Cris Freddi's regular series continues with a look back at a famous win over Spain in 1985 that had Welsh fans dreaming of the World Cup finals
You’d kill for a playmaker. Just one. In the last 30 years. But this is Wales, and they don’t make them here. Rugby, yes. Even now. A second division country but still producing the odd Arwel Thomas. But football? Forget it. No world-class creative midfielder since Ivor Allchurch, who peaked in the Fifties. And Scotland and Northern Ireland think they’ve had problems.
Against the top teams, you miss that killer pass. The Brian Flynns and Gary Speeds only get you so far. Same today. A midfield with three Christian names as surnames, nearly four. David Phillips marks people, Peter Nicholas kicks them, Robbie James runs all day, Mickey Thomas runs and looks sneaky. Not enough when it’s nearly half-time, you need a win, and the group leaders don’t mind the draw. Wrexham, World Cup qualifier, Wales 0 Spain 0. Script for a requiem.
You knew how Wales would start the match. Mark Hughes putting himself about, as was his wont. Charging into anybody within range. The Spain coach complains about it afterwards. That and the pitch (“made good football impossible”). But his team don’t mind the aggro too much. It’s all they’re good at, and worse things happen in the Spanish league. Hughes gives away four free-kicks in as many minutes, but they dish it out to Ian Rush. They’ve got Antonio Maceda sweeping behind the back four and you have to hate him. For being good in the air and having floppy fair hair. A blond Spaniard. Bloody unnatural.
So they’ve got a five-man defence and Wales haven’t got a playmaker to pass their way through it. Forty-four minutes and one half-chance, James glancing a header wide from Kenny Jackett’s cross. At the other end Jackett cleared off the line when Rojo got behind Neil Slatter. And there’s been nothing from Rush. He scored in the 1-0 win in Scotland that kept hopes alive, but missed Liverpool’s last four matches. He’s not match fit and is marked out of it by Andoni Goikoetxea, notorious for crippling Maradona not long ago. The match gets bogged down in midfield and time’s been slipping away. Tick tick tick.
When you’re desperate for a goal, you start fantasising about opposition cock-ups. Someone missing a cross for your striker to tap in. Their keeper hitting a clearance against his own defender. When Goikoetxea knocks a harmless header back, you want Maceda to let it run. You’re willing Arkonada to let it go between his legs. But this is the best keeper in Europe, so dream on. Except the best keeper’s on the other side now, and Arkonada’s been shot for years. It was his mistake that gave Northern Ireland their goal in the 1982 World Cup. And he made that unbelievable blunder in the Euro 84 final. It’s his fault again here. He called for the ball, says his coach, then didn’t come for it. Rush can’t miss and Arkonada doesn’t play for Spain again.
Soon after half-time, the goal that settles the match, makes it famous, and persuades Barcelona to buy the scorer. A Nicholas free kick, Goikoetxea partially clears and Hughes volleys it chest-high into the top corner or thereabouts, with Van den Hauwe on the deck and everybody else ducking for cover. Like John Barnes in the Maracanã, it’s a goal he’ll spend his international career having to live up to.
For the moment, time for no more mister nice guy. The match was rough and gets rougher. Bookings for Rincón, Clos and Robbie James. Wales look as if they deserve a penalty but don’t get it and don’t care: it’s clear Spain can’t get back into this. They had beaten Wales 3-0 in Seville, but now Camacho’s suspended. Butragueño scored on his debut in that match but he’s out injured. Rincón scored too. He’s one of the few to match Ratcliffe for pace, but now he’s up against Van den Hauwe, who’s having a storming debut. Not at left-back, where he plays for Everton, but in central defence alongside his club captain Ratcliffe. Not a problem: he played a hundred times there for Birmingham. He’d wanted to represent Belgium where he was born, but wouldn’t do the military service. Their loss. Joey Jones isn’t missed, Rincón is taken off, and Southall doesn’t have a shot to save. All these Welsh: no wonder Everton are the best club side in England.
Spain bring on extra forwards, first Calderé to run at the Welsh full-backs, who play for Bristol Rovers and Watford. But it’s his debut and asking too much too soon. Especially as there’s nobody to give him the ball. Make a note: Spain haven’t got a playmaker either. No Michel, no Guardiola, no Iván de la Peña. Gordillo does well wide, but he’s a converted left-back. Víctor plays the terrier but it’s not fair to expect any more from him. And Gallego’s so poor he only gets half a game. With Nicholas up your jacksie and no protection from the referee in those days, you don’t necessarily blame him. Against teams that can’t hurt them with the pass, Wales are a match for anybody at home. Especially with Hughes in this form. It’s his early “Welsh bull” period, and you’d expect them to put the Butcher of Bilbao on him. But Goikoetxea stays with Rush, Lizeranzu gets the job instead, and his first cap is also his last. At the end, Rush goes around Arkonada to make it three and manager Mike England says they’ve taken “giant strides towards Mexico”.
But the through ball that sent Rush clear came from Hughes, not the midfield. Wales still need to beat Scotland at home to qualify and Hughes puts them ahead at half-time. But the Scots get a penalty and the draw, Jock Stein dies of a heart attack, and they go to Mexico with Spain. Wales miss out because they’ve got most of the spine you need for a successful team, but not the central section. Southall’s the best keeper of his generation, Ratcliffe very quick in central defence, Rush and Hughes as good a pair as anybody. And a few workhorses in midfield don’t hurt. If they’ve got some class to support.
Instead, that spectacular volley by Hughes was a glimpse of what might have been. And the peak of a long downward slope. In the last two World Cups, Wales have won three matches out of 18 (including two against San Marino) and lost 7-1 to Holland because they had the likes of Vinnie Jones in midfield (“We’ve got to get among these good players”) and you have to agree with Gary Lineker about him. So that missing playmaker is still costing them. They haven’t had one since Ivor was a common name.
From WSC 182 April 2002. What was happening this month