The redemption of Paul Bodin and the case for his defence
17th November, 1993… It’s a night etched in the memory of every Wales fan over the age of 40 (so much so, I don’t even have to look up the date). Wales v Romania at the old Arms Park.
One victory and the Welsh team would reach the 1994 World Cup in America the following summer. Even though we had experienced a number of last-gasp, all-or-nothing qualifiers over the previous two decades, there was something special in the air that night. The nation was in love with the team, and Westgate Street in the build-up was all golf-swing celebrations and chants of “USA, USA!” This finally would be our time.
For any fan reading this who was there that night or watching on television, you’ll have one image in your head right now. In fact, like JFK’s assassination or the first moon landing, it’s a moment so engrained in our collective memory that one imagines even those yet to be born back then will be picturing the same thing as they read this… Paul Bodin.
Romania were imperious in the first half that night and deserved to be leading by more than the one Gheorghe Hagi goal at the break. But the second half saw Wales fight their way back amidst an atmosphere as noisy and raucous as any experienced before or since.
We all felt – all believed – that this was finally Wales’ night, and 40,000 fans went hoarse urging the team on. The Guardian perfectly described “an amazing atmosphere that mixed fear, pride and desire,” and those adjectives summed up Dean Saunders’ equaliser with the striker bundling the ball in after Eric Young and Gary Speed stretched every straining sinew in their bodies to keep a goalmouth scramble alive.
Almost straight from the restart, Wales charged towards the empty East Stand (the standing terrace deemed unsuitable for international matches), red shirts propelled forward by the wall of sound behind them. Jeremy Goss guided a pass into the Romania area, their nervous defenders dropping deep but no-one taking responsibility to deal with the Wales attack.
The young, dashing Gary Speed showed the same desire he’d shown all night, nicking the ball off Petrescu’s toe. The Romanian panicked, brushing against Speed who was happy to go down. The referee paused for a moment, then blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. The fans roared; Dean Saunders punched the air as if the goal was already scored. Wales were so on top, so inspired, it felt like the fates were finally working in our favour. The atmosphere, the spirit – it was an unstoppable force. And then all eyes turned to the figure walking up the pitch to take the penalty.
If any man epitomised Terry Yorath’s spirited Wales team – what The Independent called “a hotch-potch of disparate talents” – it was the left-back, Paul Bodin. A late bloomer, he didn’t make his Wales debut until he was 25. His first cap, versus Costa Rica in 1990, came just two years after playing non-league football for Bath City. A journeyman at Cardiff City, Merthyr Tydfil, Bath and (briefly) Newport County, Bodin found his spiritual home at Swindon Town, joining in 1988.
Signing as second choice left-back for an unfashionable second tier outfit, Bodin would never have foreseen the heady times ahead at the County Ground.
He gradually forced his way into the first team, becoming a regular, first under Lou Macari and later Osvaldo Ardiles. The Tottenham legend and Argentinean World Cup winner was a surprise appointment at the Wiltshire club and brought a creative philosophy perfectly suited to Bodin’s style of play.
Swindon’s passing game – a rarity even in the top flight back then, let alone the old Second Division – allowed Bodin to become a more modern, raiding full-back. Though not blessed with a winger’s pace, Bodin was a fine reader of the game who timed his forward runs intelligently, and he quickly developed a reputation as an attacking force.
Ardiles’ first season saw the club reach the play-off final where a 1-0 victory over Sunderland should have seen them reach the top division for the first time in their history. Sadly, for Swindon and for Bodin, the club was immediately demoted due to financial irregularities.
Terry Yorath had seen enough to select Bodin for Wales. As well as Bodin’s excellent club form, Yorath’s decision to experiment with a five-man defence would have been a major factor, with the manager wanting full-backs willing to build play from deep and contribute to the attack. Indeed, Bodin and his right-sided counterpart David Phillips would become two of Wales’ most elegant players during the early ‘90s.
The left-back soon became a fixture in the Wales team, despite strong competition from the more experienced Mark Bowen. It was ironic but not unusual that Wales was blessed with two excellent players in one position while elsewhere there was little competition for places. However, it was Bodin who was first choice throughout the heroic qualifying campaign for the 1992 European Championships. And Wales fans around at that time will fondly remember the enormous contribution Paul Bodin made in giving us our greatest ever (pre-Euro 2016!) moment. Wales v Germany in Cardiff.
It’s a moment frozen forever in my memory… Paul Bodin in space in the left-back position. He looks up and then, simultaneously, both he and the entire crowd see Ian Rush, 40 yards ahead – not sprinting at first, just leaning in the direction of the goal, edging off Guido Buchwald’s lofty shoulder.
The crowd urges Bodin to launch it in the striker’s general direction; Rush was that good we knew any ball even vaguely near him would bring danger. Bodin, though, does something even better and he sends a glorious ball, like a quarterback’s perfectly arched throw, beyond the German centre-half and into the path of the striker’s run.
