During the glorious summer of 2016 when Wales progressed to the semi-finals of the European Championships much was made of the fact that it was Wales’ first showing in a major international tournament since 1958, when a Pele goal knocked Wales out in the quarter finals of the World Cup.
For Welsh fans like me, 1958 was the high point of international football glory until Chris Coleman’s men came from behind to beat Belgium 3-1 and progress to the semis. It was etched in Welsh sporting folklore, and our only moment in the sun. But apparently that wasn’t the case, and Wales would have some success in the mid-70s.
This book, subtitled “Welsh Football’s Forgotten Heroes of 1976”, details the efforts of a Welsh side under Mike Smith who would manage to reach the quarter finals of that year’s European championship.
Wales would top their qualifying group, winning five out of six before losing against Yugoslavia across two legs. While players like John Toshack and Terry Yorath are fondly remembered as skilled players, and teammate Alan Curtis is a legend at Swansea City, but the efforts of the team are largely forgotten. Burnell, a lifelong supporter who attended some of the games during this period attempts to redress this and tells the story of the campaign.
It is clearly a labour of love with Burnell having gone through the archives finding match reports, interviews with key figures and his own memories to detail every match along the way. These interviews provide a unique perspective and the extracts from the press detail the changing face of football and media coverage.
Burnell paints a picture of a distinctly different era of football, and highlights the changes that would take place over the years. Football was still a rough edged, at times thuggish sport in this era. Before the boom of replica kits and satellite television, many of the clubs were struggling the tough economic times of the 1970s showed in run down stadiums.
Welsh football was in a dark place too, the team routinely finishing last in the Home Internationals competition and never coming close to qualification. Press coverage was limited and rugby was king. Small attendances and press ambivalence didn’t help the national side, and many managers would withhold their players from international duty.
These perhaps explain why the events faded, especially given the ignoble end of Wales’ efforts in a bad tempered showdown at Ninian Park. But it was an achievement and the pride, passion and spirit of the players involved is evident through their interviews.
I’m glad Burnell wrote this book and that I heard about it on Twitter, as it fills in a blank space in my knowledge of the Welsh game, and it is an interesting story. Unfortunately, Burnell’s writing at times falls a little flat, and he labours the point of how things have changed in places. At times there is a nostalgia for times gone by, but while the modern game is far from perfect, it seems odd to yearn for an era marred by violence, financial hardship and the FAW’s ineptitude.
But his research into the period and passion for the project is admirable, and some sections are rather well done. He captures the emotions of a fan watching the team, the chaos of events at Ninian Park and the at times farcical way the international games were arranged. His writing style might lack flair, but his interest and insight is obvious to see.
It’s a decent enough read, and an interesting account of an unjustly forgotten moment of glory from Wales. The team here deserve to be remembered and while they didn’t reach the heights of 2016 and fell harder than those of 1958, they still played with skill and pride for their national side.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.