Wales could be excused for their disappointing Home Internationals campaign, as they alone of the sides involved had bigger fish to fry in May 1976. The lone representative from these Isles in the European Championship quarter finals faced an uphill task as they tried to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg in Zagreb, but the Welsh nation was filled with hope of a first major finals appearance since the 1958 World Cup.
Ninian Park was packed to the rafters and provided a raucous backdrop for an emotionally charged afternoon. “Just listen to this atmosphere” urged Barry Davies as the teams came out. The BBC had coverage of the match and showed it live in Wales, with the rest of the country having to wait until that evening for highlights in a Match of the Day Special.
Wales made one change from the side that lost the first leg, as John Toshack returned to the team in place of Alan Curtis. The Yugoslav side were quite familiar to viewers in the UK, with eight of the side having played in the 1974 World Cup, where they had progressed from Scotland’s group.
Wales had the first chance of the match as diminutive midfielder Brian Flynn fired a decent effort over the bar from 20 yards out. However on 19 minutes the match took a sinister turn when Yugoslavia were awarded a penalty.
A ball through the Welsh defence was chased by Malcolm Page of Wales and Danilo Popivoda of Yugoslavia. As the ball reached the box, Page dived in to make a tackle, taking the man instead of the ball. It seemed a clear penalty, but Barry Davies, prehaps moved by the partisan crowd, seemed to think otherwise. Rudi Glockner, the experienced East German official was in no doubt: “Referee moving towards the spot and he’s given it. What a disaster for Wales and they can’t believe it” said Davies, who was still unconvinced after seeing a replay claiming “It’s a very harsh decision.”
The Welsh fans were apoplectic and did their best to put off Josip Katalinksi, the man nominated to take the penalty. “Listen to the booing” said Davies, which was silenced momentarily as the Yugoslav stepped up to cooly slot the ball home. “Wales who had a hill to climb, now have something slightly more craggy and slippery” commented Davies. The Welsh now trailed 3-0 on aggregate and would need a miracle.
Unfortunately for Wales, the febrile atmosphere seemed to fire up both sides, as the Yugoslavs decided that they would defend their lead in as brutal a manner as possible, a tactic which also put the Welsh off their game and drew them in to a kicking match.
It started when Flynn was hacked down from behind by Dzemal Hadziabdic. Despite only standing at 5’3, Flynn was a feisty little character, and leapt up to retaliate against his opponent. He had to be restrained by his teammates but got his own back moments later in an off the ball incident. Flynn was booked for what Davies described as“to use the vernacular, it certainly seems as though he stuck one on his man.”
By now tensions were reaching fever pitch, and in almost every shot of the game, the Welsh fans could be seen scaling the fences surrounding the pitch. Things would get even more frenzied as Wales went close to an equalizer. Terry Yorath floated a free kick to the back post where Toshack rose imperiously to head down into the path of Flynn six yards from goal. Incredibly his close range effort came back off the post and the Yugoslavs managed to hack the ball clear.
Wales though were being enveloped by a red mist. When Leighton James was forced to ride a couple of wild hacks, Yorath took matters into his own hands, getting himself into the face of one of the perpetrators, Slavisa Zungul. Davies in the commentary box was becoming concerned with the Welsh attitude “They’re allowing their fire to get in the way of their football” he observed.
Nerves were affecting everyone in the Welsh side. A free kick from 25 yards out was struck goalwards by Katalinski and Dai Davies in the Welsh goal turned a routine save into a heartstopping moment, awkwardly spooning the ball behind for a corner. Terry Yorath’s gander was still up too, diving into a ridiculous two footed lunge on his enemy of a few minutes earlier, Zungal, but fortunately missed his target or he too may have entered the referee’s notebook.
Then, seven minutes before half time, Wales grabbed a lifeline. A corner from the left was again aimed towards Toshack at the back post. The Liverpool striker won the header and found Arfon Griffiths whose shot was blocked.The Wrexham veteran collected the rebound and rolled the ball back to centre back Ian Evans who drilled the ball home to level the match. “That’s his first goal for his country and it’s perfectly timed” said Davies. The Welsh were back to where they had started the game, facing a two goal deficit.
The second half saw Wales again torn between kicking the Yugoslav’s and actually trying to win the game. Yorath once again took the law into his own hands with a stamp on Hadzaibdic, although Davies thought that the Yugoslav’s reaction was one of “rather a meal made of it.”
Flynn and Toshack caused worries in the visitors defence in the early moments of the second half, ramping up the tension even more. However on 65 minutes the supporters finally cracked as Herr Glockner dealt the hopes of qualification a hammer blow.
A ball into the box saw John Mahoney attempt an overhead kick, which instantly brought a whistle (clearly heard on the footage) for an indirect free kick for dangerous play. However simultaneously, Toshack had drilled the ball into the net for what the crowd thought was a second goal for the Welsh. When the crows realised what had happened, all hell broke loose.
“It’s not going to count” cried Davies before noting that “The crowd are now going mad” and indeed they were. Brian Flynn was clearly seen restraining one fan who had got onto the pitch, but dozens more spilled on, as cans rained onto the field. Herr Glockner had seen enough and took the teams off the field. The game was held up for five minutes, more than enough time for Barry Davies to get on his soapbox and deliver a damning tirade against the growing trend of hooliganism: “This will be another occasion when people go away complaining about British football crowds. People are still trying to climb the netting. That is just hooliganism and nothing else and it gives football such a bad name. Why should they come and spoil a great game. They’re unhappy with the decision and that is no excuse.”
When the game did resume, Wales once again felt they were on the wrong end of the referee’s decision when Toshack was denied a superb diving header by a linesman’s flag, sending the crowd into even more of a frenzy.
With five minutes remaining, a decision did go in favour of the Welsh as they were handed the late lifeline of a penalty kick. A cross into the area was punched away Enver Maric in the Yugoslav goal, but as a second effort came in he was only able to parry the ball into the air and as he attempted to catch the looping loose ball he tripped Toshack, giving Herr Glockner no option but to point to the spot. Welsh misery was compounded though when Yorath’s weak spot kick was far too close to Maric who easily saved, Davies speculating that “Yorath wants the ground to open up”.
It was the last hurrah for the Welsh and as the final whistle went, the ugly scenes returned. A Yugoslav fan who entered the field with his flag to celebrate his sides qualification for the finals was clumped by a Welsh fan, and as the sides made for the tunnel under a police escort, more scuffles broke out. It was a sad end to a fine campaign for Wales and there would be repercussions. Initially banned from entering the 1980 European Championship, UEFA relented instead forcing the Welsh FA to play their qualifiers away from Cardiff.