ARTICLE by Tomos Jones
PICTURE by WalesOnline.
Wales, other than at World Cup 1958 and Euro 2016, had always gone so close to qualifying for a major tournament, before falling at the final hurdle.
The 1950’s was Wales’s golden age, peaking at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, with Leeds United and Juventus striker, the late John Charles starring for the red dragons. The closest Wales came next to qualifying for a major tournament was the 1976 European championship, but were ultimately knocked out by Yugoslavia in the quarter-finals of the qualifiers.
They also came close to qualify for the 1982 World Cup, where they narrowly missed out on qualification via goal difference, after a 2-2 draw against Iceland in a problematic final group game.
They were also a whisker away from attending the ’94 World Cup, with Iceland once again Wales’ bogey team, winning 1-0 in Reykjavík against Terry Yorath’s boys. And then, in the play-offs, Paul Bodin hit the crossbar in a make-or-break penalty shoot-out against Romania, and came to regret this as they eventually lost out on a place at the finals.
Then, after years of hurt, Mark Hughes led Wales into the 2004 European championship qualifying campaign under increasing pressure. Here, I look back at the qualifying campaign that so nearly sent Wales to their first major tournament in nearly 50 years, before they ultimately fell short once again, this time at the hands of the Russians.
After a dismal 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign, Wales had clocked up 44 years without playing in a major tournament. Hughes was entering into his third year as Wales manager, and was yet to live up to the high standards he set as a player. The 2004 Euro qualifiers draw was made on January 25, 2002. Wales found themselves in Pot D, and faced the possibility of facing some of the most powerful nations in Europe, including then- World Cup holders France, and bitter rivals England. However, they were eventually drawn into a more favourable group involving Italy, Serbia & Montenegro, Finland and Azerbaijan.
Finland 0-2 Wales – Helsinki Olympic Stadium, Helsinki, September 7, 2002.
It all began at Finland, who had never qualified for a major tournament before, and they themselves felt they could push on in this campaign, and possibly aim for a play-off spot at the end of 2003.
With Liverpool starlets Sami Hyypiä and Jari Litmanen starring for the Scandinavians, Wales knew that they were no pushovers, and had to bring their A-game in the opening game.
And the dragons certainly didn’t disappoint, with John Hartson and Simon Davies scoring in a 2-0 win.
Hartson, who was thriving under Martin O’Neil at Celtic at the time, scored his seventh goal for Wales in Helsinki, and set them on their way to an important win, building early momentum in group nine.
Wales 2-1 Italy – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, October 16, 2002.
The Welsh resurgence was well and truly under way in this one as it became one of the national teams most famous victories. After their designated break from competitive international fixtures (due to five teams in one group), Wales faced Euro 2000 runners-up Italy at the Millennium stadium.
Newcastle United’s young striker Craig Bellamy wanted to prove a point to manager Hughes after recovering from a knee injury. With the Italians winning their first game of the group, something had to give for either, and Wales got off to the perfect start, with winger Simon Davies scoring his second goal of the campaign in the 11th minute.
Wales were playing good football too, but the Azzurri came back shortly after the half hour mark, with 1996 champions league winner Alessandro Del Piero’s deflected free kick equalising for the Italians.
A draw would be a very valuable one for Wales, with games against Azerbaijan and Serbia & Montenegro coming up, but Bellamy had other ideas, and on the 70th minute, following a great pass from Hartson, the forward went on a rapid run, before showing real composure to round goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, and convert into an empty net to give Wales a 2-1 lead.
The red dragons held on in the final 20 minutes, and recorded their first win against the Italians since 1988 when they beat the then three-time World Cup winners 1-0 in Brescia.
Azerbaijan 0-2 Wales – Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium, Baku, November 20, 2002.
Wales were in dreamland, having won their first two games of the qualifying campaign. However, they had hit a brick wall in terms of injuries, including to centre back Danny Gabbidon, who picked up an injury an hour before kick-off.
After a 2,605-mile journey, you would expect Wales to be a little lethargic, but this simply wasn’t the case, and their injuries certainly didn’t affect them either, as they maintained their 100% record, by emerging victorious with a 2-0 win.
The late Gary Speed, unmarked, scored a powerful header to give the dragons a 1-0 lead in the 10th minute. And Wales secured their win in the 68th minute, with Hartson doubling his tally for the campaign by scoring a header at the back post, past the unlucky Azerbaijani goalkeeper Cahangir Hesenzade.
