Welsh football crisis: Is a complete overhaul needed?
In the same week that Welshman Gareth Bale secured a record-breaking £85m move to Real Madrid, his international side have reached another low point. With qualification for next year’s World Cup all over, plus an embarrassing defeat for the U21 side, calls have been made for a complete overhaul of the Welsh football set-up. ViewFromTheStands looks at Chris Coleman’s reign to date, and what lies ahead for the national team.
Bulgaria, Israel, Romania, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Norway, Slovenia, Republic of Ireland, Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Slovakia, Serbia, Austria. Just some of the European teams who have qualified for a World Cup since Wales last graced the world stage in 1958.
Wales will never be world-beater’s and will certainly never be a side who qualify for major tournaments year after year. Though what hurts loyal Welsh fans most is the constant failure to not only reach tournaments, but the abject inability to even compete in qualifying campaigns.
Roll back the years to 1993 and Wales were a penalty kick away from securing their place in the following summer’s World Cup, while some 15 years previously, a controversial Joe Jordan handball helped Scotland secure their place at World Cup 78 – at Wales’ expense.
In more recent years, the closest the Dragons have come to gracing any sort of tournament was back in 2004. A famous victory against Italy – arguably the last time Wales have pulled off a major upset – meant Mark Hughes’ side were just two legs away from qualifying.
With a positive 0-0 result in Russia, Wales were left with the task of winning in front of a raucous sold-out Millennium Stadium. Wales lost. The rest is history.
It’s this failure time-after-time that has left Welsh fans feeling so negative of late. In the times of past, many may have argued that under-fire boss Chris Coleman deserves more time to leave his stamp on the side, but it’s simply a case of same old.
With seven losses (eight if you wish to include the Costa Rica game), one draw and just three victories, Coleman currently boasts the accolade of being, statistically speaking, Wales’ worst ever manager. Those three victories? A Gareth Bale inspired triumph against Austria, as well as a double over an equally poor Scotland side.
More worryingly, Wales have only scored twice from open play so far in competitive games under the former Fulham manager – a Hal Robson-Kanu header at Hampden Park and a Bale screamer late on against Scotland. Despite this, media reports suggest that Coleman has agreed to sign an extension to his contract, which will take him through to the next qualifying campaign beginning in a year’s time.
The previous regime
Following a bleak six year period under John Toshack, the Welsh FA opted to go for a fresh manager, someone who could breathe new life into the side – Gary Speed. Though Speed wasn’t everyone’s first choice following a relatively mediocre and short spell in charge of Sheffield United, many agreed that it was certainly better than Toshack, whose defensive tactics were all too much for fans to take.
Speed began life in charge of Wales in a similar way to Coleman with a run of defeats, though a Robert Earnshaw sitter away from victory at Wembley, where Wales outplayed England, left Welsh fans feeling altogether more optimistic.
This optimism eventually came good when Speed got his managerial career off and running with victories against Montenegro, Bulgaria and Switzerland leading to Wales rising up to 45th in the world rankings – an increase of 72 places which earned Speeds’ men the ‘Best Movers of the Year’ award from FIFA.
It meant that with Bale and Ramsey shining in a red shirt at last, combined with team harmony being at an all-time high, Wales were in with a shout of reaching World Cup 2014 – then tragedy struck.
Speeds death in November 2011 took the sporting world by shock, with many left in disbelief. Though football took a back seat in context of events, Wales were now searching for a new manager to continue the progress as smooth as possibly can be done in such circumstances.
Coleman, along with John Hartson and Brian Flynn, seemed to be the only real candidates from the start, with Raymond Verheijen – or ‘Dutch Ray’ as he is more commonly known – being altogether dismissed by the Welsh FA and local media. However, a poll of fans at the time suggested that continuity was needed, and Dutch Ray was the man to provide that.
The FAW instead opted for Coleman, a choice that, despite not being overwhelmingly popular, was still backed. Following the death of a true legend that was Speed, Welsh fans were needed now more than ever – and Coleman would get their support.
The Coleman years
The defeat to Macedonia on Friday night was in many ways the last straw for fans who had tried to remain positive after victories against Scotland, and a positive performance against Croatia, left just a glimmer of hope. As a spectator in Serbia exactly one year ago, the general consensus in the stands was that Coleman would not be the right man to take Wales forward, though he deserved until the end of the current qualification process to at least have a chance to prove fans wrong.
The passport fiasco in many ways encapsulated Coleman’s week, with the press understandably grilling the 43-year-old following the 2-1 defeat in Macedonia. On attending a Coleman press conference earlier this year, it is clear that the relationship between Coleman and members of the press isn’t exactly blossoming – not a healthy mix.
The biggest question mark surrounded Bale, who was named on the bench, yet not brought on when Wales needed him most. In fact, Coleman opted for defender Adam Matthews to cover on the wing, with a defensive midfielder in Andrew Crofts replacing the injured Jonny Williams in the middle. Just to round things off, Sam Vokes was brought on to grab a goal, leading to Bale becoming the world’s most expensive cheerleader.
One theory suggests that the Welsh FA simply couldn’t afford the insurance bond needed to cover Bale in case of injury, with others claiming Real Madrid have insisted Bale can no longer play for Wales. This second theory however is flawed in a sense that Madrid would have wanted the world’s most expensive player to play as much as possible over the next week to gain match fitness, and besides, have Madrid ever stopped Ronaldo from playing for his country?
