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Football: Dedication to Wrexham came at a cost to Arfon; GREAT N. WALIAN FOOTBALLERS - PART 17 Racecourse legend Arfon Griffiths tells Mark Currie how his later years were his best.

Byline: Mark Currie

ARFON GRIFFITHS has earned his place in the annals of Welsh football history as a result of more than two decades of service to his hometown club Wrexham, for whom his record number of 713 appearances is unlikely ever to be surpassed.

And given the Dragons' present non-Football League status, his achievement in managing the only Racecourse side to win promotion to the second highest tier of English football is probably just as secure.

The price, however, of a playing career spent largely in the lower divisions was that Griffiths for too longwas overlooked by Wales, an injustice that was finally rectified at a time when many of his contemporaries were either considering or had already decided to hang up their boots.

But that was nothing new for Griffiths, who had previously experienced apparently similar discrimination at the outset of his footballing journey.

A gifted amateur inside forward, he rejected trials with Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday to sign for Wrexham in 1959 and after just 42 first team appearances he was signed for pounds 15,500 by First Division giants Arsenal.

"Up to that point I had heard nothing from Wales," recalled Griffiths. "When I signed for Arsenal I was immediately picked for the Wales under-23 team, even though I hadn't kicked a ball for my new club. I was exactly the same player, but being at Arsenal made all the difference."

Although the statistics suggest his 18-month stint at Highbury was less than successful - 15 appearances, two goals - Griffiths insisted the lessons he learned were invaluable.

"It's fair to say that had I been two or three years older, I might have adjusted better," he said. "I went to London at a time when a holiday for us meant a week in Rhyl and I had never lived away from home before.

"George Swindin was the manager who signed me in February 1961 and I played a couple of first team games towards the end of that season. On a summer tour to Scandinavia I was a regular in the side and at the start of the next season I scored my first goal against Bert Trautmann when we beat Manchester City 3-1.

"But shortly afterwards at West Bromwich Albion I suffered an ankle injury that kept me out for four months and when Billy Wright replaced Swindin asmanager, he more or less told me I didn't have a future at Arsenal.

"Nevertheless I was always glad I had gone to High bury because what I learned about discipline and the demands of being a footballer stayed with me through my career."

Despite an offer from Hull City, Griffiths decided to return to Wrexham because of his admiration for manager Ken Barnes and there he stayed for the next 19 years, playing under a further seven bosses before succeeding John Neal in the hot seat in 1977.

The "Swinging Sixties" largely passed Wrexhamby, although on one occasion the then Racecourse manager Alvan Williams was ready to sell an unwilling Griffiths to neighbours and fiercest rivals, Chester City.

"I wouldn't go," he said. "I wasn't very pleased with Alvan for that, but he was the right man for the job at the time because he sorted out the club from top to bottom and, of course, he brought John Neal with him as his assistant.

"John was the brains as far as the football was concerned and he had a great deal of patience with the younger players, a policy that was to produce major dividends for the club."

Within 12 months of replacing Williams at the helm, Neal led Wrexham to promotion and, with Griffiths as his midfield general, laid the foundations of the club's finest years. A first Welsh Cup win in 12 years in 1972 brought the new experience of European football to the Racecourse and in 1974 Wrexham reached the last eight of the FA Cup.

After beating Crystal Palace, Middles brough and Southampton, the quarter-final clash at First Division Burnley saw 15,000 North Wales fans make the trip to Turf Moor. At 0-0 Griffiths was clear in front of goal, but his shot deflected off the foot of goalkeeper Alan Stevenson and the dream died when Frank Casper's second-half strike saw off Neal's side.

"Given the chance again I would have done exactly the same thing," he said. "I struck the ball well but it just caught the keeper's leg and the truth is that by the time that game came round we had run out of steam. The pitch was very heavy, we didn't play well and as a result we went out of the Cup."

Over the next three seasons, Griffiths was to star in many more fine Wrexham performances but, more importantly, he finally established himself as a key member of the most successful Wales team since 1958.

There had been one cap previously, as a substitute against Czechoslovakia in 1971, but under manager Mike Smith Griffiths made light of his 33 years as Wales began their 1976 European Championship campaign.

Recognition had been a long time coming, but bridging the divide from the Third Division in a group containing Hungary, Austria and Luxembourg, Griffiths not only played in all six qualifiers but scored in each of the first three.

And in front of a 30,000 crowd at the Racecourse he also snatched the only goal of the game against Austria that confirmed Wales as one of the eight sides to reach the final stages of the Championship.

"All you can ever hope for in football is to be given a chance and I was fortunate to play in a good Wales side," he said. "People have forgotten about us qualifying for the finals because they were played on a home and away basis in those days."

Although Smith's side failed to progress beyond the quarter finals, losing out over two legs to Yugoslavia, Griffiths relished every one of his 17 caps.

"Scoring against Austria on my home ground was a great moment for me and I always felt that I played my best football between the ages of 29 and 33," Griffiths added. "I played and scored against England at Wembley and I captained Wales in my last international against Northern Ireland in Belfast, both of which are also very special memories."

Back with Wrexham, Griffiths went on to cement his reputation as the greatest figure in the club's history by stepping into Neal's shoes and master-minding the 1978 promotion campaign in a thrilling season that also saw his side reach the last eight of both FA and League Cup competitions.

All too quickly, though, the dreams turned to dust and after Griffiths resigned on a point of principle in 1981 it was to be more than 20 years before he once again set foot inside the Racecourse, this time as the figurehead of a fans' movement mobilised to ensure the club's very survival.

And as a player when Wrexham last finished bottom of the Football League in 1966, no one will be happier than Griffiths to see the club bounce back just as it did then.

GRIFFITHS FACT FILE

BORN: Wrexham, 19 41

POSITION: Midfield

PLAYING CAREER: Wrexham (1959-61): 41 league appearances, eight goals

Arsenal (1961-2): 15 league appearances, two goals

Wrexham (1962-78): 550 league appearances, 112 goals. Griffiths holds Wrexham's all-time appearance record having played 713 games for the club.

He is the only manager to have guided Wrexham to second tier of English football and also took them to the last eight of the FA Cup and League Cup.

He was awarded the MBE for services to football.

PART 18 IN NEXT MONDAY'S DAILY POST

CAPTION(S):

Arfon Griffiths (below) in action for Wales (left) and scoring against Austria in 1978 (above)
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 14, 2008
Words:1299
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