Welsh international football has come a long way since it was first played in the late 1800s.

The road has been long and invariably bumpy, littered with highs and lows, but as we enter a new golden era of Welsh football thanks to Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and the class of Euro 2016, the future is bright for a game that is more popular now than it has ever been.

To discover the roots of football in Wales you have to travel back almost 150 years, to 1876.

Then, the man known as ‘the father of Welsh football’ Llewelyn Kenrick, a Welsh solicitor who became the founder of the Football Association of Wales organised the first Welsh international football match against Scotland.

And it all stemmed from an ad in a newspaper.

It’s fairly certain that the first football match in Wales took place somewhere in Wrexham or nearby. Where exactly, we may never know, but there were enough footballers in Ruabon to start a club at Plas Madoc in 1869. In Wrexham itself, local cricketers started their own football club based at The Racecourse in 1872. That same year the English and Scots played each other in the first ever football international.

In January 1876 Llewelyn Kenrick read a challenge in ‘The Field’, a London based newspaper for sports fans. The challenge was to organise a football match between Wales and Scotland or Ireland. The race was on: would it be Rugby Football or Association Football?

Kenrick wanted it to be Association football. He moved fast. He told The Field that the footballers of north Wales accepted the challenge and he advertised for players:

In February 1876 Kenrick set up the Football Association of Wales, facing down his critics in South Wales and their calls for this new Welsh team to be rugby - not football players.

In March Kenrick chose his players and then headed north.

The game against Scotland eventually took place in Glasgow at the West of Scotland Cricket Club in March 1876. The Welsh side, comprising ten players with connections in north Wales and a solitary player from the south, lost 4-0. The return match the next year in Wrexham ended in a 2-0 defeat. Wales may have lost both matches but not their appetite for football.

Kenrick faced many obstacles in the early days of Welsh international football. His players only met each other on match days. One player from Ruabon had to play under a false name in case his employer found out. There were even squabbles over who was qualified to play for Wales.

Football in Wales would be dominated by the north in the early years of the FAW, as clubs such as Wrexham AFC, Oswestry Town FC and Chirk AAA FC rose to prominence. In 1877/78 the Welsh Cup was introduced with the initial aim of finding players of international calibre. Wrexham were the competition's first winners and soon the tournament became a force in itself, though it was not until 1912 that a side from south Wales, Cardiff City FC, lifted the trophy.

The first international association football match, between Scotland and England, took place in November 1872. Following that contest, a schedule of international matches between the four home nations gradually developed, the games taking place between January and April of each year. In 1884, for the first time, all six possible matches were played and the British Home International Championship was formed. This schedule continued without interruption until the First World War.

The game finally started to take hold in south Wales in the 1890s, with calls soon growing for internationals to be played in the south. In 1902 the Welsh Football League was formed. At the same time, however, many Welsh teams began to join the English leagues in search of a higher standard of opponent.

The difficulties were immense as most top Welsh players were with English clubs and their release and availability for international matches was never guaranteed.

Nevertheless in 1907, with early superstar players in their ranks such as prodigious forward Billy Meredith and enigmatic goalkeeper Leigh Richmond Roose - a war hero who sadly perished at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 - an undefeated Wales won the British Home International Championship for the first time. (With subsequent triumphs pre-Second World War in 1920, 1924, 1928, 1933, 1934 and 1937).

While the First World War saw Welsh players like Richmond Roose heading off to fight in the trenches, the war effort back home resulted in a new football phenomenon in Wales - women playing football.

As thousands of women entered work, mostly at munitions factories making artillery shells, these factories produced their own women's football teams. The team's played charitable matches drawing crowds in their tens of thousands.

As the popularity of the women’s game rocketed, teams formed across Wales with matches raising money for war memorials, and hospital funds.

Amongst the more successful teams came from the National Shell Factory in Swansea, who won three Silver Cups drawing crowds in their thousands.

The First World War was a hugely popular time for the women’s game. In fact, it was quickly becoming more popular than the men's game, until it was banned.

In 1922, the FAW banned all its clubs, officials and players from taking part in women's football. For more than 50 years, a game that could attract crowds in their thousands was unceremoniously stopped in its tracks.

It left a little known legacy that has only started to be reversed in recent decades with the growth of a women’s game that owes much to those female forerunners of yesteryear.

In 1927 another slice of Welsh footballing history was achieved when Cardiff City became the first and only Welsh club to lift the FA Cup.

Two years previously, in 1925, the Bluebirds had reached the final for the first time only to lose to Sheffield United 1-0.

After the game their legendary captain Fred Keenor commented: "Just because we lost in our very first Cup Final, I don't think there is any cause to get down in the mouth. I can say here and now that one day soon our followers can be sure that Cardiff City will bring that cup to Wales."

How right he was.

The Second World War had put the brakes on international football. However, six years of war had built up a huge appetite for international football in Wales. On 19th October, 1946, 30,000 people watched Wales play Scotland at The Racecourse in Wrexham. Football was back.

Those post-war years saw Wales sowing the seeds for a strong future - launching the Youth Cup in 1946-47, with Wales Youth playing their first international in 1948.

Wales entered FIFA World Cup qualifying for the first time in the 1950s. However, the nation's sole success to date in reaching a World Cup final round came in Sweden in 1958,

The legendary manager Jimmy Murphy and his players transformed Wales' footballing reputation in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Wales had hit upon a rich seam of football talent, including star man John Charles and his brother Mel, Ivor Allchurch and his brother Len, Jack Kelsey and Cliff Jones. Wales struggled in the qualifiers, but politics gave the team a lucky break.

All the sides in Israel's qualifying group refused to play them. Wales as one of the European group runners-up were entered into a draw to play Israel in a two legged playoff. Wales were drawn and won both legs 2-0. They were through to the World Cup Finals for the first time, and so far the only time.

