I have done something a little different for this particular edition of Memory Match. Way back in 2007/08, I interviewed a series of Wrexham AFC legends about their favourite games with the club. One of these characters was Billy Ashcroft who spoke to me about the 1976 European Cup Winners Cup Quarter-Final games against Anderlecht. I was planning on writing a book for a series entitled Match of my Life that a now defunct book publisher was running. This never got off the ground as it was around this time that my ex wife started sleeping around. Despite all this, I did manage to finish writing my interview with Billy Ashcroft and I have pleasure in using this below.
Over the past few months, I have watched with interest as Hollywood superstars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have taken control of the club from the hapless Wrexham Supporters Trust. I am hopeful that things will improve under the new ownership and I am excited that I may soon be welcomed back to the Racecourse to enjoy a game of football alongside my fellow fans. Indeed, the new era that is slowly unfolding at the Cae Ras has given me the impetus needed to continue writing my Memory Match articles that I hope to put together to create my third book.
It would be great if I could synchronise the release of my book with the reincarnation of the club I love. There is much hard work ahead of myself and the new owners, but there is a new sense of hope and expectation in the air, so maybe now it is time to believe in a brighter tomorrow.
Wrexham v Anderlecht
European Cup Winner’s Cup Quarter-Final (2nd leg)
Wrexham: Lloyd, Evans, Fogg, Davis, May, Whittle, Tinnion, Sutton, Lee, Ashcroft, Griffiths
Goalscorer: Lee (61)
Anderlecht: Ruiter, Lomme, Vandendaele, Broos, Dockx, van der Elst, Haan, Coeck, Ressel, Binst, Rensenbrink
Goalscorer: Rensenbrink (76)
Our aim at the beginning of the 1975/76 season, and every season come to that, was promotion. Our rivals for promotion to Division Two were all good football sides such as Hereford, Brighton and Crystal Palace and there weren’t any sides trying to kick themselves out of the division. There was a little mini-league of the best football teams in that division and we always thought we were top of that league but we never quite got that push for promotion.
If you’re not going to get promotion then the only bonus you’re going to get is playing in a team of such great players. It really was a buzz. Going to training wasn’t a chore. You wanted to be there because they were a great group of lads and then on a Saturday we’d be really confident of beating whichever mob we were playing because we thought we could beat anyone whether they were Third Division, Second Division or First Division.
We got off to an inconsistent start to the 1975/76 season as we won six matches at home and but lost seven away from the Racecourse. Despite this unpredictable form we still fancied our chances in Europe as our mentality was that we were in the Cup Winners Cup because we deserved to be in it. We knew we had it in us to beat anyone over two legs and there was no doubt that we were in it to win it.
I don’t remember too much about playing Djurgardens at home in the first round, although I believe we won 2-0, but I do remember the away leg as they had a massive French château behind one of the goals and a running track around the pitch. I was on the bench for this one but Graham Whittle scored in a 1-1 draw so we won 3-2 on aggregate. After the game we all went out to get drunk but you can’t get drunk in Sweden because the beer is that bloody expensive.
We were hoping to be drawn somewhere cheaper in the next round. Spain would have been nice for a bit of San Miguel and sunshine but instead we had to go behind the Iron curtain to play Stal Rzezsow in Poland. We beat them 2-0 on the Racecourse and I scored both our goals but then we had to go to their place. It was a small, industrial little town. It was like going back to bloody Merseyside. I remember it was a very dour place where no one smiled. At the airport there was loads of military with guns and we were absolutely terrified going there but with a two-goal lead we were confident we could do the business on the pitch. John Neal told us to keep it tight and we drew 1-1 to win 3-1 on aggregate and become the first Third Division side to reach the quarter-finals of a major European competition.
Ahead of the Anderlecht game we won two games at home 3-0 against Peterborough and Brighton so we were confident we could score in Brussels. I was scoring goals, Stuart Lee could score goals and Graham Whittle could hit them from the halfway line and score you a goal so we had no fear just respect. By far, Anderlecht were the biggest team we had played in Europe and they had some big international players like Arie Haan, Robbie Rensenbrink, Fancois Van der Elst and Ludo Coeck. They were a class act but we weren’t scared of anybody and thought we had a great chance.
