“The door opened from the cockpit and a bottle of vodka rolled down the aisle.” If crossing the Iron Curtain wasn’t scary enough, imagine doing so in a rattling old plane at the hands of pilots willing to let random football fans take the wheel. “It was the most frightening flight I’ve had in my life.”
Despite his fear, Clive Popplewell remembers it all with a sense of fondness, a wish to go back. To 1975, when he, and many other residents of North Wales, were travelling across Europe to see their mighty Red Dragons upset the odds in the continents second most prestigious competition.
“You’ve got to remember, in all but one of these European matches, Wrexham were no more than a third-division club.” Club author Peter Jones points to the most extraordinary part of Wrexham’s eight seasons in the European Cup Winner’s Cup.
They may have plenty of historical stature, from playing in the world’s oldest international stadium (the Racecourse Ground) to being the third oldest professional club in the world. But that stature hasn’t exactly translated into heaps of success, having never finished higher than 15th in England’s second tier.
How then did these Welsh minnows end up fighting against some of Europe’s finest clubs? The same way non-league teams Bangor City, Cwmbran Town and Merthyr Tydfil graced the European stage. They won the Welsh Cup. Every victor gained a spot.
Wrexham’s downing of Cardiff in the 1972 final secured their first ever flirtation with European glory. Their opening opponents: Swiss heavyweights FC Zurich.
Popplewell arrived in Switzerland’s largest city hoping to see the sights, experience the culture. Instead, he found his hotel at the centre of the red-light district. “It was an eye-opener”. But, ever the Brit, his saucy surroundings weren’t what shocked him the most: “The price of beer was horrendous, about £3 for a bottle of beer.”
The expensive beverages didn’t stop the fifty-odd fans finding their voices, as they bellowed the team on to a surprise 1-1 draw in the drizzling rain. Albert Kinsey netting the Red Dragons first ever European goal. Racecourse, here they come.
And came they did. Over 18,000 fans packed into the ground. Swaying, chanting, screaming as history was made on the pitch. Joint Secretary of Wrexham F.C Former Players Association Peter Griffiths remembers the “magical atmosphere” well, “All our fans tried to recreate the continental style with blowing of horns and flag waving.”
“Electric.” Recalls birthday boy Peter Jones. What a present he got. After falling behind just after half-time, Wrexham rose to the roar of the crowd, Billy Ashcroft and Mel Sutton turning the tie on its head with two goals in ten minutes. Cue pandemonium on the terraces. Dreams had come true. The Swiss were downed, Wrexham were through. Next up, a trip to Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia…
“We got robbed”
“It was an Eastern Bloc referee and they (the Wrexham players) swore he was bought.” Charges of communist bias were flying all across Denbighshire after their 2nd round tie with Hajduk Split.
It had all started so well, Wrexham storming to a 3-1 victory at home. Another unlikely upset looming. Popplewell woke “as sick as a dog” on the day of the return leg in Split. A night of ‘drinking a little bit. Or what we thought was a little bit…’ left him doubting he’d make the game.
Thankfully for me, he did: “The crowd were some of the nosiest I’ve heard. They were really enthusiastic, absolutely mad. They split us into groups so we were surrounded by opposition supporters. They were friendly enough but, god they were loud. Fireworks and flares and everything going off. My head was banging.” Not the best cure for a hangover, ey?
Neither was the sense of injustice with the Polish referee waving away calls for a stonewall penalty as they succumbed to a 2-0 defeat. “The referee absolutely cheated them… no mistake about it, the penalty was a penalty.” You can still feel the sense of if only in Jones’ voices.
It wasn’t to be. They went out on away goals. The fairy-tale was over. For now…
The 1975-76 season would provide another chance to make European history. Sweden’s Djurgardens were efficiently dispatched 3-2 in the opening round, setting up an encounter with Poland’s Stal Rzeszow. After a comfortable 2-0 victory at home, a flight into the heart of the Eastern Bloc beckoned.
“They sent a Polish plane and crew to pick us up.” It was an eery entry for Griffiths and co. “We landed in thick fog and were greeted by tanks and armoured cars.” The fog sticking more in Popplewell’s memory:
“You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face when you got off the plane. How they landed it, I don’t know. There were three sections, all the journalists were in the back, they were shaking like a leaf when we got off.”
Once on stable ground, life was pretty good for the Welsh explorers: “We lived like millionaires.” The inability to exchange Sterling for Zloty in the UK allowed Griffiths to get “a wonderful exchange rate” on the black market.