Now, Rush does sprint – past Buchwald, like a thoroughbred racing a pit pony. The ball holds up in the heavy, long grass but he angles his right knee back under his body before arrowing the ball past Illgner in the German goal. I remember cheering so hard – the whole crowd cheering so hard – that the entire world went silent, just for a moment, before my ears popped back to hear that stunning, ecstatic roar.
Few full-backs in that era would have picked that pass, but Bodin was a footballer ahead of his time. By this time, Crystal Palace had signed him for over half a million pounds, a huge sum for a defender back then. Bodin was playing in the top flight and setting up the winning goal against one of football’s greatest ever international teams just three years after plying his trade at non-league level.
The defender would continue to impress for Wales with his confident performances and a crucial penalty in the team’s final Euro 92 qualifier, a nervous struggle in the rain against a stubborn Luxembourg side. Bodin’s 82nd minute penalty earned a 1-0 victory, keeping Wales on top of the group and piling the pressure on Germany who now had to win their final two matches to claim top spot and qualification.
Of course, Germany being Germany and Wales being Wales, that’s exactly what happened. It’s strange to think, though, that had the world champions lost away to Belgium a week after Wales beat Luxembourg, Paul Bodin’s penalty would have been the goal that sealed the nation’s place at a major tournament for the first time since 1958. How history would view him differently.
Bodin never truly settled at Palace and in 1992 he re-joined Swindon Town, now managed by another former Spurs legend who, like Ardiles, knew the defender’s style would fit perfectly with his own continental ethos. Player-manager Glenn Hoddle allowed Bodin even more freedom, using the same five-man defensive system as Wales, with Hoddle dictating play from the sweeper position, and the Welshman flourished. During the 1992/93 season, Bodin scored 11 goals in 35 league appearances – a staggering tally for a defender.
His 12th goal of the season, though, was the most memorable: the winner, from the penalty spot, in the play-off final against Leicester at Wembley; the goal that sent Swindon into the top division for the first time in their history (no immediate demotion this time). With the score 3-3, after Swindon had led 3-0, it’s hard to imagine a higher-pressure situation in which to take a penalty. But that would come just six months later…
Paul Bodin and Mark Bowen had been swapping the number three shirt between them throughout the 1994 World Cup qualifiers. But, by the time of the run-in, Bodin was in terrific form in the Premier League and, as expected, first choice to face Romania on that fateful November night.
With Romania by far the better team for much of the game, Bodin struggled with little opportunity to break forward. Manager Terry Yorath recalled years later: “I remember looking at it 10 minutes before the penalty and thinking: ‘Paul’s not playing very well, I’ll bring him off, put Gary Speed at left-back and bring another attacker on.’ I didn’t, so we ended up getting the penalty and he takes it.” Despite struggling during the match, Bodin was very much the first choice penalty-taker for Wales, having scored his previous three for his country.
I’ve since heard some fans ask why Rush or Saunders didn’t take responsibility but Bodin’s perfect record and his experience at the play-off final just months earlier meant there was no reason to give the ball to anyone else. Besides, Rush had a woeful penalty record, with his most recent miss being in the 6-0 win over the Faroes at the same ground early in the campaign (Rush was handed the penalty when on a hat-trick, only to see his weak shot saved – but being Ian Rush, he scored from open play a minute later instead!). And Saunders’ history of penalties included the time he saw his spot-kick saved by striker-cum-makeshift goalkeeper, Niall Quinn, in a First Division game.
Despite considering replacing Bodin a few minutes earlier, Yorath was still confident: “As soon as we got the penalty I thought: ‘This is it, we’re going through.’” We all know what happened next. Prunea in the Romanian goal kissed the ball for luck before handing it to Bodin. The left-back wiped the kiss off on the grass and placed it on the spot. There was no hush in the crowd as you might imagine: the mood was loud, electric. Expectant.
Then the run up, and-… slam! I remember watching from the West Upper Stand, the opposite end from the Romania goal. There was that horrible moment – the opposite of the glorious silence experienced when Rush scored against Germany – when everything went quiet as we comprehended whether that really was the ball flying high into the sky off the woodwork. Suddenly, the action felt distant, our brains taking longer to process what we were watching. If we blinked and opened our eyes again, perhaps we might realise we were mistaken and see the net rippling and red shirts celebrating – but no, what we’d seen was real, the ball rebounding with such power that it landed safely clear of the opposition penalty area.
There was no time to dwell on the miss. Watching back on YouTube, the camera doesn’t train in on Bodin, head in hands, as one would expect – the match continues at such a frantic pace, there isn’t the chance. But the sound of the crowd says it all; the hopeful hubris replaced by a guttural sound of desperation as we realise our best chance has gone. To the crowd’s credit, the noise picks up again and, within a couple of minutes, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You is belted out once more. But I remember it was now more in hope than expectation.
The Welsh players kept going – though Bodin was substituted just minutes after his miss – but there was a sense that another chance to qualify was slipping away and Romania reclaimed control of the game. The final nail in the coffin was delivered by Florin Raducioiu’s 82nd minute winner on the counter-attack as the Welsh players desperately piled forward.
