This is a superbly researched and sparkily written account of two pivotal years in the history of a Wales team that fully captured the imagination and allegiance of its author’s childhood. It chronicles a span of just fifteen games when a sometimes derided national team featured a talented group of players such as Terry Yorath, Leighton James and John Toshack who went from holding wooden spoons to almost reaching the finals of Europe’s top international competition.
It is also a loving and detailed and lovingly detailed account of what seems like a different age, ‘a less complicated era, before the onset of 24-hour saturation coverage and millionaire journeymen players… A time before football was “invented” in 1992, where television and radio closed down when there was nothing more to say, and when footballers looked to the future by doing their coaching badges or searching for local pubs that needed new landlords.’ Burnell’s love of the game and the entire culture which surrounds it shines through this book, like floodlights through murk.
The 1970s was a time of rank amateurism in the Welsh game, so that players who were used to better things, such as Everton’s Dai Davies noted, to his shame, that the team ‘shirts and sports kit were old and, almost without exception, full of holes’ and that it ‘was impossible to feel good in such rags.’ Before a game the names of players representing their country would be read off the back of a fag packet, quite literally, with captain Alan Durban announcing what was written on his Woodbines. Which he presumably smoked, too. Different times.
It was also a period when the FAW found itself looking in the bargain bins for a manager, who arrived in the unexpected shape of Mike Smith, a former sports master at Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar school, where he shone in marshalling an armour-plated defence for the annual Prefects v Staff match. The school magazine account of the game has a boys’ magazine vim to it as ‘Critchley unleashed a megaton shot with his lethal left foot. Unfortunately it was involuntarily stopped by Smith’s ear, and the Staff’s Captain toppled like a felled Redwood to the turf.’
Ten years later this Englishman would be leading the senior Wales team to Vienna at the start of a serious footballing campaign, and this at a time when Welsh Nationalism had seen an upsurge because of the flooding of Tryweryn and the Investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales. Smith is depicted as a dependable leader and likeable character, never more so than when we find out he would sometimes take the team’s dirty kit down the launderette after a game. Nick Burnell, with a biting humour that’s well employed throughout the book’s pages, suggests it ‘would be good to imagine the FAW had pushed the boat out and paid extra for the full service wash.’
Mike Smith wanted to change the mindset of the team, changing with it all the kit and the hotels they stayed at, as he thought it was important Welsh players were ‘made to feel the most important people in the world and announced that the days when Wales were beaten before they kicked off, because of haphazard preparation, are over.’
They weren’t quite over. The game in Vienna, which included a back line that sounded to the Times’s Geoffrey Green ‘like a firm of solicitors – Roberts, Roberts, Roberts and Phillips’ saw Wales lose to Austria 2-1. They were up against players such as 22 year old Hans Krankl who was the current footballer of the year and had an alter ego as a pop singer, with singles such as ‘Ohne Ball’n Und Ohne Netz’ (‘Life’s No Fun Without a Ball and a Net.’)
This is sufficient a cue for Burnell to digress on the often unhappy relationship between popular music and football stars from Kevin Keegan through John Charles to Terry Venables and is one of many such ace digressions in the book, all of which are sharp and funny and, at their best, often nostalgic, personal memories of the game.
So we are reminded that professional football was banned on a Sunday until 1974 – and that attendances in the lower leagues were sometimes down to three figures. There are images of boot boys and the toilet rolls that fell like ticker tape at matches and tickets might cost a quid, equivalent to the cost of four pints. It’s atmospheric writing about a time just before ‘British clubs realised there were bargains to be had on the continent…much like the Transit-van loads of questionable French table wine that would flood the country in the years ahead.’
One of the most entertaining asides in ‘Trailing Clouds…’ concerns karate, which often featured as the pre-game entertainment. After all this was a time when ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ reached number one in the charts, David Carradine was on TV as Kwai Chang Caine in ‘Kung Fu’ and men used Hai Karate after-shave in the vainglorious hope it gave them sex appeal. It was also a time when football was well and truly in the doldrums.
It was also a period when a game between Hungary and Wales in Cardiff was attended by just over 22,000 fans, although there were mitigating factors, such as the fact that the Ali v Forman world heavyweight title fight was on TV that same evening, with 26 million, or about half the UK population tuning in to watch two big men pummelling each other in a ring in Zaire.
The black sheep in the smallest of flocks: that’s one way of seeing the team that topped their qualifying group in Europe in 1976, their achievements so overshadowed by the achievements of the teams of 1956 and 2016 it can seem like ‘a Masonic secret.’ At the end of this engaging book, the product of reading an acreage of newsprint and poring through a small library of books, Nick Burnell hopes he has done something to change all that.
He has, indubitably, and done so with the same flair with which Brian Flynn scored in the game against Scotland in Cardiff. Or with a skill comparable to that of a group of gifted and committed individuals who melded and enmeshed to become a tight squad, faithful to the spirit of the commanding words on the shirt crests: ‘Gorau Chwarae Cyd Chwarae: Team play is always the best play.’
Trailing Clouds of Glory: Welsh Football’s Forgotten Heroes of 1976 by Nick Burnell is published by Y Lolfa, costs £9.99 and is available to buy here.