A night I was beginning to think I’d never witness.

CoymayJust think what things would have been like at half time against Andorra last night if Cyprus had, as I confidently expected them to, lost in Israel on Saturday. With Wales being made to look  toothless by a massed visiting defence in Cardiff and Israel doing well against Belgium in Brussels, both games were locked at 0-0 after forty five minutes – if the Welsh players were not nervous already, they would surely have got that way as tension levels rose in the stands as the second half got underway.

I know for a fact, I would have been bottling it and any Welsh football supporter who states the way they reacted last night would have stayed exactly the same in the scenario I outlined above is either a liar or completely deluded in my opinion.

Mercifully, none of us had to go through the nerve wracking ordeal where the possibility of Wales cocking things up in just about the most humiliating circumstances imaginable existed.

Instead, last night’s 2-0 victory was an almost unique experience for me – a game with points or cup progression at stake where I truly wasn’t bothered about whether my team won or lost. Thinking back, the only comparable occasions I can think of are the very few matches I’ve seen City play where promotion was already ensured – I did wonder about the Cup Finals at Wembley, but, although they were great occasions, I really wanted us to win both of those matches.

No, last night was nearly all about enjoying an occasion which I had seriously thought I would never ever see in my lifetime.

I’ve mentioned on here before I think that, back in my teens, I set two sporting targets for teams to achieve during my time on this planet supporting them. The first was to see City playing in the First Division/Premier League and the second was to watch Wales beat New Zealand at rugby.

Gareth Bale's slightly scruffy 86th minute shot finds it's way into the net to provide a nice sense of symmetry to our goalscoring record in the qualifying campaign in that he started and finished it . That said, as he scored most of the goals in between as well it's hardly surprising really - Aaron Ramsey's earlier goal ensured he had second place all to his one with two, one ahead of Hal Robson-Kanu and David Cotterill . With Bale also coming up with three assists if you count his cross for the first goal last night, it's frightening to think how we'd fare without him.*,

Gareth Bale’s slightly scruffy 86th minute shot finds it’s way into the net to provide a nice sense of symmetry to our goalscoring record in the qualifying campaign in that he started and finished it . That said, as he scored most of the goals in between as well it’s hardly surprising really – Aaron Ramsey’s earlier goal ensured he had second place all to his own with two, one ahead of Hal Robson-Kanu and David Cotterill . With Bale also coming up with three assists, it’s frightening to think how we’d fare without him.*,

These targets were set because I believed they were attainable and one has now been achieved – the other has never happened in my lifetime, let alone the time I’ve spent supporting the Welsh rugby team, but all of that is going to to change on the 24th of this month in the World Cup Semi Final – excuse me for a sec while I dodge that flying pig!

The Welsh football team was not included on my wish list because, even though I was just a naive youth, I was never innocent enough to believe I’d see a Welsh captain lifting the World or European Cups – to be honest, I had no great hopes of us qualifying for the Finals of either of those tournaments and,as failure followed failure in the next forty five years or so, I had all but given up on that as well.

Wales had a certain standing in the international pecking order, There’d be the odd inspirational victory in qualifying groups (they’d even be allowed to beat the World Champions now and again), but Wales’ place was always to be amongst the small fry – to have them now, not only qualifying for a major tournament, but also to do so with a game to spare are riches indeed.

I do have a slight feeling of disappointment that we didn’t match Northern Ireland’s feat of topping their qualifying group because, by coming second to Belgium, we have left ourselves open to the charge that we owe our presence in Euro 2016 to the decision to expand the number of finalists from 16 to 24.

Under the old criteria, we would now be facing the same sort of Play Off as we had with Russia back in 2003, but, whereas that side from twelve years ago had lost momentum after a poor finish to their qualifying group, the current side would in all likelihood, go into the games as favourites against most of the other seven teams who have to wait until next month to learn their fate – to say Wales are only in Euro 2016 because of a change in the qualification process is to assume that they would lose any Play Off and I’m far from convinced this would be the case.