It’s hard to say if Wales lost because of Bodin’s miss – after all, the Romanians grabbed a second goal – but it was obvious at the time and from re-watching the game now, that they were in the ascendancy when the penalty was awarded, and the opposition appeared defeated. Romanian forward Ilie Dumitrescu has since admitted he felt they would have been finished had Wales taken the lead.
The dream was over: this wasn’t to be our time, after all. I’ve never experienced such deflation after a football match and it was clear others felt the same. Gary Speed called it: “the most painful match of my career. I was devastated by it, to be honest, and I wish I’d handled it better because it affected me for a long time afterwards.” Terry Yorath tells how he broke down in tears at 4am as the realisation set in. It felt a cruel blow, but one that was put into context when a supporter was killed on the final whistle by a military flare shot across the ground and into the crowd. Football isn’t as important as life and death.
There was little sense of perspective in people’s reactions to Paul Bodin. Thankfully, the man himself remembers little more than some students shouting abuse hours after the match, though he admits it’s still the moment in his career he’s asked about the most. It was certainly a blessing there was no such thing as social media back then as any criticism or anger would have been horribly magnified. But in the hours and then years that followed, I’ve heard and read some horrible vitriol, even following qualification for Euro 2016 when you would expect any ill feeling to be laid to rest. “Fuck you, Paul Bodin!!!” I heard from one fan when our place in France was secured. Even more rational supporters, many of whom were there during the Yorath years, ruefully shake their head whenever Bodin’s name is mentioned.
Just three days after the Romania defeat, Swindon were playing Ipswich Town and were awarded a penalty. Up stepped Paul Bodin and converted it. Of course, one can’t avoid the irony and even Terry Yorath – particularly sympathetic to his defender after himself missing a crucial penalty in the 1976 European Championship quarter-final – couldn’t hide his frustration: “I always defend Paul Bodin whenever anybody brings it up because you’ve got to have courage to go and do it – I’d tried and failed. But the thing that really bugged me was the Saturday afterwards… I got in my car and I turned the radio on and the first thing I heard was Paul Bodin’s scored a penalty and equalised for Swindon. I looked at it in disbelief and thought, ‘are they trying to annoy me here?!’”
But in some ways, the fact he had stepped up just three days after the biggest failure of his career, and scored, says a lot about the man. It would have taken some bravery and yet it’s been used as a stick to beat him with. What was he to do? Deliberately miss out of deference to Wales?
Observers and fans have lost sight of his important contributions for Wales and instead have chosen to blame him for one moment. But no defeat is ever solely down to one player – the whole team took too long to get into the game, allowing Romania to come onto them, and Neville Southall, our greatest ever goalkeeper, has admitted his error for the first goal. Even Bodin’s captain hasn’t been particularly helpful. When Barry Horne was asked about the incident a few years ago, he said: “I remember turning to see Paul walk up the pitch from his left-back position and thinking he looked white as a sheet.” Bodin denies this and said he approached it like any other penalty. If Horne was so aware his penalty-taker was overawed by the situation, then why didn’t he step in and take it himself? To Bodin’s credit, he never once thought about hiding or passing on the responsibility to someone else.
Paul Bodin himself has handled the fact he’s remembered for that one failure with extraordinary dignity and good humour. James Corrigan of the Daily Telegraph said in 2015 that when Paul Bodin was introduced “…as ‘the footballing legend’ on our table at a Cardiff City fundraiser, the poor man felt the eyes burn through him. ‘Right lads, let’s just get this over with, let’s talk about that bloody penalty,’ Bodin said, bravely.” This week, in the build-up to the World Cup play-off against Austria, Bodin sends himself up in S4C’s tongue-in-cheek trailer, throwing the ball from that night into a sacrificial pyre. The ghosts of World Cup failures past laid to rest, perhaps.
Bodin continued to give a good account of himself in the Premier League that season, scoring an impressive seven goals in 28 starts. Successive relegations, though, saw Swindon and Bodin yo-yoing between the middle two divisions for the next few seasons, before he joined Reading where he ended his career.
For Wales, Bodin’s last cap came less than a year after that night in a 2-0 win over Albania. He had not yet reached his 30th birthday, an international career spanning just four years and 23 appearances. But what a four-year period it was, with two epic campaigns those of us there will long remember. Today, he continues to serve Welsh football’s future as coach of the Wales men’s under-21s.
It’s an unpleasant but increasingly common feature of modern-day support that a player’s mistake, even by an honest servant of Welsh football, seems to inspire hateful abuse. Like we need a scapegoat. But when I think of Paul Bodin, I’ll choose to remember the rangy, blond full-back, composed on the ball – a modern footballer, ahead of his time, who stood out amidst those frenzied early nineties international matches. And instead of the penalty versus Romania, I’ll choose to remember that moment two years earlier when Paul Bodin looked up from his own half and saw Ian Rush twitch his moustache in the direction of the German goal, a nation praying for the perfect pass.
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