Re-enter The Dragon – A new beginning for Wales?
by James Riches
Football, as they say, is a funny old game, and this week there is no greater support for that statement than the contrasting feelings of two Home Nations.
On the one hand, you have England, who end the week with two wins from two, four goals scored, none conceded and just one point away from qualification for Euro 2012.
On the other, Wales, bottom of the group with just one win, their qualification hopes long since cut adrift, and for the moment ranked by FIFA as officially worse than such footballing luminaries as Syria, Cuba, Antigua & Barbuda, Guatemala, Guyana and, perhaps most notoriously, the Faroe Islands.
Who’s happier? As usual, it isn’t England. It never is. Happiness does not seem to be a concept that figures in the English football dictionary. Despite all mathematical and logical evidence, it is Wales who end the week as arguably the most optimistic of all the Home Nations, something that seemed inconceivable even as late as last month.
Roughly a year ago, I am sitting on a train glaring furiously at the BBC live text on my phone as Wales slip to a 1-0 defeat in Montenegro, a country that did not exist until 2006.
This defeat comes under the stewardship of John Toshack. Grumpy Tosh, with his grumpy folded arms on the touchline, and his funereal post-match interviews. The man who had been so critical of the Mark Hughes reign from his big grumpy chair in the television studio. He resigns.
After dangling Brian Flynn’s dreams in front of him by appointing him on an interim basis, the reliably bumbling FAW snatch them away by appointing Gary Speed, plucking him from an underwhelming start at Sheffield United.
By now, the boys in red have slumped to a home defeat to Bulgaria, a result that looks worse the more you see them play, and been biffed 4-1 away to Switzerland. Our challenge is over, a 2-0 defeat to the English compounding the misery.
Then comes the hammer blow. Wales sink to 117th in the world and are dumped into the bottom pot for the World Cup 2014 qualifying groups, overtaken at the 11th hour by the Faroe Islands after a Romanian student finds a tiny flaw in FIFA’s maths.
In the interim, Ireland and Scotland both put three past us, and a first win for Speed against Northern Ireland provides little cheer in the grand scheme of things. Hardly anyone turns up to watch it anyway.
August comes, and with it a home friendly defeat to Australia. If you’re watching England fans, if you can see this far down, this is how to get depressed watching your national team.
September sees us welcoming Montenegro, by now a top 20 side, to the Cardiff City Stadium, followed by an evening at Wembley.
I wasn’t going to watch Montenegro. I’d been on holiday, and I had a fair bit of iPlayer to catch up on. Why put myself through it? I’ll watch Doctor Who instead. Doctor Who always wins.
Except of course I can’t resist. I have a quick check of the teams, and note that Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Craig Bellamy are all on the pitch. I struggle to remember the last time this happened. Heck, that team actually looks alright. My girlfriend is sat next to me on the sofa. She answers the question before I have time to ask it. The Doc will have to wait.
And then something wonderful happens. We start to play, and it’s good, there’s passing and moving and all sorts going on. Dare I say it, we’re pulling the strings in midfield at times. Just before the break, Steve Morison gets the goal we deserve, and for the first time in a long time I am smiling after the first 45.
It gets better, as Captain Rambo sweeps in a second five minutes after half time. Even when Jovetic gets one back with 20 minutes to go, I’m somehow not nervous. We hold on, and without wanting to get carried away I start to actively look forward to the England game.
A joke of a booking has put Bellamy in the stands, but our starting XI doesn’t look too shabby as I endure Adrian Chiles’ tiresome babbling on ITV. If you could, you’d get a better calibre of front-man than Morison, but he’ll never stop running so he’ll do.
The teams are out, anthems have been booed and we’ve not started all that badly. Darcy Blake looks frankly rather capable in the centre of defence, we’ve a solid keeper in Wayne Hennessey and two highly-rated full backs in Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor. Ashley Williams seems to have ‘JT’ sussed at set pieces.
In midfield, we suddenly look like we might actually frighten a few teams. In Bale, Ramsey and Joe Ledley, we have three midfielders at the top table of the game (yes, I am still counting Celtic), while Jack Collison would almost certainly be doing better at a bigger club than West Ham had he not got injured. I’m even starting to warm to Andrew Crofts.
England fans are getting predictably frustrated as the minutes tick by without a goal. Morison bullies his way past Terry as they chase a long ball, and would you believe it, we’re matching them. This passing it around lark you hear so much about is present again, as it was on Friday night. There’s creativity, there’s skill, there’s intelligence. Crucially, there’s no panic and, considering we’ve one up front, not too much hoofing into the air either.
You would think that allowing myself to get so positive when all of history is screaming at me not to let any hope get into my brain would mean I am that much more disappointed when Young tucks in at the near post after 35 minutes. But I’m not, because after the way the last few years have gone, this is a brilliant performance and I genuinely believe we will have a response.
It has been pretty much unanimously acknowledged that we are the better team in the second half. We’ve got big bad England under all sorts of pressure. All that’s missing is a goal.
Then on 77 minutes, one of those moments where everything is in slow motion, when the moment you’ve sat and waited for is there and you get ready to release all the built up nerves and desperate desire for the ball to just get itself in the net.
Except, as we all know, it doesn’t work out that way.
Darcy Blake nods a free-kick right across the six yard line, and substitute Robert Earnshaw, who you’ll know is the only man to score a hat trick in all four divisions, both cups and at international level, is waiting. If ever there was a man to get this chance, it is this guy. To emphasise how strongly I feel about this, I have got up from the sofa and am standing, knees bent ready for an epic Martin O’Neill-style leap, as the ball bobbles across the box, Hart stricken at his near post.
I still do the leap, I’m too far down the knee-bending road and it’s unavoidable, but instead of carrying it through into more leaps and my customary run onto the balcony to shout incomprehensible happy things at my startled neighbours, I am now crumpled on the floor, and my girlfriend is casually informing all her Facebook friends that I am now attempting a world record for the number of times a man can whimper “I can’t believe he’s missed” in the space of a minute.
I watch the replay. I wish I hadn’t. It’s an open net. A sitter. It’s on a silver platter. It’s a gimme. He’s got to score. But he hasn’t. And the game is over. We’ve done ourselves proud, but it will take a few days to get over what might have been.
Predictably, the papers are full of how England are a disgrace and will never win a thing if they keep playing like that. Coupled with the dreadful news about the death of Wales fan Mike Dye, it turns out that it’s probably best to leave the papers alone. An open goal miss now seems a silly thing to moan about.
So, England just need a point to qualify, which they’ll still not be happy with, while all the talk is now of Wales getting third place to boost their FIFA co-efficient. This would be good, not to climb the farcical rankings, but simply to get a better seeding for 2016.
And if you are watching Sepp, I don’t think Guyana (114th) would have put on a performance like that. Or Uganda (80th), Panama (62nd), or even Burkina Faso (40th).
We would beat all of them Sepp. You’ve annoyed us now, and we’re going to do our best to make you and your ranking system look as silly as possible.
James is a trainee journalist and blindly optimistic Cardiff City fan. He lives in Manchester but unfortunately failed in his mission to kidnap Craig Bellamy and smuggle him back into Cardiff when a certain Mr Dalglish had a smilar idea…