Anyway, on to the football. I did say I last night was “nearly” all about enjoying  a match without the usual trials and tribulations, but the “normal” me did put the odd appearance in as I bemoaned our lack of quality in the final third both in terms of passing and finishing.

Someone in the middle of this celebration of our first goal is Joe Ledley doing the eye catching dance which has, once again, shown the influence of social media in today's world. I wonder how many people who had never heard of Joe Ledley on Friday now know his name because they have seen his unique dancing - if there is anyone who's not seen what I'm on about, have a look at this;- http://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/joy-relief-joe-ledleys-dance-10255324

Someone in the middle of this celebration of our first goal is Joe Ledley doing the eye catching dance which has, once again, shown the influence of social media in today’s world. I wonder how many people who had never heard of Joe Ledley on Friday now know his name because they have seen his unique dancing – if there is anyone who’s not seen what I’m on about, have a look at this;-
http://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/joy-relief-joe-ledleys-dance-10255324   *

In fact, when I was thinking last night after the game about what I was going to put in this piece, my intention was to be a lot more critical of the team’s performance. However, a night’s sleep, combined with the acceptance that the match had been a difficult one for the team from the point of view of motivating yourself and in terms of the amount of “celebrating” that had probably gone on since Saturday means that my criticism will only be of the mild type.

Nevertheless, you would expect a set of match stats (as provided by the BBC) which shows one team having 81% of the ball and enjoying a 32-1 advantage in terms of efforts on goal (the one attempt from the other team flew hopelessly high and wide) to have ended up winning by a lot more than 2-0.

That impression is reinforced by the fact that pointless Andorra apart, we were, comfortably, the lowest scorers  in our group – averaging only 1.1 goals per game with our five home matches producing just the five goals.

Chris Coleman made a valid point when he said that the last two sides to come to Cardiff City Stadium have done so with a game plan solely designed to keep Wales out. Wales aren’t too used to being the team which has to force matters by trying to open up a massed  defence, but, while the approach play could have been better at times, it was the finishing department that they most struggled in last night.

There weren’t that many chances missed against Israel because there weren’t many of them created, but thirty two goal attempts suggests that, against a much weaker Andorra team, the problem wasn’t providing shooting or heading opportunities, more putting them into the net.

Twenty one of those goal attempts were off target with the technique being sometimes shown by players from whom you’d expect a lot better (e.g. Jonny Williams, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey) badly lacking, while I’m afraid Sam Vokes, given his first start in the qualifying campaign, proved to be something of a blunt instrument up front.

In many ways, the first goal five minutes into the second half summed things up – Bale picked out a great cross which left captain Ashley Williams with a headed opportunity he should have buried for a deserved goal after his fine qualifying campaign. Instead Williams put his effort too close to keeper Pol who probably should have done better than divert the ball to Ramsey who scored from about five yards out.

The positive to emerge from Williams’ miss was that it provided a much needed first goal of the season for Ramsey that will, hopefully, help him start to show the quality finishing he has proven himself capable of showing on a regular basis.

Certainly, Ramsey, after a so,so first half showing, seemed to gain confidence from his goal and I thought he went on to give a man of the match showing. While Bale, Jonny Williams and second half sub and debutante Tom Lawrence had their moments in this department, it was Ramsey who provided the most telling runs with the ball (one of them past four opponents before shooting a whisker wide was the individual highlight of the match) when Wales looked to take more direct action than the square passes across Andorra’s two banks of five (as it was for much of the time) designed to try and work a space for someone.

Very often that someone who was in space was one of our full backs (Wales reverted to four at the back last night). On the left that meant Ben Davies who was able to enjoy some success on the attacking front as he created the second goal for Bale late on, but, on the right, this meant it was Chris Gunter who was the outlet.

Now, Gunter is my nominee for Welsh player of this qualifying campaign – he has consistently been superb in his defending and has looked like a seasoned veteran when asked to play out of position in central defence. However, the sort of positions he often found himself in on the attacking front last night  tend to showcase his limitations and I believe that, against opponents as defensively minded as Israel and Andorra, Jazz Richards or one of Wales’ forgotten men, Adam Matthews, would be a better option at right back.

