This article is part of our weekly history series. You can read previous entries here.
The level of detail that the developing childhood brain can retain into adulthood is pretty astounding. Holidays, school trips and movies from decades past feel more familiar than a conversation held just last week. The football of our childhood retains particular clarity, too. For no good reason, I can picture the Coventry City defence of 1994/95 more clearly than members of my own family.
Above all, I have the most vivid memories of watching Wales play international matches during the mid-nineties. For some reason, they all seem to take place at the time of year when autumn meets winter – around Bonfire Night, orange leaves crunching underfoot, Ceefax informing us that Ryan Giggs has withdrawn from the squad. Wales are away from home and the opposition always seems to be a nation that has not long gained its independence. The game flickers on a battered portable television, and the washed-out colours of the former Soviet Union feel strangely familiar to an eight-year-old child in south-west Wales. Familiar too is the sound of Ian Gwyn-Hughes, his often-exasperated commentary crackling down a phone line from high up in the stands of a stadium that once bore the name of Lenin.
Perhaps most recognisable is the sense of hopelessness and inferiority: Wales are losing. The game starts badly and rapidly becomes worse, the Welsh stars I watch on a videotaped Match of the Day every Sunday morning now failing helplessly against players whose names I've not heard before. The final whistle blows and it's 5-0 to the opposition. The beaten Welsh trudge off the field with shoulders weighed down by yet another international failure.
Thinking about it, my memories aren't so much vivid as they are specific. Because, in my head, it seems like my eight-year-old self is watching Wales' 5-0 defeat to Georgia in November 1994 – a game I probably did not see live – on a terrible, semi-imagined loop.
The Georgia game was the nadir of Wales' disastrous attempt to qualify for Euro '96. The campaign followed the heartbreak of World Cup '94 qualification: Paul Bodin's penalty miss, a 2-1 defeat to Romania, and yet another international tournament that we'd watch on telly. Having led Wales to the brink of World Cup football, Terry Yorath was not offered a new contract, purportedly after asking the gentlemen at the Football Association of Wales for a pay rise. In came John Toshack and then, 40-odd days later, out went John Toshack. If you need a blueprint for how to mismanage the aftermath of a very near miss, see the Wales national setup circa 1994.
Following Toshack's departure, Wales re-hired Mike Smith, who had previously held the job for five years in the seventies and led Wales to the brink of a place at the 1976 European Championships – no small feat given that the final tournament only consisted of four teams back then.
But Smith – who holds the curious distinction of being Wales' first and second foreign manager – would not enjoy anything like that kind of success second time around.
In theory, the Wales job must have looked tempting in the spring of 1994. There was plenty of quality to call upon, from Everton goalie Neville Southall, to midfielders Barry Horne and Gary Speed, and the gold-standard attacking prowess of Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, and Dean Saunders. Perhaps most tantalisingly of all, a 20-year-old Giggs was firmly establishing himself as one of the finest players in the Premier League.
Qualification for Euro '96 was particularly important for Welsh fans: with the tournament being held just over the border in England, there were dreams of taking formidable numbers across to support the boys in red. But the group would be no easy task to navigate, with the mighty Germany and World Cup semi-finalists Bulgaria as headliners, and tricky away trips in Albania, Georgia, and Moldova.
The campaign started with something approaching optimism thanks to a 2-0 win over Albania. They may not have been a powerhouse of world football, but it was three points nonetheless. I'm going to be straight with you here: this was as good as it got.
Next came the rude awakening of a 3-2 away defeat in Moldova (another former Soviet state). Wales have had more rude awakenings than most on the international football stage – perhaps we should stop falling asleep, boys – and defeat to a nation that had declared independence just a few short years earlier and was playing in its first qualifying campaign is up there with the worst. There were mitigating factors – as outlined by the Welsh football journalist Chris Wathan in 2014 – but it could not be denied that this was a major setback.
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And so it was that Wales travelled to Georgia – an independent nation since 1991 – looking to get their campaign back on track. The Georgians had begun the group with two defeats, going down 1-0 at home to Moldova and 2-0 away to Bulgaria – hardly a promising start.
Still, only a naive few can have believed that this would be an easy trip. For one thing, there was no consistency in the Welsh side. For the Georgia game, only four players would be making their third appearance in as many group matches: Southall, Speed, midfielder David Phillips, and young defender Chris Coleman. The latter may eventually have led Wales to the promised land, but in November '94 they couldn't have been further away.
The most glaring omission from the line-up was Giggs. Much has been made of the Manchester United legend's patchy dedication to his national side. Whatever the truth of it may be, it's a fact that he played only twice in the entire Euro '96 qualifying campaign, though during the same period he was turning out for 40-plus games a season at United.
