Wales failing to qualify for the 1986 World Cup was a devastating blow to their supporters. But the tragic death of Scotland manager Jock Stein put everything into perspective.
Although many would say Scotland have had a monopoly on footballing tales of so near and yet so far, surely no one could digest as much disappointment as Welsh football fans in the 1980s. Missing out on World Cup qualification in 1982 on goal difference, and a minute away from Euro 84, the last thing the Welsh nation needed was another agonising near miss during their 1986 World Cup qualification campaign. But the pain of September 10, 1985, would soon be a new chapter of Welsh woe.
Yet sometimes sport is put into context. The word tragedy, that is often used to describe a failure in the sporting arena, is given full meaning when applied to life and death matters. As the final whistle sounded in the Welsh capital on that Autumn night, Scottish players and supporters celebrated a result that had edged them closer to Mexico. But their celebrations would soon be cut short.
The story so far
Group Seven was never going to be the easiest to qualify from. The group winners were guaranteed a place in Mexico, and the runners-up given a second chance against the Oceania Group winner, and with Euro 84 finalists Spain in the mix, Wales and Scotland knew there was little room for manoeuvre. So when Wales lost their first two matches - away in Iceland and Spain - they had given themselves a mountain to climb.
A win over Iceland in Cardiff got things back on track for Mike England's team, but it would be the 1-0 win in Scotland that opened up the group. On an evening where Mark Hughes battered both Alex McLeish and Willie Miller, Ian Rush's strike proved the difference, and the pair were at it again, as Spain were then crushed 3-0 at Wrexham's Racecourse Ground. Rush may have scored two on the night, but it would be Hughes' spectacular bicycle kick that stuck in the memory.
Things had been running smoothly for Scotland before their Hampden defeat against Wales. Home wins over Iceland and Spain was followed by a narrow defeat in Seville, but after their loss at the hands of Wales, Jock Stein's side crucially won in Iceland due to a late Jim Bett goal. With two matches left in the group - Wales v Scotland, and Spain v Iceland - Scotland, Wales and Spain were all on six points, with Scotland holding an important advantage with regards to goal difference (Scotland +4, Wales +1, Spain -1).
In short, with Spain expected to win their final group match, Wales simply had to beat Scotland to have any chance of making it to Mexico. A Scottish win would in all probability see them win the group, unless Spain thrashed Iceland, and a draw would at least guarantee the Scots a play-off spot. It really was a case of win or bust for Wales.
Location, location, location
In May and June of 1985, there were still key decisions to make regarding the time and the place of the match. At one point, the fixture was pushed to Wednesday September 11, before the original Tuesday date was settled on. The question of choosing a venue was far from straight forward, though. Mike England and his players preferred Wrexham as a location; they had never lost a World Cup qualifier at the Racecourse Ground, and were unbeaten in eight matches there. But the Welsh FA had one eye on their bank balance.
The poor financial state of the Welsh FA, not helped by England and Scotland scrapping the Home Internationals, played a big part in Cardiff being chosen as the venue. "It was literally life or death," the Welsh FA secretary Alun Evans explained after the announcement that Cardiff Arms Park had been chosen to host its first Wales international. A 62,500 crowd would reportedly have ensured profits of over £500,000 for the Welsh FA, although they would soon be forced to look elsewhere.
The Welsh Rugby Union went back on the agreement, apparently unhappy to host such a major football event at the stadium after the events of Heysel. Eventually the Welsh FA chose Ninian Park to host the match, although their motives were made all too clear when they immediately doubled admission prices. It was a decision that angered England and his players, who felt that qualification would have brought enough financial benefit for the Welsh FA, and the Racecourse Ground was rightly seen as their lucky ground.
The Welsh FA would also cash in on a television deal with ITV, showing the match live, a rare treat for football lovers. But Evans still feared an invasion of Scottish supporters flooding Cardiff. Allocated 12,000 tickets in the 39,500 crowd, ticketless Scottish fans were still a concern. "I expect twice as many as that to turn up," Evans stated. "I don't think the TV coverage will stop them coming. The Scottish FA share our fears, and the police are aware of the situation."
With English clubs banned from Europe, there was a fear that any trouble would give authorities another reason to stamp down hard on the sport across Britain. Many pubs and off licences were closed within a close distance of Ninian Park, in order to try and cope with the threat of violence. Fortunately, the night would pass without any major fan-related incidents.
Scottish selection headaches
The already testing task facing Scotland was made even harder due to injuries and a suspension. Deprived of his Liverpool spine - Alan Hansen (knee), Graeme Souness (suspension), and Kenny Dalglish (knee) - and Barcelona's Steve Archibald (influenza), Stein was faced with a number of selection posers. Steve Nicol would be drafted in to fill the imposing boots of Souness; Graeme Sharp and David Speedie would both earn their second caps up front; and Stein would employ five at the back, the manager understandably concerned about the threat of Rush and Hughes.
In contrast, England had very little to worry him. Only making the one change from the Spain win - Joey Jones coming in for Neil Slatter - it appeared as if England's team contained the ideal blend of quality and experience. Neville Southall had been crowned Footballer of the Year in 1985; Kevin Ratcliffe had skippered Everton to the League and European Cup Winners' Cup; the midfield was well marshalled by Peter Nicholas, Robbie James, and Mickey Thomas; and of course, they had the star quality up front in Rush and Hughes.