Wales were in unfamiliar territory, (and I am not talking about Azerbaijan!) by winning every game in competitive international fixtures, and they could see the light of the Euro 2004 finals at the end of the tunnel.
Wales 4-0 Azerbaijan – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, March 20, 2003.
Wales played Azerbaijan in their first competitive fixture of 2003. After Wales strolled to victory in Baku, they wanted to make it six points out of six against their counterparts, and win their fourth successive win of their campaign.
And they couldn’t have got off to a better start, with Simon Davies’s deflected effort off Farkhad Akhmedov finding the back of the net to give Wales the lead after just 15 seconds.
Midfielder Speed then netted his second goal of the campaign in the 40th minute, whilst Hartson scored his third goal in four games just before half-time.
Current Wales manager Ryan Giggs scored the fourth in the 52nd minute to complete the rout against the minnows, who looked toothless up top and vulnerable at the back.
Wales were now 5 points clear of second placed Italy, but knew they couldn’t take their foot off the pedal either, as only one side in the group could qualify for the tournament automatically.
Serbia & Montenegro 1-0 Wales – Red Star Stadium, Belgrade, August 20, 2003.
In this match, players were entering into a new domestic season, and the early international fixtures at the start of the season weren’t exactly ideal. With players only starting to get up to match fitness, and the climate in Eastern Europe always hotter, Wales’ perfect record was certainly on the line here.
Mark Hughes’ side would have taken a point from Belgrade, and would still maintain a healthy lead against the Italians in the group. But this wasn’t the case unfortunately, with Dragan Mladenovic hitting a 73rd minute winner for the former Yugoslavians. This was the only goal Mladenovic scored for his country, and perhaps the most significant goal Wales keeper Paul Jones conceded during the campaign.
It was also only the 2nd time Wales had conceded, but it was the first time Wales fell to defeat in the group stage. Their lead in the group was cut to just two points, following Italy’s 2-0 victory against Finland in June.
Wales were now under real pressure to get a result in Italy, as they new the Azzurri would overtake them in group nine if they were to win.
Italy 4-0 Wales – San Siro, Milan, September 6, 2003.
Many saw this game as the group decider, whoever wins are in Portugal in the summer, with the other side put into the gruelling play-offs.
Both sides named their strongest line-ups too, with Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Nesta and Alessandro Del Piero in amongst the starting XI for the Azzurri. But even with all these Italian stars, Wales started the game brightest, with Giggs, Hartson and Bellamy causing many problems for the Italian defence.
But it was inevitable that Filippo Inzaghi and Del Piero would have something to say on the day, and the latter hit the bar just before half-time, giving manager Hughes something to ponder during the interval. But whatever Hughes said at half-time, it didn’t work, and Wales played out what was probably the most painful 45 minutes in their recent history.
The Italians experience of playing in big games prevailed, and Inzaghi scored a hat-trick in just eleven minutes to break Welsh hearts. His first goal came in the 58th minute, when he tapped in a rebound after Jones’ save. The AC Milan forward then scored his second from a Massimo Oddo cross, before completing his hat-trick from close range. Del Piero completed a comprehensive victory in the 74th minute from the penalty spot, and as a result, Italy moved into 1st place in the group for the first time in the campaign. To further rub salt into the wound, Robbie Savage, Craig Bellamy and Mark Delaney all received their second yellow cards of the tournament, meaning they would miss the next fixture of the campaign against Finland.
Wales 1-1 Finland – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, September 10, 2003.
Wales’ morale was severely affected from the Italy defeat, but also knew nothing less than three points would be good enough to keep their hopes of automatic qualification alive.
Although they had secured a play-off place, they wanted to secure a place in Portugal automatically.
A game against Finland was the best Wales could’ve hoped for having played Azerbaijan twice, but Wales were served with a shock. Throughout the whole 90 minutes, they were outplayed, outfought and out-battled in almost every aspect.
Although Simon Davies gave Wales an early lead in the third minute, Finland always looked like scoring, and although ‘keeper Jones produced a magnificent display, he couldn’t keep the Finnish out for the whole 90 minutes, and gave way in the 79th minute, with Mikael Forssell equalising for the away side.
