A feature on a significant date in Welsh football history.
It was 60 years ago today that Jimmy Murphy guided Wales to the 1958 FIFA World Cup finals with a play-off victory over Israel. Although Pele would eventually break Welsh hearts in Sweden as Brazil triumphed at the quarter-final stage, it remains Wales’ only appearance at the tournament. Chris Coleman ended the major tournament hoodoo at EURO 2016, but another World Cup appearance remains elusive.
Of course, the celebrations of qualification were quickly brought to an end for Murphy. Assistant to Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United, his international commitments meant that he missed their fateful European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade that very same evening. The plane stopped to refuel in Munich on the journey back the following day, and Manchester United would never quite be the same again.
It was a simpler time, and international management was considered little more than a part-time position. Murphy balanced his commitments between club and his country, and while the variables that resulted in Wales facing Israel in a play-off make the fact that he wasn’t on the flight all the more miraculous, he quickly returned to work to reassemble Manchester United and prepare Wales for the World Cup finals.
In hindsight, what Murphy achieved from both a personal and professional perspective was incredible, as the emotion of Munich alone would have been too much for most men to cope with. Murphy ensured that Manchester United would continue, and as a long hard domestic season came to an end, the man from the Rhondda headed for Sweden with his talented Wales side.
But this was a very different era, and while Chris Coleman also suffered his own emotional torment in replacing close friend Gary Speed, what he achieved from a footballing perspective would eclipse what Wales achieved in 1958. Officially recognised as the only two major tournaments that Wales has ever qualified for, Murphy and Coleman will always hold a special place in Welsh football folklore.
Failure to qualify for the 2018 finals in Russia brought Coleman’s time with the national team to an end as he decided to return to club management with struggling Sunderland, but his achievement in taking Wales to the semi-finals argues the case for him to be considered as the most successful Welsh manager of all-time. Ryan Giggs has now been tasked with emulating his achievements as another new era begins.
The qualification discrepancy is caused by the 1976 European Championship finals. At the time only four teams qualified, with the semi-finals and the final being considered as the actual tournament. Mike Smith’s Wales lost to Yugoslavia in the play-offs, and while there is an argument to say Wales did qualify having won their qualifying group, the official line is that they did not.
In addition to Wales qualifying for the 1958 World Cup finals 60 years ago, today also marks the reported 30 year anniversary since the great Brian Clough expressed his desire to manage Wales. Following the sacking of Mike England on 3rd February 1988, Clough came forward as a potential candidate, and put his case across in the press to become the surprise choice.
Manager of Nottingham Forest at the time, Clough proposed that he would manage Wales on a part-time basis while continuing with his club commitments. A controversial figure, Clough had been continually overlooked by England due to his outspoken nature, and would have seen Wales as the perfect opportunity to show his country just what they were missing out on.
Much to his dismay, Clough was denied the chance by Nottingham Forest chairman Maurice Roworth, and while he suggested he may quit the club if he was not allowed the opportunity, he remained at the City Ground until his retirement in 1993. Clough went public following the rejection, with a tabloid newspaper showing him sitting in his club office, dropping his passport in the bin.
Terry Yorath would become Wales’ next permanent manager, and the World Cup heartache continued as the side were denied a place at the 1994 finals with defeat against Romania in Cardiff. It was not to be for a generation that included the likes of Neville Southall, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes, but a young Giggs was also part of that disappointment, and he now has the responsibility of making amends as manager.
What Clough could have achieved with Wales can only be speculated upon, but he was a man-manager ahead of his time, and the success he achieved against the odds both domestically and in Europe may never be repeated. It certainly would have been entertaining, but Clough was probably too far past his best at that time, and his final years in the game saw him become a shadow of his former successful self.
A key date in Welsh football history, the legacy of qualifying for the 1958 World Cup finals remains heavy on the shoulders of the generations that followed. But the date remained poignant to Murphy for very different reasons as the Busby Babes played their final match, and history will always remember what he did for both his club and his country on this anniversary.