There was talk that the Welsh team were not up to World Cup standard. The players soon proved their critics wrong. The matches were tough but group opponents Mexico, Sweden nor Hungary could beat Wales on the pitch.

The play off between Hungary and Wales for the second place in the quarter-finals was a vicious game. Wales won 2-1 but lost Ron Hewitt to hospital and John Charles limped off and out of the competition. He would be sorely missed in the quarter-final against Brazil.

Wales put on a gutsy performance against the Brazilians. After so much luck, fate turned on Wales - a miscue from Pele hit a defender's foot and deflected into the goal. Brazil had thought they would walk it. Instead they only scraped a 1-0 win. Wales had made its mark in international football.

Wales' next skirmish with an international tournament came in 1976 when they reached the quarter-finals of the European Championship under manager Mike Smith.

In Euro '76, (only the semi-finals onwards were played in a tournament style), Wales lost the quarter-final to Yugoslavia over two legs - going down 3-1 on aggregate; a tempestuous second leg at Ninian Park will forever be remembered by the controversial handling of the game by East German referee Rudi Glöckner.

The game saw a dubious penalty to the Yugoslavians, a missed spot kick by Wales, two Welsh goals ruled out, and Glöckner threatened to abandon the match as he was pelted with coins and beer cans.

In the aftermath Wales were banned from playing in their capital city.

Over the following years Wales developed into one of Europe's most improved sides, under first Mike England and then Terry Yorath. However, a second qualification for a major finals was to remain an elusive quest.

Passions rose again in the 1978 World Cup qualifiers. Wales were in a promising situation in their group before the game against Scotland - the match originally to be played at Wrexham before it was switched to Anfield. 'The Hand of Jordan' intervened, when Scotland striker Joe Jordan handled the ball but the referee believed it to be a Welsh handball and Wales went down 2-0 and out of the World Cup.

Six years later home nations relations became even frostier when England announced they were too busy to take part in the Home International Championship. The world's oldest international competition, which started in 1884 and fed on the rivalry of the home nations, ended in 1984.

A year later it was again the Scots that would break Welsh hearts as Wales looked to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Players like Mark Hughes and Ian Rush were world class. A 3-0 win over Spain in the qualifying group at The Racecourse showed the team could deliver the goods. However, another controversial handball and maths went against Wales at Ninian Park and the Scots squeezed ahead on goal difference.

It was a tragic night that saw Scotland manager Jock Stein collapse pitchside and passed away in the medical room at the stadium.

Over the coming years there were glimpses of what could be for Wales: the 1-0 victory over the World Champions Germany in 1991 at Cardiff Arms Park one of the highlights.

It was in the '90s that interest in football amongst Welsh women started to grow once more after its First World War boom. Wales saw the formation of a national women's team, who in 1993 played their first international against Iceland.

1993 however will forever be remembered for one fateful night, 17th November, a date that is etched in the annals of Welsh football. Wales manager Terry Yorath had created a strong side but it was all hanging on the final match of the qualifiers against Romania at Cardiff Arms Park. The winner would go through to the 1994 World Cup. Paul Bodin's penalty kick hit the crossbar and Wales bounced out of the competition.

Some great Welsh players have performed with distinction on the world stage, including John Charles, who became an idol in Italy; Ian Rush, a feared goalscorer for Liverpool; Neville Southall, the Everton goalkeeper; and Ryan Giggs - the most decorated player in Premier League history, but all failed to translate their achievements to qualifying for a major tournament.

Wales came agonisingly close to qualifying for Euro 2004, losing to Russia in a play-off after a soul-destroying 1-0 defeat at the Millennium Stadium, having held the Russians to a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Moscow.

For long suffering fans the thought that Wales would never reach a finals in their lifetime was all too real.

However, with a new crop of talented youngsters having emerged - foremost among them the planet's most expensive footballer Gareth Bale - there was considerable optimism that Welsh football was on the rise again.

Welsh football was shaken to its core when in November 2011, then Wales manager Gary Speed was found dead at home and the football community went into mourning for a true Welsh hero.

It was his good friend and former teammate Chris Coleman who had the unenviable task of picking up the reins of the Wales’ manager’s job.

Having several years of struggle, trying to establish his footballing identity, a successful European Qualifying campaign, that started with a 2-1 away win in Andorra during September 2014, signalled the beginning of an incredible journey for the Wales national team under Chris Coleman as that long wait for a finals was finally laid to rest as his side went on to qualify for Euro 2016, embarking on an unforgettable and unexpected journey to the semi-finals, only losing to the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo and eventual winners, Portugal.

Wales were welcomed home as heroes on their return to Cardiff, with fans lining the streets to show their appreciation to the players for what they had achieved.

A disappointing qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup saw the departure of Chris Coleman and the arrival of new boss Ryan Giggs heralded another new dawn.

The second golden generation of Welsh players led by a crop of brilliant youngsters in David Brooks, Dan James, Harry Wilson and Ethan Ampadu alongside Gareth Bale, Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey saw Wales qualify for Euro 2020 on a triumphant night in Cardiff, Wales beating Hungary 2-0 to seal their passage to the finals.

There are also great hopes for the women's national team. Although never having qualified for a major international tournament, it's hoped with the expansion of the game with the Women's Super League, as well as a steady upsurge in the side's fortunes and world ranking, it's only a matter of time before the team emulate the achievements of the men's side.

This summer the postponed Euro 2020 finals due to the global coronavirus pandemic will take place.

Excitement is growing once more as Wales take their place alongside the best national teams in Europe.

Can this talented young side go one better than Euro 2016 and reach the final?

You wouldn’t bet against it.

Source credits: Football Association of Wales, Wrexham County Borough Council

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