“Some of these trips we made last a week, it was a holiday. It was different. Different places, different food, different socialising. All good fun.”
For many of us, the idea of a European road trip has felt like an implausible dream over the past year. Crossing borders, drinking in local bars, chatting the night away with randomers. Did people use to do these things?
For Clive Popplewell and co, following the Red Dragons in the European Cup Winners Cup made them a regular occurrence throughout the 70s and 80s. When the roads were less explored, the towns less endlessly snapped and the tickets less restricted to the same privileged few.
“We woke up in three inches deep of water, absolutely saturated.”
It’s 1978. Rijeka, Yugoslavia. Popplewell and two mates had just successfully navigated countless borders on their 1,200-mile trip to watch Wrexham’s second leg encounter with FC Rijeka. Yet, it would be the navigation of a plastic sheet that would leave them undone.
“Being clever like we were, we had a two-man tent for three of us.” Improvisation was needed. “We took the pole out and tied a knotted rope through the hole in the roof around a branch of a tree. And I thought ‘that’s great!”
That thought had gone by the morning. “The tree was blowing up and down, everything was moving. It was just sheeting down.”
If the saturation issues were bad, they had a bigger problem. All their clothes were sitting in a car on the other side of the road. Picture three ‘bollock naked’ Welsh men sprinting through the pouring Croatian rain at 6 in the morning and you know how any onlooking locals might have felt.
Little did the naked men know but, courtesy of one of the player’s mothers, the team hotel would become their home for the following two nights.
No more saturated nights of sleep, just a disappointing 3-0 overturning of their first leg lead (2-0) to endure. Failing to mention it once, the result clearly isn’t what sticks in Popplewell’s memory.
Nor is it for Peter Griffiths, who recalls crossing Checkpoint Charlie to see his beloved Wrexham take on FC Magdeburg the following year.
“An unbelievable experience!” Travelling to West Berlin with the team after a 3-2 home leg win, Griffiths remembers the intensive reception their coaches faced from the East German border guards.
“They used mirrors to search everyone on and under the coach. Joey Jones (a Wrexham player) doing impressions of the military walking didn’t go down well.”
Despite the distasteful impressions, they made it through. The inspections didn’t end there though. Later that evening, as Griffiths struck up an unlikely conversation with the BBC’s John Simpson, two armed guards stormed into the hotel.
They were looking for a Mr Griffiths and Mr Bailey. The number of visas didn’t match the passports. Due to a last-minute ditching of train travel, Griffiths had left their visas behind in Britain. The attraction of travelling with the team proving too much.
It turns out “Oh yes, ours are in London” isn’t the best answer to give to an armed East German guard. Plenty of intense interrogation ensued.
Eventually, ‘after a great deal of negotiating,’ they were permitted to stay. Simpson’s words that ‘nobody has a problem getting into East Germany, it’s the getting out that’s the problem’ ringing heavily in their ears.
Luckily football, as it so often does, came along to provide the perfect distraction. Wrexham scoring first to open an incredible game of football. “It swung one way from another,” Griffiths recalls as the goals rained in. Still 2-1 ahead at half-time, the 2nd round seemed to be beckoning for the Welsh delegation. We all know it’s never that simple.
A packed crowd roared the Germans back into it, equalising in the 54th minute, the momentum fell behind them. A late goal in normal time and a couple more in the added thirty ended another years run in heartbreak for the Welsh minnows. 7-5 the final score on aggregate.
For Griffiths though, the result is just a footnote. Perhaps a sign that this period of unforgettable tales was more memorable for the experiences off the pitch than any success on it.
That would soon change. After a short exodus from the competition, the 1984-85 season would bring all that romance back again. Facing one of the giants of Europe, Wrexham, now a fourth division side, were written off without a moments’ thought when they were drawn against the previous year’s finalists Porto.
After all, they hadn’t even won the Welsh Cup to qualify. Their entry only coming about due to the technicality of their defeaters, Shrewsbury, who were ineligible to enter.
A lowly crowd didn’t look to improve their chances either, with only 4,935 in attendance. “We were struggling to even get crowds of 1500-2000 in them days” Peter Jones informs me. “The 80s were a pretty dour time for Wrexham but Europe gave us an opportunity to put our name on the map.”
And put them on the map, it did. “If we give a red-blooded performance there just might be an upset” Wrexham manager Bobby Roberts declared before the first leg. There was a quiet confidence in him. He’d studied the videos sent over by Aberdeen boss Alex Ferguson and identified the Portuguese teams’ weakness: dealing with crosses into the box.