Nevertheless, this was not a poor team. In front of Southall the defence consisted of Coleman, Alan Neilson, Mark Bowen and Andy Melville (the only non-Premier League player in the 11). Horne, Speed and Phillips made up the midfield, with an impressive attacking triumvirate of Rush, Hughes and Saunders. There may have been an element of favouring individuals over a system, but with the exception of Neilson each of the 11 would make at least 30 appearances for their country, with Southall, Speed, Hughes, Rush and Saunders all going on to make more than 70.
At the time, few would have recognised the names on the Georgia team sheet, but the modern fan will be familiar with the likes of Giorgi Kinkladze, Temuri Ketsbaia, and Shota Arveladze, who all went on to play in Europe's top leagues. All three would soon be well known to Wales.
The Boris Paichadze National Stadium in Tbilisi was not half full for the match. The vast majority in attendance were Georgian, and a little under half an hour in they witnessed their side's first competitive goal on home turf. Given a criminal amount of space on the left of the Welsh box, Ketsbaia had all the time in the world to control the ball on his chest, steady himself, and loft the ball over Southall into the top-right of the net. Wales took a near-fatal blow 10 minutes later when Georgia hit them on the break. The ball was sent to Kinkladze on the left-hand side (this was to become a theme) and the maverick midfielder burst into the box unopposed. His shot was perhaps a little too straight, but it still managed to beat Southall and send Georgia two up ahead of the break.
It is easy to wonder what Smith said at half-time. Did league-winning veterans like Rush, Hughes and Southall have anything to add? Did young, future national team bosses Speed and Coleman pipe up too?
Whatever was said in the dressing room, it did little to change matters on the pitch. Three minutes after the break Georgia put any doubts to bed, with Ketsbaia netting his second of the game. He received the ball on the left, turned Kit Symons (on for Neilson) and gave himself plenty of space to dispatch a perfect shot into the top-right. It was the pick of the bunch from a player who, a few years later, was celebrating goals by furiously kicking Premier League advertising boards.
On 58 minutes Georgia once again exploited the Welsh left. The ball was pulled back from the line and Gocha Gogrichiani had ample time to flick it up and – despite the presence of two Welsh defenders – dink the ball over a flailing Southall. It was 4-0, and three of the goals had been remarkably similar. Seven minutes passed during which Georgia did not score any goals, which at this stage in proceedings may have been considered a success on the Welsh team's part. But on 65 minutes Shota Arveladze (later of Ajax and Rangers) was sent through on the left-hand side. Southall rushed out, and the striker finished coolly. The Georgian players darted off to celebrate near the left flank – fitting, given how much success they had enjoyed there – where they sank to the turf and gave thanks, presumably for the calamitous defence they'd come up against.
Mercifully, Wales held out for the next 35 minutes. The score was thus simply embarrassing; a few more and there'd have been reason to question whether it was worth fielding a national side any more. Still, this was Wales' biggest international defeat since going down 6-1 to France in May 1953. And it had not come against one of world football's powerhouse teams – with all due respect, lads, it was Georgia.
Clearly, hopes of qualifying were already slim, and they were effectively ended by a 3-0 defeat at home to Bulgaria in December, a game that saw Vinnie Jones brought into the Wales setup. In March, Wales lost 3-1 to Bulgaria in Sofia.
Perhaps it was the fact that the pressure was off, or maybe a few players felt like winning back some pride, but Wales' results actually improved thereafter. A 1-1 draw in Germany with the side that would go on to win Euro '96 showed that there was something in this team. Still, it did not herald an upturn in form, with a 1-0 loss to Georgia at home following; only 8,000 turned up at Cardiff Arms Park, Jones was shown a red card before the half-hour mark, and Smith was shown the door afterwards. Bobby Gould was in place for the narrow 1-0 win over Moldova, followed by a 2-1 defeat to Germany and a 1-1 draw in Albania. Wales finished bottom of the group.
And yet, looking back, I am oddly sentimental about this era of Welsh football. Perhaps I am just mixing it up with childhood in general. The game against Germany – a 2-1 defeat that saw Wales run the group winners surprisingly close – was the first football match I saw in the flesh. Having capitulated in some of their qualifiers, Wales were unexpectedly good against the Germans, losing to a header from Jurgen Klinsmann that I can still remember in frame-by-frame detail.
It does not bear repeating that Wales would have to wait another two decades for a place at a major tournament. As time wore on, the defeats felt worse – I still remember the 2-0 home loss to Finland at a sparsely populated Millennium Stadium with a shudder – before redemption in France this summer.
And so the kids of 2016 can count themselves lucky: their vivid childhood memories will be of Gareth Bale firing home free kicks, Ashley Williams racing towards Coleman and co. in celebration, and Hal Robson-Kanu leaving the Belgian defence for dead to send a nation into raptures. But I'll happily hold on to my own early memories of Welsh football – of grey brutalist stadiums, crackling commentary, and abject defeats. If nothing else, it helps to keep things firmly in perspective.