The people in Belgium were fantastic with us because they thought we were going to get slaughtered from the start and felt sorry for us but we enjoyed their hospitality and the beautiful city of Brussels. It is such a historic place but that was lost on some of us. On the little walkabout we had on the day of the game the younger players, myself included, were looking for the pubs we’d go to after the match because we knew we were going to be celebrating.
As the game got closer the lads began to get more nervous – everyone except Graham Whittle that is. He could fall asleep on the coach on the way to the ground and we’d have to wake him up when we arrived. He could sleep anywhere and he’d eat like a horse, getting it down his neck as quickly as possible in case someone nicked it. His bottom lip would barely move more than an inch from his plate and he could shovel food in without breathing. We used to stand well back to avoid the sparks that came from his knife and fork – hence his nickname of Nosher. Then on the coach on the way to the ground when we were all hyped up we’d look to the back of the bus and Graham would be flat out asleep. No nerves at all. It was great for the rest of the lads because we’d pick up on that and it’d calm our nerves as well.
The Parc Astrid Stadium was a nice, little tight ground – like an English ground – and the atmosphere was brilliant. They’ve totally rebuilt and renamed it now. In the dressing room before the match you could see a lot of the faces were drawn because it was a big atmosphere and it was nerve-wracking. When the whistle blew for us to leave the dressing room we were all roaring, screaming and shouting and the Anderlecht players must have heard us so they were in no doubt that we were up for it.
We usually played 4-3-3 with myself, Stuart Lee and Brian Tinnion upfront but John Neal was a shrewd tactician and decided to play with two upfront and use the extra man in midfield to counter their international class engine room. Brian Tinnion was the forward who was sacrificed while the midfield comprised of Mel Sutton, Arfon Griffiths, Mickey Thomas – the three fittest players at the club who could run all day and weighed in with a few goals – and Graham Whittle who could score from anywhere on the pitch and in my opinion was the best player ever to play for Wrexham.
We had about 2,000 of our fans in Brussels that night and they definitely helped us. They’re a vociferous lot that never go quiet on you so you always know that they’re there supporting you. As the game went on they could see we were on the verge of achieving a special result and they got louder and louder. Those 2,000 fans sounded more like 10,000 so we knew we weren’t alone.
For the opening fifteen minutes they gave us a bit of a run around. They scored through Gilbert Van Binst after 11 minutes but we seemed to get stronger from that point. Our defence – Brian Lloyd in goal with Mickey Evans, Dave Fogg, Eddie May and Gareth Davies in front of him – had to stand-up and be counted and they did that, which allowed the rest of us to start making chances.
I was having fun against their goalkeeper Jan Ruiter who was about 6’2” normally but when he jumped into the air he was about 5’8”. When the balls were coming across he was looking for me first before he even jumped for the ball. I was loving this and managing to win all our aerial battles. One of these headers dropped to the unmarked Stuart Lee he shot wide and then just before half-time, Ruiter had to make a fine save from Stuart’s 20-yard drive.
We continued to pile on the pressure in the second-half with Mel Sutton forcing a good save from Ruiter and I had a couple of headers that went just over the bar. Anderlecht were shocked and shaken – you could see it in their eyes – and on another night with a little bit more luck we would have got a result.
When we came off the pitch we were all congratulating each other. Our chests were out and we really felt as if we’d achieved something. The Anderlecht coach Hans Croon admitted we were favourites for the second leg as they weren’t good travellers and had lost their previous two away legs while we had won both of our home games. Their fans were also surprised at how well we had played and seemed downcast about their chances at the Racecourse. Meanwhile, our fans thought we could turn them over and get to the semi-finals while Arfon Griffiths said we were definitely going to do it. The rest of the lads thought we must have had a chance if Arfon believed it.
The headline in one of the newspapers the next day was The Bear of Brussels. I was wondering what the hell the story was about and then realised it was all about me. I didn’t even think I’d had a good game. I knew the defence and midfield played well but we missed a couple of chances upfront. I took the plaudits anyway because when people started slagging me off I had to take that as well but I must have done something right on that night as within a few weeks Anderlecht had tried to sign me. I believe they offered a few bob for me but John Neal wouldn’t let me go as he said I was too young so they signed Duncan McKenzie instead.
We were expecting 25,000 for the return leg at the Racecourse. We had a little walkabout before the match to see what the pitch was like but it wasn’t that full as everyone was in the Turf or in the pubs down the road so when it was time for us to walkout we didn’t know what to expect. When we eventually emerged for the game this wall of noise came up. It was deafening. We were all a bit surprised at first but then we quickly began smiling because we knew these fans were all on our side. Anderlecht were on our turf now.