“I gave the girl who looked after my room the equivalent of a year’s salary as a tip. You weren’t allowed to take the money out of the country so, we were throwing it out of the window to people on our journey back to the airport.”
The match, for all its significance in Wrexham’s history, seems like the least important part of the trip. Arfon Griffiths, Wrexham legend and midfielder at the time, remembers the oddness of the build-up to it: “When we first got to the stadium, it was very quiet, but by the time the game started, it was full. It was as if the authorities had told the people to go to the match.”
The authorities or the packed crowd couldn’t do much for the Poles, Mel Sutton’s 83rd minute equaliser ensured a 1-1 draw and an astonishing achievement for Wrexham. The boys in red were through to a European Quarter-Final. Out came the Russian Champagne…
“Some of the lads were firing corks out of the bottles at little lights on the ceiling, trying to pop them.” Popplewell tells me these rowdy antics didn’t go down too well with the local police… “They picked on a Wrexham Leader reporter, cracking bloke, took him out of the hotel and put him in the back of the police car.”
“Of course, all the fans were remonstrating with the police so, me and a mate walked round the other side of the car, opened the door, let him out and ran back into the hotel.” The police didn’t know where to turn. “They were gobsmacked, all the fans just disappeared into their rooms so they didn’t know who they were going to arrest.”
If narrowly avoiding the Polish judicial system brought relief, the flight home didn’t. Rolling vodka bottles and piss-taking pilots don’t usually ease the nerves. Despite even Griffiths taking the wheel at one point, they somehow made it home. There was a slightly important game to be alive for.
Maybe, Just Maybe…
You can hear the pure excitement that recalling his sides face-off with Anderlecht brings Peter Jones, “A team full of internationals. Belgian internationals. Not just Belgian internationals but two Dutch World Cup stars from 74. They were a great team.”
Not only stars, but finalists, Arie Haan and Robbie Rensenbrink were formidable opponents for most teams. Let alone a small Welsh side far from the heights of British football. It’s no surprise nearly 5,000 fans jumped at the opportunity to flood the streets of Brussels.
“Every street corner you went round, you met somebody you knew.” It was “wonderful” according to Griffiths and the home fans didn’t half put on a show for them. Flares flying everywhere, 30,000 fans creating a deafening wall of sound.
“You were almost intimidated during the game.” The continental style threw Popplewell. But the players didn’t lose their focus, battling out to a narrow 1-0 defeat at the hands of their galactic opponents. A booming night in North Wales beckoned.
24 hours before the return leg, Jones was at the Racecourse, sat in disbelief at the Anderlecht players training on a pitch more used to the visits of Halifax Town. Then, something even more remarkable happened. “Rensenbrink called me over.”
You’d forgive Jones for doing a double take at the World Cup finalist’s hail. “In broken English, he said ‘listen, kick the ball down there for me.’ I had all these balls by me so, I kicked the ball down for him. He’d run onto it and put crosses in to the striker which was an experience in itself to say that I’ve played football with Robbie Rensenbrink!”
The following night, 20,000 fans packed into the ground. Believing that maybe, just maybe, they could do it. “The atmosphere was fantastic, the fans getting behind Wrexham under the huge floodlights.” The team didn’t disappoint.
On the 60th minute, at 0-0, Sutton picked up the ball on the right-wing, sprinted down the line and drilled the ball into the box. Stuart Lee, having stormed into the penalty area, was there to pounce, tapping the ball into an empty net. He’d done it, made up for a big miss in Brussels and levelled the tie. The stands went wild, the impossible was on.
Or was it? They say stars can only break hearts, Robbie Rensenbrink did exactly that to the Red Dragons soon after. Slotting home from a carefully crafted move to effectively put Wrexham out with under fifteen minutes to go.
The implausible dream was gone. However, a sense of pride remained in the town. They had been European Quarter-Finalists. They had only narrowly lost 2-1 to the eventual winners of that year’s cup. And they’d had a bloody great time in the process.
Football can do wonderful things, the stories it conjures up are hard to rival, the emotions unbeatable. Popplewell, Jones and Griffiths may struggle to remember every detail, as is expected when recalling memories from over 40 years ago, but you can feel the child-like joy as they tell tales previously lost to the backs of their minds.
Tales that continue well on into the ’80s and ’90s. Look out for more of those stories in part two…