So, they pumped them in. After countless hits of the woodwork throughout the game, Jim Steel weighted a beautiful ball onto the wing in the 77th minute, seconds later John Muldoon returned the favour with a delightful cross and Steel dramatically headed home from close range.
Cue ecstasy in the stands. It may not have been full but, it was another rocking night at the Racecourse. Wrexham would take a 1-0 lead to Porto, knowing that the Dragões would throw everything at them to overturn it.
“I got drenched.” Wet, is one way Popplewell would describe the second leg. “It was just absolutely thunderous downpour, like a monsoon.” Andy Artell, who’d travelled to Portugal on a Persil sponsored train ticket, remembers struggling to even see the pitch from the terraces. “It was just really, really dark.”
Poor visibility didn’t stop the Portuguese from getting off to a flying start, with international star Fernando Gomes netting two as they raced into a 3-0 lead by the 38th minute. The locals, who’d confidently declared to Artell that they’d ‘win easily’, looked to be proven right.
Wrexham defender John King was having none of it. First a volley, then a header, King single-handedly brought the Red Dragons back into the tie with two goals in four minutes. The 100 or so travelling supporters started to believe as the half-time whistle went.
That belief was soon forgotten. Just after the hour, Porto were back in front on aggregate, courtesy of a wonderful 30-yarder from Futre.
“Of course, the Porto fans around us were celebrating so I turned to one and said ‘Well only this one bit of luck and we’re through on away goals.” In-fitting with their pre-game confidence, the Portuguese fans laughed off Popplwell’s suggestion “Ahhh no chance, no chance’
Then, in the 89th minute: “Barry Horne pops up, toe pokes one in and crikey, there we are.”
Artell went wild: “I remember climbing up to the top of the fence, shouting and just waving my arms about. The players came over going absolutely mad and the police were tapping our faces saying can you come down please?”
They weren’t so polite to Horne’s dad, Clive. “I was pounced on by some of the Portuguese police, who laid into me, battering me with truncheons. But it was worth it to see Barry score and Wrexham triumph.” A dedicated father.
And the attacks didn’t end with Clive. “After the game, a lot of Porto fans weren’t very happy and they came at us with umbrellas, attacking us with umbrellas. Obviously, it was a different time in the 80s.”
Any violent reactions from the Portuguese supporters or police couldn’t mar the significance of the occasion. How could they? Fourth division Wrexham had just knocked out a team who would go on to win the European Cup two years later.
David had gone toe-to-toe with Goliath and slain him in the most dramatic of fashions. His next opponent: Roma.
Going into the game, the mismatched nature of the occasion wasn’t lost on Artell: “They were a top Italian team. It was just unreal, you know, a little Welsh team playing them.”
It was off to the Italian capital for the first battle. A deserted capital. Local strikes had emptied Rome of its tourists, leaving the Welsh contingent to explore it undisturbed. That tranquil nature soon disappeared upon reaching the Stadio Olimpico.
“We were pelted by oranges, bits like that, coins that sort of thing.” Popplewell recounts the coliseum-like experience. Artell remembers the bombardment well. “It was a bit lively over there”
“All of a sudden this big mass of Italians came charging over to the fence we were behind.” The worst instantly came to mind. “This is not good.’ They all came piling over with no police to stop them. ‘Right this is it, come on, oh my god.”
Fear of a beating spread through the 100-strong Welsh travellers but no beating would arrive. “They weren’t interested in us at all… They just passed us as if we weren’t even there, weren’t bothered in the slightest.”
The attraction of joining up with the loudest singing end a far bigger pull than picking fights with a few Wrexham fans. They, like the Portuguese, had little fear for the abilities of their opponents. Sadly, this time, they would be proven right.
Two goals either side of half-time, from Pruzzo and Cerezo, placed the Romans in a commanding 2-0 lead for the return leg. Artell’s exit from the stadium ended up proving more dramatic than the actual match…
“We were walking after the game and this big load of Italians came after us and we thought ‘Oh god, they’re coming for us’ so we started going quicker and quicker and ended up being chased.”
Pacing away from the apparent Italian mob, Artell and co became stuck. There was a barrier in their way, the unknown on the other side. “We were going to jump over and they went ‘oh no no, don’t jump.” A huge drop lay waiting for them. “No, no, we just want to swap scarves’ ‘Oh for god’s sake.” With that, it was time to head home.
