These are heady times to be a Wales fan. The warm fuzz of the summer from their glorious run to the Euro 2016 semi-final has not yet worn off. More than that, their fans retain the entirely justified sense that those few weeks in France might not be a one-off. These days, winning has become the norm and embarrassments are rare. Embarrassments like, say, losing to a club team who had just finished fourth-bottom of the Football League.
In 1995 Bobby Gould was appointed as Wales manager, a surprising replacement for Mike Smith on the basis that the former Wimbledon and Coventry manager wasn’t Welsh, and had been out of work for a couple of years, most recently presenting a phone-in show on Sky Sports. Wales had lost five of their last six games before Gould took over, including a particularly chastening 5-0 defeat to Georgia, so things clearly needed to change.
The Englishman certainly did that, and in his own special way. One of his early, more unorthodox techniques was to arrange a friendly between his side and a Press XI, a fixture he neglected to mention to his players before they arrived for training and were presented with a team from the Fourth Estate as opposition. He would later bring himself on in another friendly, the then 50-year-old scoring from a Ryan Giggs cross. Still, his tenure started reasonably well, with Wales beating Moldova and narrowly losing at home to Germany in his first few games. From there though, things got interesting.
At the end of the 1995/96 season, Wales were due to play a World Cup qualifier against San Marino. Following a long, hard season, one might think that as much rest as possible might be in order, but Gould evidently disagreed, so he arranged a preparatory friendly. Against Leyton Orient.
If this period was a low-point for Wales, it was perhaps even more so for Orient: they had just ended the season 21st in Division Three (now League Two), 89th in the Football League, their lowest ever finish. They had also gone out of three cup competitions in the first round. The rationale for the game seemed to be that Gould wanted to try a couple of things out, and as they were flying out of London for the San Marino game, a geographically convenient opponent was sought.
Even so, it wasn’t exactly a popular development in the squad. At the end of an exhausting campaign, a kickabout with a fourth tier side before schlepping over to Italy sounds like the last thing that anyone needs.
“It was,” Mark Bowen, now Stoke assistant manager and back then a veteran defender with over 50 caps to his name, tells The Set Pieces. “Apart from anything else you were worried about picking up knocks ahead of the game. In those days as a player you were wondering why we were playing that sort of game, but from Bob’s point of view – maybe he wanted to check on the fitness of one or two, or try out a different formation. That was the type of thing that Bob would do. He’d do the odd thing that was off the wall. He had his way of doing things.”
And Gould didn’t put out a reserve team, either. As well as Bowen, the Wales XI included Mark Hughes, Dean Saunders, Chris Coleman and Giggs (rather going against his reputation as a friendly-dodger), many of whom were nonplussed at the prospect. You could hardly blame them.
A couple of weeks earlier Giggs had completed the Double with Manchester United by beating Liverpool in the FA Cup final. Saunders had just made what turned out to be his final appearance for Galatasaray, and had scored the winner in the Turkish cup final. Hughes scored for Chelsea against Tottenham, facing four players whose next priority was the England squad at Euro 96. Indeed, as Wales were playing Orient, the England team were getting themselves in some hot water during their pre-tournament tour in China. It’s fair to say that most players would rather have been somewhere other than facing a side who had nearly dropped into the Conference.
While Wales put out a strong team, Orient’s was…eclectic. It was largely comprised of youth teamers and triallists, a bunch that you might politely dub ‘ragtag’. Lee Shearer had yet to make his first team debut, Paul Williams and Peter Garland were on trial, the former unsuccessfully, Joe Baker (not to be confused with the 1960s Arsenal and Forest wizard) was not what you’d call a regular.
But despite this apparent disparity in talent, cohesion and experience, Orient won the game. “A lot of our lads weren’t too motivated,” says Bowen. “It was one of those where we started a bit sloppily, and we ended up falling behind.” Shearer gave Orient the lead, heading home in the first half, and after various substitutions and experiments (left-back Bowen played sweeper, Coleman had a spell on the left wing) the Welsh finally equalised ten minutes from time, John Robinson sweeping home a Marcus Browning cross.
But five minutes later, Williams crossed from the right, Baker headed back from the far post and there was Garland – just released by Charlton and, shall we say, not in tip-top physical condition – to force home the winner. That clearly impressed manager Pat Holland, because it earned Garland a contract at Brisbane Road.
Gould didn’t hang around for too long. His son Jonathan was playing for Bradford in the playoff final (they won), so he dashed off to Wembley and left player-coach Neville Southall to put a brave face on things. “We’re quite happy, although it might not look that way,” Southall mused after the game. “Sometimes you learn more from a defeat than a victory. Orient were fired up, but so would I be if I was playing Ryan Giggs. We’d have liked to have scored six or seven, but even if we’d lost 10-1 it would not have mattered.”
The players weren’t quite so upbeat, though. “Walking off the pitch there were a few words said between us,” says Bowen. “One – we were embarrassed, and two – players were not too enamoured with why we played the game, why we were put in that situation. The atmosphere in the dressing room after was a little bit despondent, and a little bit angry that we’d been put through that.
“But I certainly can see reasons why Bob might have done it, if he wanted to find out certain things about his tactics or whatever. He might have thought ‘I can’t use that system again,’ or ‘I can’t trust this player or that player.’”
The Times noted that Wales had been ‘disrupted in unexpected fashion’ by the Third Division waifs and strays, while the Mirror rather more floridly said ‘Ryan Giggs was humbled by a bunch of triallists and Third Division cast-offs’, under the frankly spectacular headline ‘O’s stuff the tragic Dragons.’ Frankly the whole business was worth it, just for that.
Southall emphasised “the important thing is that we win in San Marino next week”, and in that respect, you could argue that the preparations were actually spot on. Wales won 5-1, but the minnows would be the only team they beat in their group, picking up just one further point elsewhere and finishing second-bottom. Gould resigned – live on TV – after a 4-0 Euro 2000 qualifying defeat to Italy in 1999.
It wasn’t a complete waste of time, of course. Garland got his contract and it turns out the crowd wasn’t just comprised of Orient fans chasing a morale-boosting end of season giggle and autograph-hunters after a glimpse of Giggs. “I’d come to the end of my contract at Norwich,” says Bowen. “I had a few phone calls, one from Howard Wilkinson at Leeds, but another from Harry Redknapp at West Ham, and I ended up going there.
“From what I’m told, one of the reasons [West Ham signed me] was Harry had watched me in the Leyton Orient game, and thought I’d be an option because he had seen me play all along the back line. It wasn’t that game specifically that did it, but I’m sure it had something to do with it.”
Wales face Georgia on Sunday night, favourites to win not just the game but their World Cup qualifying group. Things sure have changed.