IT was 1972 and Wrexham were in the European Cup Winners’ Cup for the first time in their history.

John Neal - arguably the club’s greatest ever manager - wasn’t going to cross into enemy territory just to make up the numbers and that’s why he forked out a record £15,000 fee to bring in hard-working midfielder Mel Sutton from Welsh rivals, Cardiff City.

Twelve months before Sutton made the move to north Wales, he was in The Bluebirds team that beat the mighty Real Madrid in front of a Ninian Park crowd of 50,000 that went mad when Cardiff won 1-0.

Sutton, still only 26 at the time, was just the kind of experienced player Neal needed to play alongside a ruck of remarkable Reds rookies who were rising through The Racecourse ranks.

“It was a good move for me,” recalled Sutton, who along with Reds legend Gareth Davies holds the record for the most European appearances in a Wrexham shirt. Both appeared in 14 of Wrexham’s 28 European ties.

“I’d been out injured at Cardiff and I remembered John Neal playing at Aston Villa in the League Cup winning team.

“£15,000 was a lot of money in those days. John said he wanted experience. Arfon was there, of course, and he wanted us to help the likes of Joey Jones, Mickey Thomas and Dave Smallman - all young players but all very good players.”

Sutton’s start with Wrexham could not have gone any better.

He scored the only goal in a 1-0 win at Southend United on the opening day of the season - exactly 48 years ago today - and then repeated the feat at home to Watford in front of a 5,000-plus Racecourse crowd a week later.

Three weeks later he was man of the match as the Reds returned from Zurich in high spirits after holding the Swiss Cup winners to a 1-1 draw.

Things got even better for Sutton as he scored the winner in a 2-1 victory in Wrexham on September 27, sealing a 3-2 aggregate success and a second round draw against Hajduk Split.

“I didn’t score many goals but it was a good win. Zurich had some good players but so did we,” added Sutton, who thought two goals from Brian Tinnion - the man whose Reds transfer record he broke - against the Croatian side in a 3-1 home win would secure progress.

But a 2-0 defeat in Split saw Wrexham go out on the away goals rule.

“It was disappointing. But we were building a side and we got better season by season. We knew the young ones would run all day. The likes of me, Eddie May, Gareth Davies and Arfon would just pass on our advice. And we just let the likes of Mickey go out there and express themselves.

“Playing in Europe was a bonus. I knew it was one of the reasons John signed me but in those years at Cardiff, we played in Europe every season. It was only that year I signed for Wrexham that it changed.”

Birmingham-born Sutton, who started his career with Aston Villa when Joe Mercer was in charge, ended up making the move to Cardiff where he broke into the first team at the end of the Sixties.

“Just like at Wrexham, I was fortunate to be part of what was a great team with fantastic players,” he said.

‘We had a good mix of youth and experience, and always seemed to be winning the Welsh Cup and getting into Europe.

“John Toshack and Leighton Phillips were coming into the first team at the same time but we had good old pros too.

“It shows how good the team was to beat Real Madrid. They weren’t the team they are now but we still beat them.

“But they used to talk about the team that got to the semi-finals a couple of seasons before but ended up losing to Hamburg.

“I know we got beat 2-0 in Madrid but what a brilliant experience to go out and play there. Together with the Anderlecht games, they have to be my best memories of playing in Europe.”

Wrexham finally ended Cardiff’s Welsh Cup winning run in 1972. After a 2-1 win at The Racecourse, Albert Kinsey scored the goal in a 1-1 draw at Ninian Park to secure victory.

And Kinsey goes down in history as the scorer of Wrexham’s first ever goal in Europe with his strike partner, Billy Ashcroft, netting the club’s first ever Euro goal at The Racecourse.

Ashcroft spearheaded the Reds attack at home and abroad, scoring both in a 2-0 home win over Stal Rzeszow in 1975 - a run that ended in quarter-final defeat to Anderlecht.

“At the time, Anderlecht were one of the best teams in football. They might not be now but they were then with lots of Belgian and Dutch internationals in their side,” said Sutton.

“To lose only 1-0 over there in the first leg was a great result. We played well and missed some chances.

“We fancied our chances at home. We always did. I know we were in the third division but we didn’t fear any team - especially at The Racecourse.”

Stuart Lee, guilty of some glaring misses in Belgium, put Wrexham ahead but despite being roared on by a 20,000 crowd, Holland’s Robbie Rensenbrink broke Reds’ fans hearts with a second-half equaliser.

