Talk to any Welsh football fan of a certain age and reference to the hand of Joe Jordan can still draw a sharp look and an anguished growl.
The Scotland player’s 1977 handball at Anfield playing against Wales which the referee mistakenly identified as that of Welsh defender David Jones led to a Scotland penalty and played a large part in Wales failing to reach the following years World Cup in Argentina.
Floodlight failure at the Vetch Field in a World Cup qualifier against Iceland in 1981; another nervy defeat to Scotland four years later at Ninian Park; a missed penalty against Romania in 1993 and a last-gasp play-off defeat to Russia a decade later provided more painful moments for a generation of fans like mine aching to see Wales reach a major finals.
The era seemed to be littered with misfortune as world class players like Southall, Rush, Hughes and Ratcliffe didn’t get their chance to play on the highest international stage. Looking back, Jordan’s handball came at the start of a period of political frustration for Wales too. Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher would soon enter Downing Street as Prime Minister and a chill ideological wind of free market forces would soon rip through the Welsh economy.
Once mighty Welsh industries like coal would be left unsupported and proud steel communities would be left battered and bloodied as closures at East Moors, Shotton and Ebbw Vale took their toll. By 1995 there were 11,000 fewer people in the Welsh workforce than in 1979 and in the same period the male workforce shrank by 89,000. Wales and its economy staggered into a spiral of competition for expensively enticed foreign investment and low-skill, part-time jobs.
But just as the rebuilding work done by Gary Speed and Chris Coleman has helped take Wales to its first major football tournament since 1958 in France this Summer, there has been a solid re-building of the Welsh economy over the last few years, too.
Lots of interest has been generated by talk of devolution in England to cities and metro mayors, but in Wales we are ahead of the game. Welsh devolution in 1999 gave us the opportunity to bend the arc of the economy toward high-skill, high value jobs that could again be the focus of renewed hope for Wales and its communities.
Latest figures show that approach is working with employment in Wales now at a record high, having risen faster than any other part of the UK. Unemployment, too, has fallen faster in Wales than anywhere else and is now substantially below that in Scotland and the UK as whole.
GVA per head is growing faster in Wales than in London and we’re winning record-breaking levels of high quality and, crucially, sustainable inward investment as a direct result of the way we support businesses and skills growth. Wales is now a place to stay and do business.
The recent announcement that Aston Martin would open a new factory in St Athan employing 750 people and TVR would be creating 150 jobs in Ebbw Vale as a result of Welsh Government support demonstrated the benefits of a small, smart government that could work in tandem with the private sector. More than that the announcements seemed to confirm the new momentum and the new optimism that had been building in the Welsh economy.
The challenge as we move forward is to build new economic strength whilst modernising the industrial base we already have. Life Sciences in Wales now employs around 11,000 people based at more than 350 companies across the country, delivering a turnover of around £2bn a year. Our dedicated £100m Life Sciences Investment Fund is just one way in which we are helping stimulate new growth in an exciting sector.
However this will mean little if we cannot ensure a viable future for the existing pillars of the Welsh economy. We cannot make the mistake of the 1980s by letting our industrial strength wither way and beginning a new race to the bottom on wages and conditions.
It’s been the reason why I have worked so hard over the last few months to ensure a viable future for our steel industry in Wales and to protect more than 6,000 people employed in one of our most strategically important industries. Thousands more in communities right across Wales rely on steel directly and indirectly and it would be a national tragedy if the same brand of free market dogmatism which failed Wales in the 1980s were to decimate our steel industry in 2016.
We have put more than £60m on the table to support the future of TATA sites at Port Talbot, Llanwern, Shotton and Trostre, important investment which has helped bring new bidders to the table. There is more work to do over the next few weeks and months, but I am determined to build and not break Wales’ reputation as a manufacturing nation.
That is also the reason why I’ve stood up in recent weeks to advocate for Wales’ continued membership of the European Union. Ensuring that companies like Ford, which makes engines for cars all over the world at its base in my home town of Bridgend, still sees the town as an attractive place to invest and do business is, in my opinion, absolutely central to any bright economic vision of Wales. Supporting employment for around 10,000 people in South Wales it is economic illiteracy to suggest anything other than that the future of the plant would be at risk if we left the EU.
Wales is a nation on the move. Just like our football team there are major hurdles ahead in the common months and years but we have both shown that size does not preclude us from making our mark on the international stage.
It’s time to use this moment as a springboard for future success - to leave the painful memory of Joe Jordan’s handball behind - and make 2016 the start of something positive on and off the pitch for Wales.
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