones and Rhoys Wiggins. Ramsey fluffed a late penalty, his only blemish on a night in which he was imperious, as he was days later when an even more makeshift Wales team – James Wilson anyone? – snatched a late draw in Belgium.

Bosnia Herzegovina 2-0 Wales, 2015

The moment a tournament qualification finally arrived. The match matters little; it was all about the relief, the exorcism, the pain after years of hurt ebbing away. Wales actually played very well but succumbed to two late hopeful, aerial incursions into the box that James Collins, who was left on the bench, would have been a better defensive option to deal with. History will record, yet again, defeat in the former Yugoslavia but it is an inconsequential footnote to that evening’s main headline.

Wales 1-1 Serbia, 2016

The latest frustrating instalment in the series. Seconds after Gareth Bale hit the post that would have doubled Wales’s lead and surely guaranteed three points, Aleksander Mitrovic out-muscled James Chester to get a head on a regulation cross that Wales had dealt with all evening with little fuss. Had Wales held on to win, and all else being equal in the group’s last round of fixtures, both countries would be level pegging on 10 points. As it was, another lead was thrown away summing up the small margins that separates the current campaign from its predecessor.

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