The 73,411-present in the Millenium Stadium crowd were stunned by the out-of-character performance from Wales, who had been outstanding for the first half of the campaign, but were now a shadow of that side who blew sides away left, right and centre.
With the game ending 1-1, all attention was on Italy’s game against Serbia & Montenegro, and after Inzaghi put the Azzurri 1-0 in front after 22 minutes, the home side fought back with Sasa Ilic scoring a late equaliser as the game ended 1-1.
This was a huge blow for Wales, as they knew a win would’ve moved them back to top spot and two points clear of the Italians.
Wales 2-3 Serbia & Montenegro – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, October 11, 2003.
Wales were beginning to regain old habits, and looked like they were bottling another qualifying campaign. They hosted Serbia & Montenegro in Cardiff, once again knowing they had to win this game to stand a chance at automatic qualification.
Italy hosted Azerbaijan at the same time. Wales got off to the worst possible start in their match, when Zvonimir Vukic scored for the visitors and put them in command. And with further news coming through that Christian Vieri had scored for Italy, everybody’s heads were down, and knew that the play-offs were on the way.
Whilst John Hartson scored a penalty to bring Wales level in the 26th minute, they were only playing for pride now and aiming to end the campaign on 16 points. After pushing for a winner throughout the second half, the visitors punished a tired-out Wales side, with Savo Milosevic and Danijel Ljuboja scoring in the final 10 minutes to make it 1-3.
Robert Earnshaw’s goal in the 93rd minute was only a consolation, and with Italy winning 4-0, Wales finished the group campaign in second place on 13 points, whilst the Azzurri qualified automatically for the European Championship with an impressive 17 points from eight games.
Wales were now entering into the play offs, and following a draw in Frankfurt, Germany, on October 13, 2003, knew they were coming up against Russia, with the two-legged games taking place between November 15 and 19, 2003.
Russia 0-0 Wales – Lokomotiv Stadium, Moscow, November 15 2003.
The Russians were looking to qualify for their second successive major tournament, and their first European Championship since 1996. They had finished second to Switzerland in the qualifying campaign, and would’ve been relatively pleased drawing Wales in the play-offs, following the dragons’ abysmal run of form in the latter half of 2003.
But the Russians would have been somewhat shocked by Wales’ performance at the Lokomotiv Stadium, as they earned themselves a well-deserved 0-0 draw in Russia.
Mark Hughes’ side defended for their lives for the 90 minutes, and as a result they were made bookies favourite to win the return fixture in Cardiff.
Although an away goal would’ve put the cherry on top of the cake, a draw 4,407 miles away from home was still a very admirable result to say the least.
Wales 0-1 Russia (Aggregate 0-1) – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, November 19 2003.
From one of the highest points in Wales’ football history away in Russia, they went onto suffer a heart-breaking night in their own capital. After holding the Russians to a stalemate four days prior to this game, Wales knew any sort of win against the Eastern Europeans would guarantee a spot in the finals.
But with no Craig Bellamy and Ryan Giggs, the pace on the wings had vanished away, and they had to rely on Hartson and Earnshaw up top to get the goals.
Giggs, who may not have played for Wales in this game due to Sir Alex Ferguson’ demands at Manchester United, could’ve made the difference with his vast experience and winning mentality, but with his absence, Wales paid the ultimate price, as in the 21st minute, Lokomotiv Moscow’s Vadim Evseev scored the decisive winner for Russia, who held out for a 1-0 win.
Had Wales qualified for the finals, they would’ve most probably been in pot four and therefore been drawn into a very difficult group. Having said this, eventual Euro 2004 winners Greece were in that pot, with hosts Portugal, Spain and Russia in group A. But the Greeks defied the odds, and went all the way to the final, beating Portugal on home soil 1-0 to claim the 2004 European Championship title.
Better times came back for Wales eventually, as they ultimately qualified for their first tournament in 58 years, when they reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016, where they reached the semi-finals before losing to eventual champions Portugal.
And, after qualifying for their second successive European Championships, Wales will hope to do it all over again in 2021, and make their country proud across the multi-city tournament.
So, whilst the hurt of the 2004 qualifying campaign stung in the short term, it also may just have encouraged many more footballers from Wales to take international football to another level, and make their country proud. The 2004 campaign was a big opportunity missed for Wales.