Long before Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney rolled into Wrexham, Wales’ oldest football club had already demonstrated they could script a captivating drama without the help of Hollywood. Their heroics in the 1984/85 European Cup Winners’ Cup was a heart-warming underdog story for the ages.
The competition, contested by domestic cup winners from across the breadth of the continent, provided a parallel universe in which well-heeled, elite clubs routinely rubbed shoulders with upstarts and entertainers drawn from Europe’s footballing backwaters. It was a competition hard-wired to deliver eccentric mismatches and romance in abundance.
The 32-team format meant that clubs entering the First Round in September were potentially just eight matches away from a European final. Meanwhile, the unseeded draw made fertile ground for David versus Goliath clashes. Those clubs were vying for the aurally-pleasing, but faintly ridiculous meta-title of European Cup Winners’ Cup Winners.
In 1984/85, the second round draw paired Wrexham Football Club with reigning Coppa Italia holders, AS Roma. Before the loophole was closed in the mid-1990s, Welsh clubs playing in the English league pyramid could gain entry to European competition by competing in and winning the Welsh Cup. Although, in this particular instance, the Red Dragons failed to fulfil even that basic criterion, benefitting from the ineligibility of English-based Shrewsbury Town, who had lifted the 1984 Welsh Cup on an invitational entry.
The Roma encounter coincided with Wrexham’s descent from the most successful period in the club’s history. A four-season stay in England’s second tier in the late-1970s preceded a double relegation that left them in the lower echelons of the Football League, navigating through a period of grave financial hardship. They began the 1984/85 season with just 14 senior professionals on the books, alongside a handful of teenagers funded by the Government-backed Youth Training Scheme.
The contrast to their illustrious Roman opponents could not have been starker. The previous May, the Giallorossi had agonisingly lost the European Cup Final on penalties to Liverpool. Their squad boasted an embarrassment of riches; Brazilian superstars Falcao and Toninho Cerezo, Italian World Cup winners Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani, and the emerging talent of Carlo Ancelotti. Roma were a powerhouse of European football, coached by an up-and-coming Swede named Sven Goran Eriksson.
The first round of the 1984/85 tournament witnessed one of the greatest nights in Wrexham’s history, as the club toppled Portuguese giants FC Porto over two legs. Porto themselves had been defeated finalists in the Cup Winners Cup just four months prior and arrived in North Wales expecting a formality. But plucky Wrexham hadn’t read the script, shocking their illustrious visitors with a smash-and-grab one-goal victory at The Racecourse Ground.
A fortnight later in Oporto, Wrexham’s dream appeared to be fading as they found themselves three goals down in a little over half an hour. However, a tenacious comeback saw them claw their way to a 4-3 defeat, a result good enough to see them progress on away goals.
Sadly, the historic home leg had been played out in front of fewer than 5,000 fans, underlining Wrexham’s state of malaise. The cash-strapped club found itself losing money over the two matches. The coffers were sufficiently barren that Wrexham’s players were forbidden from swapping shirts at the end of the game.
In the lead up to the Second Round draw, with neighbours Everton also in the competition, Wrexham supporters were hoping for an opportunity to renew Anglo-Welsh rivalries. However, when the name of Roma came out of the hat, the prospect of locking horns with a European giant at a packed-out Racecourse had both supporters and officials rubbing their hands with glee.
“We might as well beat the best first”Wrexham manager Booby Roberts upon being drawn against Roma
Wrexham’s squad of journeymen and youngsters travelled out to the Eternal City facing a monumental challenge. The shining light of the Wrexham team was 22-year-old midfielder Barry Horne; signed from Rhyl in the summer, he had struck the crucial third goal in Portugal. The future Welsh international anchored the Wrexham midfield, whilst simultaneously studying for his Chemistry degree. Defender Steve Wright was the only player with experience of European football, having previously turned out for HJK Helsinki in the early rounds of the European Cup.
The vivid contrast between the two clubs was perhaps best viewed through the prism of the respective substitutes’ benches. On the home bench, sat a 19-year-old attacking midfielder Giuseppe Giannini, a player who would go on to make over 300 appearances for La Lupa and win almost half a century of caps for Italy. On the away bench, sat another 19-year-old attacking midfielder; John Muldoon was a trainee whose later career took him to Oswestry, Bangor and Newtown.
Roma’s form in the run-up to the tie offered just the faintest flicker of hope to the Welsh. After defeating Steaua Bucharest at home in the previous round, the Giallorossi were amidst a six-match winless streak. Roma would also be without the talismanic Falcao, who was unavailable for the first leg due to injury.
In the era before budget air travel, the Wrexham team were accompanied by fewer than forty fans who made an arduous journey across land and sea to take their place alongside 36,000 home fans in the expansive bowl of the Stadio Olimpico. Bathed in autumnal sunshine, Wrexham gave a good account of themselves during the opening exchanges, easily neutralising Roma’s advances and even creating a half-chance of their own.
However, the hosts were handed a stroke of good fortune late in the first half when the Hungarian referee spotted a Welsh hand strike the ball in the penalty area. Despite Wrexham’s protests, the ever-reliable Roberto Pruzzo stepped up to dispatch his spot-kick, sending Stuart Parker the wrong way in the Wrexham goal.
Wrexham rallied and held Roma at bay until the second half where Brazilian Toninho Cerezo pounced on a loose ball to lash home an unstoppable drive from outside the box. The Welsh once again felt hard done by as Roma forward Maurizio Iorio had strayed into an offside position when the ball was struck. Wrexham’s best chance of the game fell to Jim Steel, whose powerful shot from the edge of the box was pushed away by Franco Tancredi in the Roma goal.
“Our task is a difficult one, but certainly not impossible, and in situations like this vocal support is invaluable”Bobby Roberts ahead of the second leg against Roma
Two weeks later, the teams would meet again in the return leg. The Red Dragons’ exploits in the competition had, at last, captured the imagination of the North Walian public with 14,000 supporters descending upon The Racecourse. It was a quantum bolstered by a travelling contingent of some 700 Romanisti; many drawn from the Italian communities of the UK by the rare opportunity to see their heroes in the flesh.
Despite holding a comfortable advantage from the first leg, Sven Goran Eriksson took no chances in bringing a strong team to North Wales, restoring a fit-again Falcao to the starting line-up. With stereotypically damp conditions and a heavy pitch, Roma set up with five at the back to absorb the inevitable Wrexham pressure.
The hosts put in a spirited display, driven onwards by a baying home crowd. Their best chance came just after the half-hour mark when David Gregory’s close-range shot beat goalkeeper Tancredi…only to be cleared off the line by the covering defender. Roma put the game beyond doubt midway through the second half, when Francesco Graziani rose highest to steer Bruno Conti’s inviting cross into the Wrexham net.
The piercing sound of the referee’s final whistle signalled the end of Wrexham’s European adventure. The humdrum reality of the club’s battle for financial and sporting survival took hold once again and their next home league match was played out in front of just 1,100 hardy souls at The Racecourse.
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