14,000 fans packed into the Racecourse this time round, Porto inspiring dreams of the impossible. Sadly, the impossible is hard to repeat. Roma’s Graziana popped up in the 22nd minute to head home and stifle the hopeful home crowd. 3-0 down on aggregate, it was one step too far for even this courageous fourth division side.
Final years in Europe
Although Wrexham’s latter years in Europe didn’t quite match the level of success of 1976 or the giant killing of Porto, there were still many treasured tales to be made. Take the infamous 1986 2nd round encounter with Real Zaragoza.
After battling to an impressive 0-0 draw in Spain, Popplewell noticed something rather different from the Spanish supporters.
“Their fans were waving these white handkerchiefs, apparently a show of appreciation for the opposition because we played very well defensively, they couldn’t break us down.”
Even after finding out the true meaning, Popplewell was rather nonplussed by the sight, “I found it quite incredible really, I’d never seen that before.”
There would be handkerchiefs a plenty back in Wales as the teams played out 90 minutes to the same scoreline. Extra-time was on the horizon.
Jones recalls ‘a brilliant atmosphere’ to match a brilliant additional half hour of football: “Extra-time was just electric, there were about 13,000 fans there and it was a typical Racecourse evening under the massive floodlights.”
As they kicked off again, the tension of both legs seemed to disappear. Patricio Yanez quickly opened the scoring for the Spanish, only to be instantly hit back with a bundled goal from Steve Massey.
Still hungry, Yanez pulled the Zaragozans ahead again in the 104th minute with a tight finish. But Steve Buxton was on hand to poke home for Wrexham and reignite the raucous crowd into a frenzy of excitement. Ten minutes to find one more.
Zaragoza goalie Cedrun stood in their way, holding firm. Beating away every ensuing onslaught. Wrexham would fight hard but come up short in the end, falling out on away goals.
Peter Jones remembers Wrexham’s last two trips to the continent well. For Lyngby (1990), he, and seven others, crammed themselves onto a small minibus. After travelling for hours, they needed a place to stay in the night before the game. It just so happened that, out of all of Northern Europe, they settled on Lubeck, Germany on a very unique kind of evening…
“It was reunification night.”
Completely by accident, these eight Welsh men had pootled into the centre of world history in the making.
“We were there in the main square of Lubeck with thousands and thousands of German people, fireworks going off everywhere. It was an absolutely brilliant experience to be there, four miles from the eastern border, on reunification night.”
A brilliant experience that would only get better as Wrexham edged out Lyngby BK 1-0 the following night. “The icing on the cake.” Cue wild celebrations in Copenhagen as players and fans grouped together for a heavy one in the Danish capital.
Following defeat to Manchester United in the 2nd round, Jones’ and Wrexham’s next trip to the continent would be their last, Romanians Petrolul Ploiești getting the honours in 1995.
Jones’ journey to Ploiești was certainly a culture shock… “We ended up in Third Class with, honest to god, people with pigs and chickens under their arms. Just standing up, crowded in.” And, as he proudly declares, it only cost him about 25p. 25p for a memory that’s lasted 25 years. Not bad.
On arrival at the ground, things only got stranger, “We didn’t even pay to go in, they just let us in, they were so pleased to have fans from another country there at the time.”
It was as if royalty had arrived. “They let us go on the pitch before the game and have our photographs taken and all their fans put on a bit of a show chanting and that.”
The underwhelming 1-0 aggregate defeat may have been a whimper for Wrexham to end their European campaigns on but, for Jones, the unique memories it left are clearly far more important.
Throughout their recollections, Artell, Griffiths, Jones and Popplewell rarely got bogged down by the defeats or disappointments.
Perhaps it’s a reflection that, no matter the result, the ability to travel across Europe to watch their lower league side face-off against the continent’s finest was a privilege in itself. Anything more was miraculous.
In 1996, that privilege was taken away. From then on, only clubs playing in the Welsh league system would be eligible to enter the Welsh Cup and, with that, the Red Dragons chapter in Europe was closed.
A chapter that had allowed a small Welsh town to dream. To forget domestic troubles and bathe in the romance of wandering across a divided Europe.
Maybe one day, when football’s heart returns, we’ll see the delight of fourth division minnows battling it out against European giants once again.
We can all dream…
Special thanks to Andy Artell, Clive Popplewell, Peter Griffiths and Peter Jones for enlightening me on this wonderful period of footballing history.