After 6 years of complete frustration, humiliation and bemusement I can finally write the words I have been longing to. Wales are no longer the poor cousin of British football; in fact they have a good team that’s only going to get better.
After narrowly missing out on qualification for EURO 2004 in a playoff to Russia (what would have been only their second ever major finals appearance after the 1958 World Cup), Mark Hughes left two games into World Cup Qualifying to take the managers job at Blackburn Rovers. John Toshack was appointed his replacement and all hell broke loose.
Toshack was an unpopular choice, despite being a legend in Welsh football and having huge managerial experience all over the continent, managing Real Madrid twice, Real Sociedad three times, Besiktas (where it transpired his surname is Turkish for testicles!), Saint Etienne and Deportivo La Coruna amongst others. He had a previous spell as Wales’s manager, but left after criticism following a defeat to Norway, having threatened to leave if criticised.
It was his spell as a TV pundit (analyst to any North Americans reading) that really made him reviled by the players. He would be scathing in his criticism of Mark Hughes side, despite it being the best Wales team since the days of Terry Yorath in the early 90’s when Hughes, Ian Rush and a young Ryan Giggs had Wales in the top 25 in the world.
After his appointment the side was broken up. Robbie Savage, the midfield engine/pest retired from International football after a clash with Toshack (he never returned despite some half-hearted attempts to reconcile and some funny media slanging matches), Mark Pembridge, the Savage’s midfield partner retired too, Andy Melville, the mainstay of Wales’ defence for years also retired.
What followed was years in the doldrums as Wales lurched from one disastrous result to another. When star players Ryan Giggs, Gary Speed. and John Hartson all retired the future for Wales seemed bleak, especially as their best players, Craig Bellamy, Simon Davies and Danny Gabbidon were all suffering with injuries and the pressure was mounting on Toshack.
However, something amazing is happening in Wales. It has slipped completely under the radar, ignored by the English media, who are still suffering under the delusion that England is the best team in the world. Wales have become a really good team, and it looks like they’re only going to get better.
When the established, senior players retired/left in a huff, it meant that younger players were brought in earlier than they would normally have. Also, the financial plight of Cardiff City, Wales’ largest domestic club (sorry Swansea) meant that young Welsh players were playing regularly in the Championship and they were learning fast. Gareth Bale, Chris Gunter, James Collins, Danny Gabbidon and recently Aaron Ramsey have all come through the ranks at Cardiff to play in the Premier League, and Joe Ledley is one of the best young prospects in Britain, and is a future Premier League star.
Not only were they playing at a good level for their club, they were also playing for their country. Those players now are experienced internationals at a young age. The Wales squad for the game against Poland contains no players over the age of 30 and 11 of the 22-man squad are aged 21 or younger. Joe Ledley is only 22 but has 24 caps, Gareth Bale is 19 with 16 caps and Chris Gunter is 19 with 11 caps.
The Wales Under 21 team, which used to be a running joke, has been completely overhauled by Toshack and Under 21 manager Brian Flynn. With them finding English-born players eligible to play for Wales. This policy has brought players like Jack Collison and Sam Vokes into the international scene. This led to Wales nearly qualified for the 2009 Under 21 championship, narrowly losing to England in a playoff. This suggests that there is even more young players to come.
Wales currently sit third in their qualification group for the 2010 World Cup and with only one team going through automatically, it was always going to be a long shot they would get out of a group containing Germany and Russia. Wales put in good performances in one-goal defeats away at both of these countries, which should give them the confidence they need to finish at least third in the group.
This would mean they would get a slightly easier draw for the EURO 2012 qualifiers, as they would be in the third pot of seeds so qualification for those championships is a real possibility. John Toshack signed a contract extension to the end of the 2012 qualifying campaign, so he can finish what he started.