Euro 1976: The year the Welsh Dragon roared again

By Jimmy SmallwoodBBC Sport

"It is the forgotten campaign," says Leighton James.

A former Derby, Burnley and Wales winger, James won 54 caps and scored 10 goals for his country between 1971 and 1983.

The highlight of his international career is also the oh-so-nearly moment of Welsh football.

For many football fans, from Cardiff to Colwyn Bay and Porthmadog to Prestatyn, the crop of the mid-70s is the Wales team that time forgot: the quarter-finalists of Euro '76.

The Dragons - captained by Leeds legend Terry Yorath and led from the front by Liverpool's John Toshack - came within a whisker of reaching the last four of a major international competition.

The finals of the 1976 European Championship took place in mid-June, in an affair conducted behind the Iron Curtain. The competition format saw just the remaining four countries gather for the final stages.

West met east with communist Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia facing the free market might of West Germany and the Netherlands.

Wales, under the stewardship of Mike Smith, reached the last eight by topping a group containing the fancied Hungary as well as Austria and Luxembourg.

Other Home Nations, by contrast, fell at the first hurdle of the group stages, and it was up to Wales to fly the British flag in the quarter-finals.

Two matches against hosts Yugoslavia - who in 1976 were required to qualify for the tournament they were hosting - would decide Wales's fate.

"We were quietly confident," James told BBC Sport. "Provided that we didn't blow up out in Yugoslavia, we would have a chance in Cardiff."

Yet it all went wrong on a tough night in Zagreb.

"We lost 2-0, going a goal down after less than a minute," recalls James. "That was a disastrous start for us. We lost but we were still confident of clawing it back.

"In the second leg we had an East German referee and he refused to start the game unless the East German flag was flown over the stadium. He gave them an awful penalty and they scored, putting us 3-0 down. We then proceeded to hammer them, got a goal back, and really should have beaten them. We played very well on the day, but it wasn't to be."

Yet, despite the team's failure to qualify for the finals, a Welshman still had a part to play.

One of the darkest moments in Dutch footballing history took place on 16 June 1976 when the masters of total football took on unfancied Czechoslovakia, the eventual tournament winners.

After 120 gruelling minutes played in a quagmire under pouring rain, and with two Netherlands players and one Czech sent off, the underdogs emerged 3-1 winners.

The referee in that controversial, unforgettable European semi-final? Welsh official Clive Thomas.

"It was the most difficult [second] half of a match that I ever refereed in my career," Thomas confessed to BBC Sport 36 years later.

"It rained the whole day before, it rained the day of the game. Holland had no chance of playing their ideal game of total football.

"I had the impression as the second half wore on that the Dutch thought they were bigger than the game, and that they were bigger than you. They could do what they liked. That wasn't my game of football.

"Johan Cruyff was one of the worst, but then he always had been. You had to nail him right at the very beginning, because if he knew that he had control of you then you had had it. I saw too many matches where Cruyff had control of referees.

"You don't expect players of that calibre to act like they did."

Thomas even admits that, as he received abuse from certain Dutch players having dismissed Willem van Hanegem for repeated dissent, he considered abandoning the game.

Is Thomas disappointed that the Welsh footballers of his generation never got to experience the 1976 finals in Yugoslavia, as he did?

"It was a shame Wales didn't get there. But I got to the semi-finals because they didn't," he explained.

"Talk about Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, all of them. Not one of them have had what I had. I've been to the World Cup and to the European Cup. None of them have gone to a finals."

How does ex-Wales international James recall 1976, that year of the oh-so-nearly?

"I feel pride, plus a little bit of sadness that we didn't get to Yugoslavia," he reflected.

"When we all meet up we still mention it and we get a little peeved or annoyed that people tell us we've qualified for nothing since 1958.

"We went out in the quarter-finals, and that's still something the footballing public of Wales doesn't pay much attention to."

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