Wales is ready to compete in two European Championships in a row, after never qualifying for a competition in their history. How did things turn around so quickly? Obviously, there are several forces at play, but Brian Flynn is possibly the most important figure in this story. In fact, I’d argue that the former Burnley and Leeds midfielder saved Welsh football. I realise that’s a lofty claim, but I truly believe it, and here’s why: Let’s go back to 2003. Wales had lost in the playoffs to a Russia squad that had at least one player pumped full of Bromantan, an anti-fatigue substance created by the military during the cold war, despite winning their first four Euro 2004 qualifiers. Aside from the dubious methods of the opponent, this was only the latest in a long sequence of failures. Indeed, until 2015, Wales had never qualified for a tournament outright. The country only qualified for the 1958 World Cup by being drawn out of a hat to play Israel in an eminently winnable playoff tie (Israel’s Arab neighbours had refused to play them, so FIFA determined they’d have to play off against a European team to earn their spot).
Wales wasn’t even the first team to be drawn – Belgium was – but the Belgians had far too much pride to travel to a World Cup in those conditions, whilst the Welsh didn’t.
The team that Brian Flynn joined in 1974/75 is still the only time the Welsh senior team has ever finished first in a qualifying group (ahead of Austria, Hungary, and Luxembourg), but the Euros were a considerably smaller affair back then. Wales made it to the final eight, however the quarter-finals were really a warm-up for the semi-finals, which were held in one country. In 1976, Yugoslavia won 3-1 over two legs to advance to the final four ahead of Wales. Flynn made his entire debut against Scotland in a Cardiff home international the previous year. On a muddy Ninian Park surface, the 19-year-old honoured the occasion by netting in spectacular fashion, finishing first-time after a double one-two. Although the teenager had already made an impact at top-flight Burnley, with their visionary manager Jimmy Adamson – widely regarded as the greatest English footballer never to win an international cap – placing far more emphasis on skill and intelligence than raw physicality, it was his first goal as a professional. Having said that, despite being only five feet four inches tall, Flynn is a force to be reckoned with. He was terrier-like, loathing to give opponents time on the ball to choose their passes but always making the correct judgments when he was in possession.
Flynn also had a good eye for goal,
scoring against Brazil in 1983 with a header. With 66 Wales caps and five top-ten finishes in the Premier League with short-arse contemporaries like Billy Bremner and Alan Ball, the commonly-expressed cop-out of ‘you’re too little to make it’ was no longer an option. During Flynn’s 12 years as Wrexham manager and two years as Swansea manager, the phrase “unsurprisingly” never crossed his mind. The mantra was ‘ability, attitude, intelligence,’ and as someone who had been thrown in at a young age, he was never reluctant to give kids an opportunity. During his stint as a club manager, he developed a number of young players, including Chris Armstrong, Karl Connolly, and Leon Britton. Flynn was an obvious option for Wales Intermediate Team Manager (coach for the under 21s, 19s, and 17s in old money) John Toshack’s newly created position in late 2004. John and Mel Charles, Ivor Allchurch, Jack Kelsey, Cliff Jones, Mike England, Leighton James, Terry Yorath, Neville Southall, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Kevin Ratcliffe, Gary Speed, Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy… are just a few of the great Welsh players that never qualified for a major tournament. I could go on and on. Why? Here’s what the players had to say about it. “There are roughly 24 players in the league who I would consider worthy candidates,” manager Mike England said in 1981. It’ll be difficult to replace one of my players if he gets hurt.”
“The everlasting dilemma for a tiny country like Wales, with limited numbers of top-flight professional players, has generally been in getting the balance right,” Rush said in 1995. “Over the years, Wales have been able to field a strong team provided everyone is fit, but there’s never been anything beneath the surface,” Craig Bellamy said plainly in 2001. If we get hurt, we’re done with it. It’s far from perfect.” Things were looking dismal in 2004. Wales had paid a high price for the absence of injured and suspended players towards the end of the 2002/03 season (Bellamy and important midfielders Simon Davies and Mark Pembridge for the playoffs). In the meantime, the under-21s had gone a whopping five years — 26 matches between 1997 and 2002 – without winning a single match.
This dreadful run had lowered expectations to sewage levels.
“Wales produced an absolutely great game,” a match programme item from 1999 said of an under-21 qualifier against Italy. The Italians had won the game 6-2. It’s fair to say that there wasn’t exactly a conveyor line of fresh talent eager to swarm the senior team. Flynn got to work on expanding the player pool almost once, tackling his new task with zeal. “You really need at least 30 good guys,” he said. “The best players, according to John Toshack, require good sparring partners.” He was bent on creating excellent links with club coaches and making sure he was at least aware of as many Welsh qualified players as possible by attending an average of 12 games per week. This perseverance paid off spectacularly. Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu, and Sam Vokes were the three goal scorers on the greatest night in Welsh football history — the quarter-final against Belgium at Euro 2016 – With Welsh grandparents, all three were born and raised in England. All three were recruited into Flynn’s Welsh operation after chance encounters and ad hoc inquiries.
Flynn shifted gears again, emphasising the significance of having a winning mentality. To this purpose, the seeds of Wales’ Euro 2016 and beyond success may be traced back to 2007. Flynn’s under-21s defeated Sweden 4-3 in a friendly in the summer of that year. David Edwards, Sam Vokes, David Cotterill, Simon Church, Neil Taylor, Owain fon Williams, and two young midfield debutants, Joe Allen (17) and Aaron Ramsey (17), were among the eight players who played that day and travelled to France nine years later (16). Allen scored the game-winning goal on that particular day. Three months later, France was defeated 4-2 at Ninian Park. Only 700 people were at the stadium, but I went to my local pub in Cambridge (where I was living) and begged them to put the game on because I had heard good things about some of the adolescents in the squad. I was the only one who was paying attention. Ramsey and Allen were particularly impressive during the encounter.
Welsh children having the same technical ability as the finest young French footballers?
Wow. Something’s occurring here. Wales won the group, but that only qualified them for a playoff against England, one of Europe’s finest young nations. The matches were epic and evenly contested throughout, but experienced Premier League stars like James Milner and Mark Noble’s considerable English experience eventually proved decisive. A tremendously excellent and richly deserved victory over Italy highlighted the following campaign. 2-1, but it could have been, and should have been, a lot more. This would be costly in the long run. Despite having the same amount of points, a greater goal differential, more goals scored, and a 2-2 aggregate record, the Azzurrini advanced on the head-to-head away goals rule.
The goal at the Liberty Stadium, scored ironically by Alberto Paloschi, who played for Swansea in 2016, was the game-winner. For most managers, these near-misses would be excruciating, but Flynn is remarkably upbeat about it all. There’s no resentment, for his eyes were always on the much higher prize of helping the senior team get to tournaments. He, like Toshack, was wise and experienced enough to see that the seeds you sow are frequently more essential than the flowers you can see. “Those eight years will be good enough for the next 15 years for Wales,” Flynn told former Wales international Owain Tudur Jones on the era. I disagree with him on that point, with all due respect. The mindset of a loser has been discarded. Wales will be able to survive for much longer because to this shift in mentality.