Welsh football and a matter of life and death

September 05, 2015 ,

The legendary Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, famously responded to the suggestion that he considered football a matter of life and death by saying, "it's more important than that".

With Wales hoping to qualify for a major football championship for the first time since the year before I was born, Sunday's game against Israel certainly feels like a one -in-a- lifetime event.

Even the stars seem to be aligned with Wales facing exactly the same opponents they beat to qualify in 1958. That Welsh team went on to reach the World Cup Quarter Finals in Sweden, only to be narrowly eliminated by eventual winners Brazil through a single goal by an unknown seventeen year old called Pele.

Of course sometimes we are reminded that Bill Shankly's remark conveyed his personal passion rather than reality. Liverpool's later experiences at Heysel and Hillsborough are still deep wounds in that city. Less well remembered is the reminder of mortality we got at the last two occasions when Wales almost made it through. I remember it well having been in the crowd at both games.

The first was against Scotland at Ninian Park almost exactly thirty years ago in September 1985. Like 8 years before when Scotland's Joe Jordan conned the referee, Wales were cruelly denied qualification for the World Cup against our celtic cousins by a controversial penalty decision. The resulting goal for Scotland cancelled out Mark Hughes' strike for Wales, and we were out.

It was an electric, pulsating encounter and moments before the final whistle the great Scottish manager Jock Stein collapsed with a heart attack and subsequently died in the stadium's treatment room. As a memorial, on the same day Wales play Israel this weekend, Celtic and Dumfermline will play a match in Scotland to remember the passing of Jock Stein.

I was there too in November 1993 at Cardiff Arms Park with Rhodri Morgan to watch Wales play Romania. A win would take us through to the World Cup the next year in the USA.

Again, a penalty incident was our undoing. Paul Bodin crashed a spot kick against the bar which would have put Wales 2-1 up with less than half an hour to go. It wasn't to be, and sporting misery turned to human tragedy for a second time when a marine distress flare was fired across the pitch towards the North Stand where Rhodri and I were sitting. It flew into the seats about twenty yards to our right, killing a Welsh fan named John Hill who was at the game with his son. Once again a sense of perspective on a disappointing sporting result returned with the realisation that a life had been lost.

In a week when the World has woken up to the life and death struggle of refugees from the middle east, sport may seem trivial to some, but look closely and you'll see refugees wearing the football shirts of our teams. So I'll be joining others outside the ground before the game on Sunday to unveil a banner saying Wales welcomes refugees.

So as the excitement mounts towards what surely must be Wales' qualification this time, it's appropriate to keep Bill Shankly's quote in perspective. Football should never be a matter of life and death, but this time, it might be a once-in-a-lifetime celebration for long time loyal Welsh football fans.