In a night dripping in tension, it was no surprise that tackles started flying in immediately. Clive White, writing in The Times, summed up the early exchanges. "In only the second minute Hughes tore into McLeish with all the fury of a young bull. He (McLeish) had to be restrained by his team-mates from extracting physical revenge upon Hughes. Within seconds he had vented his anger crudely on Rush instead and deservedly earned the booking his manager feared."
Hughes would be at the centre of most of the first half action, and it would be his goal after 13 minutes that gave Wales the lead. After Nicholas had beaten Nicol and Aitken to the ball on the left, his cross was swept home by Hughes, the Manchester United man scoring his sixth goal in ten internationals.
Wales continued to dominate, with James and Hughes both going close, and Scotland struggling to gain a foothold in the match. Throughout the opening half, Jim Leighton had been the busier of the two keepers, but as he left the pitch at half-time, Scotland's keeper was about to throw a major spanner in the works, leaving Stein furious, and Alan Rough bemused.
Admitting that he had lost a contact lens, Leighton also had to confess that he did not have a spare set with him. Cue chaos in the Scottish dressing room. Stein exploded with anger, irate that no one had told him about Leighton wearing contact lenses. But Leighton had never told anyone; not even Alex Ferguson, Stein's assistant and Leighton's club manager, knew of Leighton's shortsighted issue.
Warming up at half-time, Rough was summoned to the dressing room scene of panic, at first thinking that it was some kind of wind-up when he was told that he was coming on. "As I walked out of the dressing room Big Jock was standing near the door," Rough reveals in this Daily Record article. "His last words to me were, 'Good luck, ya fat b*****d'."
Rough was helpless, though, when a Hughes shot fell into the path of Rush, the Liverpool striker ideally placed to double the Welsh lead. But amazingly, Rush missed the opportunity. It proved a major turning point.
Stein's last call
Just after the hour mark, Stein had replaced Gordon Strachan with Rangers winger Davie Cooper, and he looked dangerous from the off. Running at the Welsh defence, Cooper put in a number of teasing crosses, but with just nine minutes to go, Scottish hopes were beginning to fade. That was until a controversial penalty changed the whole complexion of the group.
Contesting a ball with Speedie, the ball struck David Phillips' hand, with Dutch referee Jan Keizer pointing to the spot instantly. There was no doubt that Phillips had handled the ball, but many argued that it was not deliberate. Welsh fury at a dodgy penalty decision in a crucial qualifier against Scotland was nothing new. When Cooper just about scraped the ball past Southall, memories of Joe Jordan and David Jones in 1977 came flooding back.
"The players feel absolutely cheated," England said after the match. That decision has done so much...it's heartbreaking. Dave Phillips was just two yards away and the ball was blasted at him. It's meant to be intentional handball for a penalty, but Dave couldn't get out of the way." England sent on Millwall forward Steve Lovell in search of the winner, but it was not to be. Cooper's goal had ended the Welsh dream.
"Jock Stein being carried off there. Maybe Jock has been overcome by it all," ITV commentator Brian Moore observed as pictures cut to the players' tunnel after the match had finished. Stein had in fact got to his feet shortly before the final whistle, believing that Keizer had blown for full-time.
"A photographer had been bothering him all night," England said at the time. "And in the end Jock just pushed him away." Some reports state that Stein collapsed after this row, others indicate that Stein fell to the ground as soon as he got up. Either way, there was now pandemonium around the tunnel area.
"At 9.15 Mr Stein collapsed and was taken to the medical room," Scottish team doctor Stuart Hillis informed the press after the match. "On examining him he had a heart attack and required emergency treatment. There was a full resuscitation team there and the facilities were excellent but a cardiogram showed there was no heart function at that stage. After 30 minutes of every possible treatment the procedure was terminated. Death was evident at 9.50."
Ferguson, aware of the trouble Stein was in, kept the players out on the pitch, informing them that their manager had collapsed. Making his way towards the medical room, Ferguson's worst fears were confirmed. "Graeme Souness was standing along outside the medical room...and Graeme Souness was crying. I said 'What?', and he said 'I think the big man's gone'." A distraught Ferguson now had to make his way to a dressing room that had previously been celebrating a job done.
The dressing room fell silent as soon as Ferguson made his announcement. As the news became public knowledge, thousands of Scotland fans, previously planning to celebrate in Cardiff, were now in mourning. Others, driving home to Scotland, did not find out about Stein's death until the next morning. Thousands lined the street for his funeral just two days later, with a message on a wreath from the Scottish players highlighting the pain everyone felt: "We will miss you, boss".
Ferguson took temporary charge of the national team, leading Scotland to a 2-0 aggregate win over Australia, and managing the team in Mexico before Andy Roxburgh took over on a permanent basis. Wales, under Mike England once more, narrowly failed to make it to Euro 88, the manager paying the price by losing his job and making way for Terry Yorath.
Wales would again miss out in painful circumstances in November, 1993. Their 2-1 defeat to Romania in Cardiff, involving Paul Bodin's missed penalty, would again end in tragedy; a man was killed after he was hit by a flare released in the ground after the final whistle.
In subsequent years it was revealed that Ferguson, Strachan, and others had all commented on the fact that Stein had not looked well during the build-up to the match. It was also discovered that Stein had been suffering from a heart muscle disease, but prior to the match he had stopped taking the tablets required to remove fluid from his body. A sad footnote to an already tragic tale.