Saturday, September 24, 2011

Going up? There were ephemeral and long lasting candidates in 1975, but my observations will be reserved for a team almost everybody missed to notice back then. Let’s take a look at competition in progress, for the unnoticed team belongs to it – the 1976 European Championship. So far – preliminary rounds, beginning further back, in 1974. Qualification round robin groups rarely get full attention – they are spread in more than two years and generally attract close interest only among immediate participants. Big overall observations are largely speculations on the ‘greatest”. And who were – are 0 the greatest? Italy, (West) Germany, Holland (finally), England (by habit), Spain (stubbornly), USSR (always ‘may be’). The usual suspects. Forget the rest until the quarterfinals. 1976 was to be the last European championship in ‘classic’ format: after preliminary groups, 2-legged direct elimination in the quarterfinals, and semifinals and finals in one country and one ‘sudden death’ matches.
The qualifying stage seems weird today, for we are conditioned to careful ‘presellecting’ and no longer to random draws. From contemporary point of view, the 8 qualifying groups back in 1974 were… uneven. There were some ‘light’ groups and some very ‘heavy weight’ ones, quite against ‘reason’: Holland, Poland, and Italy were to fight for one spot, but in the same time there was a group consisting of Wales, Austria, Hungary, and Luxembourg. The second and third finishers at the World Cup together when there was group of fading teams, to say the least… no wonder a whole lot of preliminary matches were hardly noticed. No wonder that some group winners were either already predicted, or did not really matter who qualified. Non-eventful groups… them first.
Group 2: Luxembourg were ‘certain’ team – to end last. Among the other three countries, it was expected Hungary and Austria to put some fight for the first place, neither very good at the time. And because of their decline Wales finished first – hardly a trong team set to disturb European status quo. What is there to say? Hungary and Austria were worse than thought.
1.WALES 6 5 0 1 14- 4 10
2.Hungary 6 3 1 2 15- 8 7
3.Austria 6 3 1 2 11- 7 7
4.Luxembourg 6 0 0 6 7-28 0
Wales in 1975: bottom, left to right: A. Griffiths, B. Flynn, W. D. Davies, R. Thomas, J. Mahoney.
Top: D. Smallman, T. Yorath, M. Page, L. Phillips, J. Roberts, J. Toshack.
Surprise winners – or heroic ones. Wales going ahead with confidence, but it was not a team expected to advance further. Similar to Northern Ireland, Wales was spirited team without enough high caliber players. Most of the choices were playing in lower divisions. There were hardly any stars. Toshack and Yorath were not enough to make the team real contender. Lovely team, adorable underdogs, but also the team to be eliminated at the ¼ finals.