Results and finishing position have shown this Wales side to be the best we’ve had for at least a decade and with them having scored less than a goal a game in the previous three qualifying phases, there has been a marginal improvement in terms of our goal power, but, with a defensive record which was only bettered by Romania, England and Spain, it’s obvious where their strengths lie.

The best Welsh striker I’ve seen is Ian Rush and watching him being interviewed after the game, I couldn’t help but think what a huge difference he’d make to this Welsh squad. As I say, Rush is the best, but there are many more Welsh strikers from the past half a century I I can think of who would significantly improve the goalscoring potential of this team.

It’s such a shame that we don’t seem to have a real quality front man in the twenty plus age bracket and, with no one really standing out as a goalscorer in the Under 21s, I suppose that, short of finding a prolific marksman somewhere with an obscure Welsh connection, the best hope we have is that there will be someone in the current 15-17 age group who might make things look a lot rosier on the striker front in the next two or three years.

Until then, the best way for Wales to achieve something next summer (for me, that would mean qualifying for the knockout stages) would appear to be sticking to what we’re good at, while looking for attacking “tweaks” that would ensure we can at least maintain our current scoring record – as I mentioned after Saturday’s match, a confident Aaron Ramsey in good goalscoring form would make a big difference and I believe one or both of our attacking Williams’ (Jonny or George) have the capability of making an impact in France if the force is with them.

*pictures courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/joncandy/albums/with/72157659818566905

 

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5 Responses to A night I was beginning to think I’d never witness.

  1. Dai Woosnam says:

    Paul,
    Thanks as ever for a gloriously full report. You captured the celebratory mood of the evening, very well indeed.
    A night we pinch ourselves over. We are drunk on our euphoria.
    An almost unreal evening.
    But now, please allow me to be my usual miserable self here, and awake from the hangover to attempt to be a sobering Force of Reality on the matter of the Welsh soccer team.
    Trust me, 1958 had it just about right. The Wales team in Sweden was given maximum publicity (given the obviously diminished Publicity Machine of the day). Alas, by contrast, the team of today have been subject to a massively OTT media love-in, ever since the current EURO 16 qualifying group commenced.
    And that strikes me to be almost as bad as no publicity at all.
    We have lost our collective marbles here.
    Look, last night we played a team from a country with a population smaller than that of Newport! Or let me put it this way…if we wanted to put the population of Swansea into Andorra, we would need…
    (wait for it!!!)…
    …no fewer than THREE Andorras !!
    And frankly, we struggled against these (mainly) part-timers.
    What is the problem?
    Well, one stat screams out at us…
    Ten qualifying matches and just ELEVEN goals scored.
    Yet we really had only two REAL teams to play…and in 4 games against them, we scored just a solitary goal.
    And it is all down to the style of play, alas.
    And the buck stops at Cookie’s door.
    Clearly Cookie is a good man. An ideal next door neighbour.
    But an – at best – totally unproven manager.
    Give him his due though, he does credit Gary Speed.
    And I salute him for that.
    But alas, nobody is crediting one vital manager here. For instance I heard Ray Parlour today say “remember it all started with Gary Speed”!!

    Did it ffffffff…
    …ffff-flipping heck?!

    …(wait 5 minutes please Paul, for me to calm down!)

    [Five minutes later]…

    No, Ray Parlour, and all you other benighted dummies…it started with the greatest Welsh born manager of my lifetime.

    John Toshack.

    He gave so many of these players their chance in the pyramid.
    And he had to overcome on arrival the retirement of several key players and a concerted badmouthing campaign from Mark Hughes’s North Walian buddies.

    Robbie Savage should hang his head in shame for the way he put the knife to Canton’s greatest ever footballing product.

    Kindest,
    Dai.

