Nick Davies reviews the new book, Trailing Clouds of Glory by Nick Burnell, published by Y Lolfa – an unabashedly nostalgic story that shines a light on Welsh football’s forgotten heroes of the 1970s.
When Gareth Bale rose beyond the Azerbaijan goalkeeper to score a desperately-needed winner in a recent European qualifying match in Cardiff, my grinning son observed my face – contorted by joyful disbelief – with curious interest. “I knew we’d do it, Dad,” he said matter-of-factly as if supporting Wales would never break our hearts. It occurred to me that, in his memory, our national team has been sometimes brilliant (ah, the summer of 2016, and how Bordeaux, Toulouse, Paris and Lille will forever be our fields of dreams) and, at worse, respectable.
By contrast, my experience of following the Wales team during my boyhood and into my adult years was tarnished by crushing last match qualifying defeats or, more often than that, tournaments in which Wales’ chances were blown with a year still to go.
But at least I’m not alone… Y Lolfa follows up its definitive history of Welsh football – Phil Stead’s excellent Red Dragons (2012, revised 2015) – with this warm and unashamedly nostalgic glance back at one of the nation’s greatest, yet forgotten, teams.
Trailing Clouds of Glory by Nick Burnell is the story of the Wales team of the mid-seventies which, with lower-league journeymen lining up alongside a smattering of top division talent, became the first Welsh side to top its qualifying group, eventually reaching the quarter-finals of the 1976 European Championships. With last-eight matches played over two legs back then, rather than the glamour of a finals tournament and the honour of being immortalised in a Panini sticker album, author Nick Burnell argues that this group of players and their achievement have become shamefully disregarded.
His meticulously researched story delivers a stirring yarn – a team thrown together following one of Wales’ worst ever runs (one win in 14 matches), coached by the softly-spoken PE teacher from Middlesex, Mike Smith (“a man as straightforward and uncomplicated as his own name”) who took his players to the brink of greatness.
Burnell trawls through newspaper archives and players’ autobiographies with forensic attention to detail, to shed light on the two-year adventure. He also interviews some of the protagonists, now in their sixties and seventies, their stories unshackled by the stretching of time. Former players Leighton Phillips and Dave Roberts are especially unreserved, revealing the closeness of the squad off the pitch with tales of high jinks akin to a fifth-form residential weekend, but barely concealing a poignant sense of brotherhood.
Roberts’ account of his Wales debut – a South Londoner eligible through his Ynys Môn-born parents – and singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau for the first time, is especially charming: “I could see my mum and dad up in the crowd and they were singing to their hearts’ content. Lovely…”
For all his journalistic rigour, Burnell’s narrative is richest when told from a first-person perspective. His personal memories of watching Wales versus Hungary at Cardiff’s old Ninian Park are especially evocative. He recalls the pre-match karate display by the prosaically-titled Welsh Karate Board of Control – with musical accompaniment from the Mid-Rhondda Band – with as much fondness as he does the famous Welsh victory that followed, even adding in a tangential yet hilarious anecdote of improvised martial arts in a 1970s comprehensive.
Burnell frames the on-pitch action against events of the time. The low turnout at home matches early in the campaign is explained by a schedule clash with the Ali v Foreman World Championship bout – the fabled Rumble in the Jungle – as well as exorbitant inflation rendering petrol unaffordable for many fans. The disappearance of Lord Lucan dominated the news when Wales faced Luxembourg in lashing Swansea rain, prompting Burnell to comment, “If it was crowds he was trying to avoid, he should have made his way to the Vetch.”
The book is bathed in the cosy orange hue of a 1970s polaroid, unfettered by the corporate cynicism endemic in modern sport. One half expects a waft of Clark’s pie and Bovril with every turn of the page, especially in the author’s own terrace recollections. He remembers his dad lugging a stool into Cardiff’s Bob Bank so his son can stand on it for a better view. Similarly, sometimes throwaway observations are testament to a more rudimentary era – it’s briefly mentioned that Newport County’s home games at Somerton Park would kick off at 3.15 pm (rather than 3 pm as elsewhere) out of deference to shift patterns at the steelworks. While Burnell occasionally overcommits to an antediluvian philosophy – I would assert that there are aspects of modern football that far outstrip the dogged game of the 1970s played and watched in tired, crumbling terraces – his portrayals of fan culture, music and style are deservedly evangelical. A description of Wales’ outrageously bold Admiral kit, an all-red kitsch classic with yellow tramlines stretching from shoulder to thigh, as the very peak of Jolie Laide, is pithily funny. Perhaps my favourite nod to the time is mention of a Q&A interview in Shoot! magazine with star midfielder – and committed patriot – John Mahoney who lists his favourite musical artists as the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, and his favourite TV show as Welsh language current affairs programme, Y Dydd. Indeed, Mahoney would play Dafydd Iwan records to psyche up his teammates before important matches.
While the canon of literature on Welsh football is sparse, Burnell’s book evokes much of the good-natured, swashbuckling panache of Mario Risoli’s When Pelé Broke Our Hearts (1998) which tells the story of Wales’ only qualification for a World Cup finals – also bowing out at the quarter-final stage in 1958 thanks to a 17-year-old Brazilian’s first international goal. Risoli’s book tells of the international squad training with jumpers for goalposts in Hyde Park and checking the horizon for park wardens as ball games were banned, while Trailing Clouds of Glory recalls a shambolic excursion to Luxembourg in which first-choice goalkeeper Dai Davies was grounded in London having mislaid his passport, with a Welsh supporter who happened to live in the Grand Duchy conscripted to briefly step in.
The action is elevated by the succinct elegance of the sports reporting from the period. Wrexham legend Arfon Griffiths is gleefully described as “five foot six, and ten and a half stone of trickery and tenacity,” in one report, while Terry Yorath is “the husky crash-tackling blond… (and yet) so articulate when he talks about his game, his country, his life.”
In Trailing Clouds of Glory, Nick Burnell chronicles a rare Welsh sporting achievement that deserves a wider telling. But the writer’s own achievement comes in the way he encapsulates the ragged, sometimes rugged, joys of being a football-obsessed kid in the seventies, which will make this book a treat for any fan – Welsh or otherwise – old enough to remember that Gareth Bale hasn’t always been there to save us against Azerbaijan.
Trailing Clouds of Glory by Nick Burnell is out now with Y Lolfa.
Nick Davies has written several contributions for Wales Arts Review.