Sutton said: “Those Anderlecht ties were the ones I remember most. We were enjoying playing in those kind of games, playing in front of decent crowds.”

Wrexham missed out on promotion the following season and with Neal moving on to Middlesbrough and taking Ashcroft with him, Griffiths became player boss with Sutton his assistant.

But Sutton still had a massive part to play on the pitch - and many who had the pleasure of watching that 1977/78 side will know how much he helped make Bobby Shinton the crowd-pleasing player he was.

“Bob was a great player, very skilful. Give him the ball and he could go both ways. He’d get to the touchline and put in a cross for Dixie or he’d cut inside and have a go himself,” he said.

“He scored a lot of goals and set a lot up too. It was a good side and we had a great season, winning the league, the Welsh Cup and reaching the FA Cup and League Cup quarter-finals.

“We really did think we were a match for anyone. It’s just a pity that we started losing players when we went up.

“We’d reached the heights of Division Two but players move on. That’s football and it was a shame.”

Griffiths paid the price for Wrexham’s failure to continue their rise and Sutton, just like his predecessor had done, made the step up from the assistant manager’s job.

“They were hard times,” added Sutton, who made another Reds’ stalwart, Micky Evans, his number two.

“We struggled and ended up getting relegated that season and I went after one season in charge. It was a sad end.”

But how ironic that Sutton’s best day as Wrexham boss was a 3-1 win at European Cup holders Nottingham Forest in 1982.

“Brian Clough and Peter Taylor both congratulated us after the game and said the best team won. It was one of those typical FA Cup surprises. A smaller team is always going to win one day and that day it was us,” said Sutton.

Getting one over on Clough came 21 years after Sutton had almost paid the price for injuring the man who had won Forest their first European Cup in 1979, Trevor Francis.

The story goes that Francis, playing for Birmingham City two months before his 17th birthday, was caught late by Cardiff’s Sutton.

It upset one Brummie so much that he was arrested for running on the pitch and punching Sutton, who would still be giving it his all 20 years later.

Sutton didn’t play that season Wrexham went down in a side where only six of the title-winning team of four years earlier remained.

But he took up an offer from his old mate Griffiths to go and play for Crewe, claiming: “It was just to prove I could still play!”

Captain Gareth Davies was one of those who stayed loyal to Sutton, who is proud to be heading the Wrexham list of all-time appearances in Europe for the club he gave 10 years service to.

“Gareth was one of the mainstays of the club,” added Sutton. “He was a good captain and a very good defender.”

Between them, Davies and Sutton totted up more than 1,000 games for Wrexham. And Davies’ European exploits were pretty amazing for someone who didn’t have a passport.

“I got a call-up to play for Wales in Italy in 1969 but I hadn’t got a passport,” said Davies, whose international jet-setting days with the Reds were just about to take off.

14 appearances: Gareth Davies, Mel Sutton.

10: Micky Evans, Brian Lloyd, Mickey Thomas.

9: Billy Ashcroft, Eddie May, Brian Tinnion, Mike Williams.

8: Shaun Cunnington, Arfon Griffiths, Alan Hill, Barry Horne, Neil Salathiel, Jim Steel, Graham Whittle.

7: Dave Fogg.

6: Gareth Owen, Waynne Phillips.

5: Steve Buxton, Alan Dwyer.

4: Paul Comstive, Joe Cooke, Graham Cooper, Dai Davies, Brian Flynn, Dave Gregory, Jake King, Stuart Mason, Steve Massey, Dixie McNeil, Mark Morris, John Muldoon, Stuart Parker, Chris Pearce, Kevin Rogers, Steve Wright.

3: Chris Armstrong, Nigel Beaumont, Jon Bowden, Steve Charles, Andy Edwards, Paul Emson, Joey Jones, Jack Keay, Albert Kinsey, John Lyons, John Roberts.

2: Les Cartwright, Karl Connolly, Mike Conroy, Steve Fox, Steve Futcher, David Giles, Phil Hardy, Barry Hunter, Barry Jones, Alan Kennedy, Stuart Lee, Andy Marriott, Mark Sertori, Bobby Shinton, Steve Watkin, Peter Williams, Gary Worthington. Darren Wright.

1: Richard Barnes, Deryn Brace, Wayne Cegielski, Jon Cross, Geoff Davies, Kieron Durkan, Geoff Hunter, Frank Jones, Kevin Jones, Lee Jones, Roger Mostyn, Andy Preece, Roger Preece, Sean Reck, Dave Smallman, Andy Thackeray, Andy Thomas, Mick Vinter.