  2. The other Bob Wilson says:

    Hello Dai. I’m in agreement with much of what you write – our lack of goals is a problem that, for me, doesn’t seem to have an easy solution to it. This is where it appear we differ – I don’t think it’s something that can be simply put at the manager’s door. In my view, there are a few reasons why we don’t score enough goals, but, essentially, it’s down to our strikers being, by a distance, the weakest part of our team.
    Now, there are various things you can do in terms of tactics, selection and formation which may improve the situation slightly, but, until a Wales qualified striker comes along who is good enough to, say, be a regular selection in a Premier League team every week, we can only apply what I called tweaks rather than make an adjustment which would transform us into a more free scoring side capable of matching the results we’ve picked up over the past thirteen months – the only Welsh qualified striker I can think of who may have improved matters for us is incarcerated at the moment.
    I think you are being harsh in terms of the media reaction to Wales qualifying – unlike me, you are old enough to remember what 1958 was like, but this is first time in my lifetime experience for most Welsh people and I believe the reaction is generally a genuine, heartfelt one, rather than just media hype.
    Finally, I’m with you in that I can’t think of a better Welsh born manager than John Toshack and agree that his championing of the likes of Ledley, Gunter and Hennessey ensured that, besides the players who capture the most headlines, we also have a base of experienced internationals with around 50 caps each. I’d act as Devil’s Advocate a little though to say that the spirit in the Welsh camp was never great under Tosh and, although I certainly wouldn’t put all of the blame for that on his shoulders, it was an era where the team Wales could have picked and the one which actually took the pitch often varied considerably. This takes me back to our current manager. It’s easy to say that team spirit is brilliant when you’ve just qualified for a major tournament, but the squad has always been prepared to really battle for the cause under Coleman in a way they often didn’t under Toshack (there have always been far fewer “cry offs” from squads under Coleman) – I think you underestimate Chris Coleman, I’m sure Fulham fans would love to see their team doing as well now as they used to when he was in charge and, in terms of motivation at least, I rate him very highly.

  3. Richard Holt says:

    Great piece Paul and very interesting comments. I too am too young to remember 1958 but I do feel the achievements of the 1976 Wales team have been massively overlooked amidst the recent understandable euphoria. Ok the format was different in those days with no ‘big’ tournament at the end although I can still remember watching the Czechoslovakia / West Germany final. There were also less countries in Europe then but nevertheless 32 nations entered the competition and we reached the last 8 putting us in the top 25%. Qualifying now has put us in the last 24 of 54 nations -top 45% or so. Even if we make the last 16 then we’ll still only be in the top 30% or so. The last 8 this time would certainly surpass the ‘76 team’s achievements.
    Of course it’s great that we’ll be there next year after decades of what at times seemed a hopeless ambition.

  4. The other Bob Wilson says:

    Nice to hear from you again Richard. You may have seen me fighting the 1976 team’s corner from time to time on the messageboard, so I’m with you, but it seemed like a losing cause at the time and now that the stat about not qualifying since 1958 has died a death, I believe our squad from thirty nine years ago will become even more forgotten. The win I remember most by that team was when they went to Budapest (Hungary hadn’t lost in the Nep Stadium for about 2,000 years at the time) and won 2-1 with John Mahoney (who I used to think was a tremendous player) scoring the winner with a lovely little dink over the keeper to finish off a superb move – Mike Smith may have been a bit of a disaster in his second spell in charge, but he did a great job in his first.

  5. Dai Woosnam says:

    Richard’s words remind me of the events of 1976.
    I had just met my Mexican girlfriend, the now alas “late” Socorro Reyes. She was teaching Spanish for a year, in Porth Comp.
    I took her to the Yugoslavia game.
    “Never again” were her words after we had survived that cauldron of hate…all directed at the East German ref.
    And then 17 years later, I took my wife Larissa to see her first Welsh international…that fateful encounter with Romania.
    The distress flare was fired from 30 yards to our left.
    We saw it hit that retired postman from Merthyr seated in the Grand Stand.
    And on our way home, as we drove up Nantgarw Hill to our then home in Caerphilly, we heard on Radio 5 Live…
    “A spectator has been killed at tonight’s match in Cardiff.”

    …I nearly drove off the road in shock.

    …And Larissa also said “never again”, and 22 years later, she has kept her word.
    Kindest,
    Dai.

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