The pitch was in an awful state. It always was back then and it wasn’t conducive to our style of play but we learnt to adapt our game. We had to keep the ball off the ground and spread it to the wings as the pitch would sometimes be six inches deep in mud. It was cut up pretty bad for the Anderlecht game but no matter what the pitch was like we put up a good performance that night.
We knew that we wouldn’t score early. We set out to probe and keep it tight and we were confident the goal would come because we knew that there were goals in our team. It wasn’t often that we got a full house so we were floating on air throughout the game and it was only a matter of time before we scored.
We were shooting towards the Kop in the first-half and although we had plenty of possession in and around their box, we didn’t manage a clear shot on target. There was no doubt we were on top but they were always dangerous and Van Binst produced a fine save from Brian Lloyd with a shot from the edge of the area before the break. That was a really important save that kept us in the game at half-time.
After 61 minutes, Mel Sutton crossed the ball in for Stuart Lee to knock-in at the far post. The crowd exploded and a wall of noise hit us. At that stage we still had half an hour to go and we all believed we had another goal in us, especially with the crowd behind us. We pushed forward in search of the winner but despite bombarding their box with crosses we were restricted to half-chances. We almost scored when Ruiter came charging out of his goal to punch the ball but he got tangled up with me and one of his own defenders so he didn’t get a clean contact on the ball, which landed at the feet of Stuart Lee on the edge of the area. Unfortunately, his shot went over the bar and had that gone in I think their heads would have gone completely. They would have been absolutely destroyed but I think that miss gave them the impetus they needed. They knew they had got away with it and that motivated them to give it a little extra push.
They started to create a few chances of their own as we committed men forward and left gaps at the back. On 77 minutes, the bottom fell out of our market as they showed their class by putting together a nice passing move that started in their own area and finished with Coeck sliding the ball through for Rensenbrink to shoot past Lloyd from 15 yards. After that, the game petered out a bit and, although Graham Whittle hit a bullet from the edge of the area that Ruiter did well to save, we never really looked like getting the two goals we then needed.
I think if it’d gone to extra-time we’d have lost it because they didn’t put a great deal of effort into it. In the first game they didn’t either. They had the skilful players while we had the lads who were really grafting so the extra half-hour would have tired us out and allowed them to take the ascendancy. You get a sort of nervous energy in big games like that but once the 90 minutes are up you just end up completely drained. We’d put so much effort in that we had nothing left to give.
Anderlecht then went on to beat BSG Sachsenring Zwickau of East Germany in the semi-final to set up a final against West Ham United, which they won 4-2. I actually watched that game on TV and remember thinking that it could’ve been us and that we would’ve given a better performance than the Hammers. I know it’s an awful thing to say but I’m really glad Anderlecht won as it meant that we’d lost to the eventual winners.
Our involvement in the Cup Winners Cup most definitely affected our league form. We were in that competition to win it so when Anderlecht beat us it knocked the stuffing out of us. For the rest of the league season, we were too inconsistent and let other teams walk all over us, dropping vital home points to the likes of Preston, Walsall and Southend and finishing sixth in the table. Instead of losing momentum we should have looked at how much we’d achieved, how well we’d played and show teams how we’d just given Anderlecht a spanking. Unfortunately, we didn’t and our heads went down, which was disappointing.
We might have excelled in Europe, but what about domestic cup competitions? The first round of the FA Cup saw us paired with Chester over two legs. The first instalment of this tie took place at the Racecourse where we brushed our rivals aside with a crushing 3-0 victory. The second leg ended in a goalless draw and we were pitted against Mansfield Town at the second round stage. Our Third Division opponents halted our progress towards Wembley with a 1-2 win.
We managed to get our revenge against the Stags with a 1-0 triumph at the Racecourse in a League encounter that took place in November. Bizarrely, we also drew Mansfield in the FA Cup. Two 1-1 draws at Field Mill and the Cae Ras meant we had to face them in a second replay at Villa Park. An Eddie May own goal finally tipped the balance in the Nottinghamshire club’s favour.
After crushing Llanidloes Town 8-0 in the Welsh Cup it was hoped that we would make further progress and set up another European adventure when we met Chester in the fifth round. After no goals were scored in our first meeting at the Racecourse, we ended up losing 2-1 at Sealand Road.