Before comparing the current Welsh international team with such as the splendidly effective 1958 World Cup finals side, an historic word or two are justified.
If the Welsh team which is now on the brink becoming the first ever to qualify legitimately for the finals of a major tournament – albeit the European Championship rather than the World Cup – this arguably fits into the grand Welsh tradition.
Long ago now a wonderfully resilient figure, Ted Robbins, nominally secretary for decades of the Welsh FA between the wars, became the first British team manager of an international side avant la lettre as the French say; before the role was generally known.
Robbins who had pioneered the development of Welsh soccer in South Wales against great local opposition, had to pick a team always under threat from the English clubs who at that time were not officially obliged to release their players.
There was one glorious occasion when he had to take a team to Scotland to play the powerful opposition when club after English club refused him the players he wanted. Somehow he cobbled together a side which even included an obscure amateur. It surpassed itself, actually taking and long holding the lead against a bewildered Scotland who succeeded in equalising only very late in the game.
“Get your feet under the table!” he could tell his players. “I’ll be your Daddy!” And it was well known that even a third division player once he put on the red shirt could be transformed for 90 minutes into an international star.
Yet the Welsh team which so heroically contested the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden was in fact one packed with impressive talent; but a team which shouldn’t have been there at all. They had in fact been eliminated from the competition at the group stage.
But when the Afro-Asian countries suddenly refused to play Israel in their qualifying group, FIFA refused to give the Israelis a bye, insisting they play a team which had been previously eliminated. Uruguay were first out of the hat, but as twice previous winners of the World Cup, they proudly refused.
Wales had no such inhibitions. They beat Israel comfortably both home and away and thus went through to Sweden.
How ironic that the immensely more formidable team which drew 0-0 with them in Cardiff should provide the point which almost guarantees their appearance in France, with only little Andorra to meet in their ultimate game.
Reporting the 1958 World Cup, largely from Gothenburg, I was privileged not only to see Wales give Brazil, the ultimate victors, a substantial fright, but to go out drinking with several of their players in a hostelry above the city, the following evening. I couldn’t keep up on the potent beer.
The Big Five, the little group called themselves. It included a resilient goalkeeper in Arsenal’s Jack Kelsey whose autobiography I was “ghosting” at the time. When after the Brazilian game I congratulated him on his handling, he answered. “Chewing gum. Always use it. Put some on my hands, rub it well in!”
I still believe that if only John Charles with his immense aerial power had been fit to play, Wales might well have won it. But the Hungarians had cynically kicked him out of the tournament in the previous play off and when several dangerous centres came over from the right, he wasn’t there to head them in. Colin Webster, who led the attack that evening, being a little man, no danger in the air; though a dangerous fellow on and off the field.
So it was that Pele’s scrambled goal, in off the excellent right back Stuart Williams, decided the game. Later, Pele would say it was the most important goal he’d ever scored.
That Welsh team included exceptional talents such as Mel Charles, brother of John, a super centre half that night, Spurs’ Mel Hopkins, who played the dynamic right winger Garrincha out of the game, Cliff Jones, the rapid, hugely courageous left winger, and the elegant, blond inside left, Ivor Allchurch, who in fact didn’t excel in the tournament. Terry Medwin was a third Swansea man who figured on the right wing with success.
A team of talents. Today, the ace is Gareth Bale.
Northern Ireland were there in Sweden in 1958 as well though; in sharp contrast, they had gallantly beaten Italy in Belfast to qualify, only to go down exhausted 4-0 to France in the finals after a ludicrously long motor coach trip.
Captained superbly from right half by Danny Blanchflower, they were cruelly depleted when his brother Jackie, an elegant centre half, was crippled in the February Munich air crash with Manchester United.
At full strength, with Jimmy McIlroy an inspired lieutenant to Danny, Northern Ireland were formidable. Now it seems, after gallantly and belatedly getting back off the canvas in Belfast versus Hungary, they should be in their first ever European, as opposed to World Cup finals.
A shame the internationally prolific 6 foot 4 Kyle Lafferty, scorer of that crucial equaliser, will be suspended in the next game. Almost out on his feet when he scored, on loan last season in Turkey, he cannot get a game with Norwich.