The defeat left Wales in a position where they could no longer mathematically qualify for the World Cup in Brazil next summer. Instead Wales now face Serbia one year on from their 6-1 defeat, knowing that defeat will leave them fighting to avoid finishing bottom of the table, instead of chasing third place – a position which would enhance the nations ranking ahead of the Euro 2016 draw in March.
Fans never realistically expected Coleman to lead Wales to the World Cup, though it was hoped that with this group of players, the manager could at least take third place. This would mean winning a mini league of teams including Macedonia, Scotland and Serbia – a realistic target, which would set-up qualification for Euro 2016 where 24 teams will qualify.
That now looks unlikely, and instead Wales face the prospect of finding themselves as bottom seeds for the next round of qualifying with world heavyweights such as San Marino and Andorra – though it’s hard to argue with the ranking system in this instance. Friday nights defeat has done serious damage to Wales’ future ambitions, with a drop from pot 2 to pot 4 a likely result.
If defeat to a team ranked below Central African Republic wasn’t bad enough for Wales, the U21 side went one better by losing to San Marino on the same night. To put this into some context, San Marino is a country smaller than Merthyr Tydfil. It is a country which had not won a game at any level since 2002 when the U17 side clawed a victory against fellow minnows Andorra. It was, in footballing terms, the lowest point you can possibly reach. The defeat comes just a month after Geraint Williams’ side lost 5-1 at home to Finland – a result that no longer seems like the freak one-off that it did at the time.
It begs the question: Why did the FAW ever let Brian Flynn go? The man who turned around Welsh fortunes and instead made the U21 team into an outfit who beat the likes of France and took England all the way in a qualifying play-off. Flynn in no small terms worked a miracle with the Welsh youngsters meaning they were just one game away from qualifying for a tournament of their own – the organisation in charge of Welsh football however felt this wasn’t enough.
In stepped Geraint Williams, who, incidentally, was a part of the Leyton Orient staff at the same time Kit Symons who is now a part of Coleman’s own backroom team – all a little cosy don’t you think?
When Wales beat England 4-0 just three years ago at U16 level, it seemed that the Welsh were about to ride the crest of a wave with Bale, Ledley and Ramsey, combined with experienced pros like Craig Bellamy and Robert Earnshaw combining well. Though nothing came of this not so golden generation, and instead Wales now find themselves picking up the pieces following a 1-0 defeat in San Marino.
With Cardiff City and Swansea City experiencing some of the finest years in their histories, it would be hoped that players at academy level will slowly filter through. As things stand, Cardiff City have just one regular player in the Wales side in Craig Bellamy, who is set to call an end to his international career following next month’s game against Belgium. Hot prospect Declan John managed a place on the bench on Friday night, where he will be hoping to follow in the steps of Swansea’s Ben Davies – one of just three Swansea players named in the Wales side.
The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that not enough is being done by the Football Association of Wales and the Welsh Assembly at grassroots level – though looking at some of the schemes put in place by the Welsh Football Trust suggests that this is an area that is taken seriously.
Though poll any youngster and they will tell you that football is not a regular feature any more, with fixtures between local schools no longer taking place. But again, this is avoiding the main point. Wales is a principality of three million people – there is no divine right to qualify for major tournaments with a pool of players significantly smaller than, say, Germany.
Though smaller nations, such as those listed at the start of this article, continue to qualify for tournaments. It is certainly not luck that the likes of Iceland, who are currently managed by a man rumoured to have been interested in the Wales job, Lars Lagerback, are battling for a place in the World Cup, despite having players of less quality than Wales.
The future of Welsh football
Though Swansea and Cardiff are currently riding the crest of a wave, Welsh domestic football is not exactly booming. The plight of Barry Town, and the incredible initial decision to not allow the fan-run club to be reinstated in the league system, emphasises the issues surrounding the FAW.
With board members who should now be in retirement homes still in charge of the Welsh football set-up, drastic changes need to be made. Urgently.
Right from the existence of the FAW in the 1800s, targets have regularly been set, with a full review at the end of each year. Back in 2008, the FAW released a public document which outlined certain targets which would have to be reached by 2012, they included: The national team obtaining a top 25 world ranking; the Welsh U21 team being seeded no lower than second in their group tournaments, and youth age-groups also regularly qualifying for tournaments. For these targets to be achieved, Wales would have to “reach the European play-off stage for the 2010 World Cup and qualify for the Final Tournament at EURO 2012.” Whilst the U21 side would have to “qualify for the Under-21 Final Tournament by 2012.”
San Marino’s victory against Wales this week was the first time the small nation had won a game at any level since 2002, when the U17 side clawed a victory against fellow minnows Andorra
Compared to Chairman of the English FA, Greg Dyke’s targets set earlier this week, these aims were certainly realistic and achievable. Though as another qualifying campaign passes us by, attention now turns to not just manager Coleman, but also the FAW itself. With targets not being met, heads should roll.
When Wales take on Serbia tomorrow night at the Cardiff City Stadium, a quick glance around the empty stadium will show just how far Wales have fallen in recent years. Though the country has never been a heavyweight, boasting the highest average attendances in Europe in the early 2000s certainly gave the nation something to be proud of – not any more. Less than 10,000 fans are expected in the Welsh capital tomorrow – though amazingly half that figure can be expected for the Macedonia game the following month.
It shouldn’t take another set of qualifying fixtures to go to waste with what is the most talented group of Welsh players of all time, before change takes place. In 10 years time we could look back at this low point in Welsh international football as the moment it all turned around. Though don’t count on it.
World Cup 2034, anyone?