On this day in 1876: Wales play first official match

Billy Meredith, John Charles, Ryan Giggs and Gareth Bale have been among the greats of the Welsh game.

Gareth Bale and Wales reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016
Gareth Bale and Wales reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016

Wales played its first official match on March 25, 1876, making it the third oldest international football team in the world after England and Scotland.

The opening game was a 4-0 defeat to Scotland in Glasgow, and a first win did not arrive until February 26, 1881 when England were beaten 1-0 at Blackburn.

Here, the PA news agency takes a look at the highs and lows of Welsh football and some of the great managers and players that have graced its game.

Welsh wizard

Soccer – FA Cup Final – Manchester City v Bolton Wanderers – Billy Meredith – Crystal Palace, London
Billy Meredith was the first superstar of Welsh football at the turn of the 20th century (PA)

One man cast his shadow over Welsh football in the early years – Billy Meredith. Born in the small mining town of Chirk in 1874, Meredith worked in the local colliery as a pit pony driver at the age of 12. He had lengthy spells at Manchester City and Manchester United in an extraordinary league career spanning 30 years and was one of football’s first superstars. Meredith, who was known for playing with a toothpick in his mouth to aid concentration, made a then-record 48 Wales appearances between 1895 and 1920 – and at 45 years and 229 days remains the oldest player to win a Welsh cap.

Picked off by Pele

Pele knocked Wales out of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden with a quarter-final winner (PA)

Wales’ only appearance at the World Cup came in 1958. A golden era featured players such as Cliff Jones, Ivor Allchurch and the great John Charles, and qualification was secured through a play-off win against Israel after Asian and African teams had refused to play them. Once in Sweden, Wales – who were managed by Manchester United assistant Jimmy Murphy just four months after the Munich Air Disaster – made the last eight with the help of another play-off victory against Hungary. But Wales’ dream died in the last eight with a 1-0 defeat to eventual winners Brazil and a goal scored by a 17-year-old called Pele.

Gentle giant

John Charles Scores Against England
John Charles (left) scores his first Wales goal against England at Wembley in 1954 (PA)

From Meredith to Gareth Bale and Neville Southall to Ryan Giggs, Wales has produced no shortage of world-class talent. But John Charles possibly stands above them all. Swansea-born Charles was equally effective at centre-half or centre-forward, but he built his reputation leading the line for Leeds and Juventus. Charles was dubbed ‘Il Gigante Buono’ (The Gentle Giant) during his goal-laden five seasons in Italy and his 6ft 2ins frame towered above Welsh football. Charles played at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, but crucially missed the quarter-final defeat to Brazil through injury.

Great goals

Soccer – World Cup Qualifier – Wales v USSR – Wrexham
Brian Flynn, pictured in his Wales playing days, scored one of his country’s greatest goals (PA)

Mark Hughes’ thunderous volley against Spain in 1985 or Bale’s long-range last-minute screamer to beat Scotland in 2012 live long in the memory. But there was no better team goal than Brian Flynn’s against Scotland in the 1975 British Home Championship. Flynn laid off Malcolm Page’s pass and played one-twos with John Mahoney and John Toshack before finishing with aplomb. “It was my first full cap for Wales and my first goal in senior football,” Flynn said. “The weight on John Mahoney’s pass was perfect – and although I’ve never told him – John Toshack made a great angle for me and I couldn’t miss. It was great to score a goal so many people remember.”

Euro stars

Wales v Belgium – UEFA Euro 2016 – Quarter Final – Stade Pierre Mauroy
Wales’ motto at Euro 2016 was ‘Together Stronger’ and the entire squad and management staff celebrated Ashley Williams’ equaliser in the 3-1 quarter-final victory over Belgium in Lille (Joe Giddens/PA)

After a 58-year absence, Wales were back at a major championship at Euro 2016. Wales beat Belgium, ranked second in the world, on their way to France and then overcame Slovakia and Russia to top a group that also included England. Bale scored in every group game and Wales then sneaked past Northern Ireland 1-0 to meet Belgium again in the last eight. Chris Coleman’s side recovered from an early deficit to win 3-1 before losing to eventual champions Portugal in the semi-final. The wait for a third major finals did not prove so long, however, as Wales qualified for Euro 2020 under Giggs.

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