In Wales, Terry Yorath had recently taken up the manager’s role after a long reign by his predecessor Mike England, who had failed to guide the British country to either of Spain ’82, France ’84, Mexico ’86 and West Germany ’88. After four failed attempts at qualifying for a major international tournament, though no qualification tournament under Mike England had ever left them more than two points away from actual qualification, the Welsh FA will have felt the need for a change. Yorath started his first job at international level on a part-time basis, as he was still managing Swansea, one of four Welsh clubs participating in the English Football League, whom he had taken from the fourth to the third division, winning the 1987/88 play-offs. A rather eccentric character, his biography “Hard man, hard knocks” (2004) will surely be an interesting read. Yorath’s assistant was Peter Shreeves, whose acquaintance Yorath had made whilst they were both at Tottenham around 1979/80: Yorath as player, Shreeves as reserve team manager.
Wales knew Group 4 colleagues Finland well, having crossed paths with them in the previous qualification. In the qualifiers ahead of the 1988 European Championships, Wales had thumped Finland 4-0 at home and drawn 1-1 in Helsinki. Their most recent international had been their historic 1-0 away win in Brescia in Italy’s final friendly ahead of the European Championships in West Germany. The goal had been scored by national team captain Ian Rush, a legendary striker in the Liverpool folklore, after his first and sole season in the Italian Serie A with Juventus. Rush would typically line up with another forward of good pedigree in Mark Hughes, who before the 1988/89 season had returned to British soil and his former club Manchester United after two seasons on the continent with Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively. Behind them, the strikers had rather more anonymous players with clubs in the English Football League, but they would be a difficult proposition for any opponent with their typical British determination and grit. Wales had no warm up games immediately ahead of the qualification, and their opening fixture, away to a Dutch side recently crowned kings of Europe, seemed a daunting one to say the least.
Wales did not have a set home ground for their internationals: They would invariably play in Swansea, Wrexham or the Welsh capital of Cardiff. They would probably have realized before the start of the qualification that their chances of actually making it through to Italia ’90 were slim, yet neither of the group’s mighty two, the Netherlands and West Germany, would have relished travelling to Wales. They had indeed been undefeated in qualifying matches on home soil throughout the 80s, a hugely impressive achievement, and they had claimed some noteworthy scalps along the way: All of Denmark (for the ’88 tournament), Spain (for the ’86 World Cup) and Czechoslovakia (who qualified for the ’82 World Cup on goal difference ahead of the Welsh) had fallen in Wales. 8-5-0 read their qualification home record for the 80s to date.
Other notable players except for their front two were Everton trio Neville Southall (‘keeper), Pat Van Den Hauwe and Kevin Ratcliffe (both defenders). Manchester United full-back Clayton Blackmore was another regular, and in addition they could call on a host of solid performers from the English first and second divisions. Unfortunately, both Van Den Hauwe and the rock solid Ratcliffe would be absent through large parts of the ‘road to Italy’ campaign, something which would diminish their chances of causing upsets against the big two. Since the qualification for the 1988 European Championships, Wales had only lost veteran campaigner Robbie James through retirement. Another injured stalwart for the start of the ’90 qualifiers was Coventry defender/midfielder Dave Phillips.