“Look what these bastards have done to Wales. They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon. The English.”
The Observer can exclusively reveal that these words will not come out of the Wales captain Ashley Williams’ mouth in Lens on Thursday, and not only because he was born in Wolverhampton. Phil Bennett’s legendary speech, delivered before Wales’s Five Nations victory over England in 1977, belonged to rugby union, where the rivalry between England and Wales is significantly more intense.
In international football, England and Wales are neighbours who increasingly keep themselves to themselves. They have met only four times in the past 30 years and the slightly confusing nature of the rivalry is compounded by the fact Wales’ best club teams play in the English leagues. One poll, before the 2006 World Cup, even suggested 83% of Welsh people would support England.
Even in the era of the Home International Championship, when England v Wales was an annual fixture, the rivalry did not compare to rugby. In sport, intensity often comes from equality: whereas Wales have matched England in rugby, when it comes to football they are usually Saint David against Goliath. In games between the sides, England lead 66-14.
That also means Welsh victories tend to be far more memorable and have often been fuelled by the perception England think the match is beneath them.
England generally trounced Wales around the turn of the 20th century. They scored 104 goals in a 32-match unbeaten run between 1883 and 1914; that included a 9-1 win in Cardiff in 1896, in which the great Steve Bloomer scored five times. Things changed after the war, with eight of Wales’s 14 victories over England coming in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet the most famous matches occurred in the second half of the century.
England’s 5-1 win in 1966, when the Home International Championship match doubled up as a European Championship qualifier, was the sixth and final time England’s World Cup-winning XI played together. It came during a 23-match, 21-year unbeaten run against Wales – although even then the most significant of those games was a triumph of sorts for Wales. Their 1-1 draw at Wembley during qualification for the 1974 World Cup was the beginning of the end for Sir Alf Ramsey, and culminated in the 1-1 draw with Poland that meant England missed out on the World Cup. “England gave one of the most inept displays of attacking football for years” was one take on the Wales game, and that came from the FA Yearbook.
Wales also helped usher Don Revie towards resignation with a 1-0 victory in the Home International Championship of 1977, still the only time they have won at Wembley. Their motivation increased when they found out that the Welsh anthem would not be played before the game. “Arrogance,” says the winger Leighton James. “It left … an indelible memory. We knew the anthem wouldn’t be played, but at the end of God Save the Queen we stood in line for about 10 seconds to make our point.”
There was another way to make their point. James, the Burnley winger who was Alastair Campbell’s boyhood hero, earned and scored the decisive penalty after a comical mistake from Emlyn Hughes. He ran away from a through ball with a nonchalance Franz Beckenbauer would have envied, so as to allow it through to Peter Shilton. Unfortunately James was behind him and got to the ball first before being fouled by Shilton. He got to his feet and scored the penalty.
“It’s a moment of great pride,” James says. “I’ve no doubt at all that in the fullness of time somebody else will score a winning goal at Wembley – Gareth [Bale], Aaron [Ramsey], one of the modern team. It’s not something I think will last forever and I don’t want it to last forever.”
He might have wanted the afternoon of 17 May 1980 to last forever. James had a sensational game as Wales routed England 4-1 at Wrexham, the only time England conceded four between 1964 and 2005. “Four days before, England had beaten the world champions Argentina 3-1 at Wembley,” James says. “Ron Greenwood brought quite a strong side to Wrexham – Steve Coppell, Glenn Hoddle, Ray Kennedy, Trevor Brooking, Clem [Ray Clemence] was in goal. They came with the confidence of beating Argentina, and it’s fair to say they left with their tail between their legs!”
Mike England, who was managing Wales for the first time, was irked before the match by a television interview in which “the interviewer was talking as if it was an honour for Wales even to be sharing the same pitch as England”.
James scored one, made two and left the England defender Larry Lloyd with twisted blood. “Once we equalised, it was no contest,” he says. “Mike England picked a team that was far too mobile for them. We ran them off the park.” And, in Lloyd’s case, into international retirement. Lloyd had been recalled after eight years, with a view to being selected as defensive cover at the European Championship in Italy that summer. He had a shocker. The third goal, a scramble that ended with Lloyd on his knees, Shilton on his back and Kenny Sansom on his front holding his face after being accidentally elbowed by Lloyd, summed up England’s defensive disarray. Phil Thompson’s own goal a few minutes later was not exactly a how-to guide either.
“To be honest, we weren’t really surprised as we didn’t think England were a particularly good team and we were at home,” says the goalkeeper Dai Davies. “They had a few weaknesses in their side and before the game Mike England had earmarked Larry Lloyd, who turned slower than the Queen Mary.”
Lloyd was also injured, which made him a doubt for the European Cup final 11 days later. He recovered and helped Nottingham Forest beat Hamburg 1-0, but his England career was over. He found little sympathy from his club manager. Lloyd had a tendency, during arguments with Brian Clough, to point out he had won three England caps to Clough’s two. When Lloyd came back after his fourth cap, Clough greeted him with a quiz question: “Which player won his fourth and last cap on the same day? It was you, against Wales!”
Wales’s most recent victory over England came in the final Home International Championship in 1984, when the debutant Mark Hughes scored the only goal on his debut. Only 14,250 people attended the game in Wrexham, and falling attendances meant the competition was discontinued. “England scrapped the Home International Championship, because they wanted to get more money by playing meaningless friendlies,” James says. “The England players were not arrogant – most of them played with us at different clubs – but the people in the boardroom were.”
The teams did not meet again until 2004, when David Beckham scored a stunning goal in a 2-0 win at Old Trafford. England have won all four games against Wales – qualifiers for Germany 2006 and Euro 2012 – in the 21st century. The last match was England’s 1-0 win at Wembley in 2011, and the list of those involved is a reminder how quickly life and football can change. The managers were Fabio Capello and Gary Speed, John Terry was England captain, and others who took part include Jack Collison, Adam Johnson and Stewart Downing. Marcus Rashford was 13 years old.
And so to Lens, and the first meeting between the sides at a major tournament. “England will always be favourites to beat Wales at football, because of the volume of players they’ve got to choose from,” James says. “But it doesn’t always work like that, as we know.”
After the successes of the 1970s and 1980s, James knows that better than most.
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