Wales vs Austria: A brief history

On the eve of the qualifier against Austria in Vienna Leon Barton reveals the significance of the fixture in Wales’s footballing history.

When I think of the teams Wales have a bit of history with, the first name that springs to mind is our oldest opponents, Scotland, about whom my Podcast Pêl-droed colleague Russell has written an excellent piece for a forthcoming edition of The Football Pink.

Second, I think of Belgium; surely the team with pedigree who most of us in our thirties can recall the most victories over (Cardiff in 1990, 1993 and 2015, Lille in 2016). We’ve also gained three very creditable draws out in Belgium (1991, 2013, 2014) which makes our record versus them over the past 26 years startlingly good considering how many top players they have had in that period and how many tournaments they’ve qualified for. I’m sure most Belgians would be delighted if they never draw us in a qualifying group, or ever hear another Tom Jones song again.

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Maybe it would be different if I was older and able to recall any victories versus England (I went to my first Wales game in 1985, a year after Mark Hughes’ debut and our last win over our neighbours) but footage of (and reading about) our most famous victories over England (1955, 1977, 1980) does little to stir me either. None of those games were World cup or European championship qualifiers, they were all part of the ‘home international championship’, which feels to me nowadays remarkably parochial, a tournament very much of it’s bygone age. No offence to the rugby fans but going to the same places to play teams year in, year out doesn’t appeal in the slightest. I abhor, truly despise this whole “as long as we beat the English” attitude too. Just imagine if we had ‘beat the English’ in France in the summer but lost to Slovakia and Russia. Our tournament would have been a huge disappointment, rather than the experience of a lifetime that it actually turned out to be. I love the fact that Wales away involves trips to the likes of Brussels, Baku, Basel and occasionally places that don’t begin with B. Like Vienna. Talking of which…..

The third country that springs to mind are our forthcoming opponents on Thursday night, Austria. Which also happens to be the country where I have resided for the past seven years. So to celebrate the occasion of the land of my birth versus the land where I live, I thought it might be an idea to take a little look at the most memorable and/or significant times when Wales and Austria have met. Auf geht’s!

Wales 1 Austria 2, 25th November 1955

‘THIS WAS A DISGRACE TO NATIONAL FOOTBALL’ was the Western Mail’s headline following a game which became known as ‘the Battle of Wrexham’. ‘The match degenerated into a game of rugby’ complained Austrian trainer Josef Moltzer. You’d think with that being the case Wales might have done better – there’s not a lot of rugby played in Austria. But we were up against excellent opponents, a team who’d finished third at the previous year’s World Cup and one obviously able to withstand the roughhouse Welsh tactics by giving as good as they got. The first ever meeting between the two teams – in Vienna a year previously had set the scene. That brutal encounter had finished 2-0 to the Austrians, so it seems, for whatever reason, to be a fixture that’s had a bit of needle from the get go. Wagner and Mel Charles were both carried off in the return encounter and according to teammates, John Charles was so set on retribution for the treatment dished out to his brother that the player who (famously) was never booked, was actually quite lucky not to be sent off. The most striking thing about watching the extraordinary Pathe footage of the game are the scenes of the Welsh strikers charging Austrian goalkeeper Bruno Engelmeier, even with the ball safely gathered in his hands. ‘It’s time those international rules about charging goalkeepers were straightened out’ exclaims the Pathe commentary, and it’s hard to disagree.

Wales 1 Austria 0, 19th November 1975

The fourth match between the two countries produced a result which meant the Wales senior team topped a qualifying group for the first, and 41 years later, still only time. It was our first victory over Thursday’s opponents and deserves to be more revered among Welsh fans and media than it is. Austria went on to the World Cup two and a half years later where they produced probably the most famous victory in their history with a 3-2 triumph over neighbours and defending champions West Germany. The likes of midfielder Herbert Prohaska (voted Austria’s player of the century in 2004) and celebrated striker Hans Krankl played in what turned out to be another brutal Wrexham encounter, a game where Welsh spirit helped overcome their more technically accomplished opponents. ‘Wales are the greatest fighters I have ever seen or played against’ said Austrian coach Branko Elsner, and watching the footage, the footballing ability of Brian Flynn and (especially) Leighton James stands out among the battling qualities displayed by their teammates. Terry Yorath’s leadership is also noticeable – he looks a proper captain, even if the timing of his tackles leaves a bit to be desired. The only goal of the game was scored by local hero Arfon Griffiths, the then 34 year old Wrexham legend, who won 16 of his 17 caps in his fourth decade, and, remarkably for a 3rd division footballer, went on to win the BBC Wales Sports personality of the year for 1975.

Austria 1 Wales 1, 29th April 1992

Only a friendly, but this gets on the list due to the significance of the match to the Welsh goalscorer; ‘the young man wearing number 14….’ stutters the Austrian commentator who clearly doesn’t have a clue who Chris Coleman is. To be fair, it was the debut international appearance of a player who’d spent most of his career to that point at lower league Swansea City. Our glorious leader will have happy memories of Vienna, where his goal from a smart assist by Lee Nogan (yes, Lee Nogan) earned Wales a highly creditable draw against an Austrian team featuring the magnificently-mulleted Toni Polster, scorer of a record 44 goals for his country.

Austria 1 Wales 0, March 30th 2005

John Toshack’s third game in his second spell as Wales boss pretty much sums up his six year reign: so much promise, plenty to admire, absolutely nothing to show for it. Strangely, it was the second time the two teams had met in the qualifying over the course of only four days, Austria having won a damp squib of a match 2-0 in Cardiff. Perhaps realising just how average their opponents were (this was three years from Austria co-hosting a European Championship that many of their own fans petitioned to be pulled out of, so embarrassing was the team to the Austrian public at the time) Wales set about the task in Vienna with much more purpose. Giggs and Bellamy in particular gave the Austrian defenders a torrid time, but were unable to finish any of the chances they had carved out for themselves. Then, with just three minutes left on the clock, goalkeeper Danny Coyne let a tame shot trickle through his legs to give the home team victory they scarcely deserved. It was to sum up Toshack’s lack of luck as manager of his country. Despite laying some considerable foundations for his successors, he was unable to produce a significant victory against noteworthy opponents over the course of his time in charge.

Wales 2 Austria 1, 6th February 2013

Our most recent meeting, with both managers still in charge and most of the players involved still on the international scene. From our point of view, its a confidence boost that we were able to win the match in Swansea despite the absence of the injured Aaron Ramsey, something which bodes well for Thursday. As has so often been the case, Bale was the difference, with a beautifully taken first goal from a superb Joe Allen pass. At the start of the second half, Bale turned provider with a fantastic cross for Sam Vokes to power home a header (Moldova, don’t say you weren’t warned…). Following Bale’s substitution on the hour mark, we clung on a little, Marc Janko’s header form a quality Arnautovic centre giving the visitors encouragement. But despite David Alaba showing glimpses of his undoubted class in the Austrian midfield, it was deserved – if hard earned – win. Austria’s likable and charismatic Swiss manager Marcel Koller was full of praise for Wales when slightly patronising German media comments about our position inside the top ten of the FIFA world rankings were made to him ahead of the Euros:

“Maybe people in Germany haven’t watched Wales – we know how good they are – compact and aggressive. And in Bale they have a player who can win a game single-handedly”

So they know plenty about us. Let’s see if it’s enough to stop us…

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