One of the weaknesses of the Welsh football supporter is that they too easily allow hope to morph into expectation. We really had no right to expect to beat England, and recent form should have warned us that we wouldn’t even be able to compete. Yet somehow, we still go into games hoping that this will be the one. Things may have changed. We don’t even ask for much – we have become numbed by the mind-blowing awfulness of our national side and now limit our ambitions to seeing a team that plays with purpose and enthusiasm. Craig Bellamy promised that we would see a “different Wales”. Sadly, yesterday I saw nothing that I hadn’t seen under the management of John Toshack.
Let’s start with the venue, and the atmosphere which were cited as crucial elements if Wales were to produce a shock result. But any discussion has to be undertaken on the appreciation that one single rule defines venue choice for Wales’ national games. There are no ifs and buts, there is one unpalatable truth.
Welsh Football (i.e. the FAW) relies on income from international fixtures to survive.
It is this single factor that has caused us to concede our advantage in decisive fixtures throughout our history. From the times we played at home in Crewe and Shrewsbury in the 19th century, through Anfield in 1977 and 1999, to the choice of Ninian Park as a home venue in the 1980s when we had been unbeaten in Wrexham for a decade. Opinions and wishes of managers, players and fans count for nothing when the whole future of the FAW is at risk.
So this is why Wales conceded much of the home advantage yesterday by moving away from a smaller stadium packed with committed fans. This is why a wide-eyed Aaron Ramsey led his team out for a pre-match stroll in their sharp suits as if they were playing at a Wembley final. Even in the tunnel John Terry was at home – he’s probably played at the Millennium a few more times than the Welsh captain. Ramsey looked about nervously hoping to catch his eye for a wink and a handshake, but Terry stared straight ahead offering no succour. One-nil to England. Once they took the field, Wales passed the ball around as if they’d never played on that pitch – passes were short in the long grass, or overhit across the touchline. Welsh players slipped up and looked unsteady on their feet. Had they even practised on the Millennium Surface?
The choice of Aaron Ramsey as captain was wrong in so many ways. My favourite player has not been in great form – he was influential at Cardiff and Forest in the Championship, but nothing like as controlled in his play as he had been in 2009/10. He is still finding his feet and has only made one start in the past few weeks. He could really have done without this added pressure in a tough home game against the group favourites. Ramsey’s limp handshake with a steely-eyed John Terry set the tone of the first half. Wales’ international progress has been set back at least a year since that awful bloody tackle. Ryan Shawcross can be satisfied with his contribution to England’s result yesterday.
I do understand the thinking behind Speed’s decision. The team needs to be built around Ramsey and capataincy provides a strong incentive for him to turn up to every game. The move also gives the lad a boost after a tough time, and he will be a brilliant captain for Wales within the next few years so why not make that statement now? Well fine, if you are looking at the long-term but Speed was effectively sacrificing yesterday’s game with the future in mind. But Christ, how long are we going to play for the future? We’ve had a decade of selecting teams for the future ? What about NOW?
That first half of football yesterday was as bad as I’ve seen. Yes there were mitigating factors like Collins’ unfortunate slip, but even if he hadn’t fallen, the pass was going straight to Bent who was blissfully alone in our area. From a goal down Wales disintegrated. I’m no defensive coach, but there was something dreadfully amiss with the left hand side of that back four. How could England play 70 yard passes into that attacking right hand channel while Williams and Danny Collins watched play develop? How could Ashley Young disappear from Danny Collins radar to be allowed perfect freedom for England’s second (and again later)?
We’ve known for a long time that the first step to Welsh solidity is the elimination of free goals to the opposition. Without stupid elementary mistakes from the two Collinses yesterday, would we have drawn that game 0-0? Doubtful, because England were so far superior, but it would have been nice to find out. So if we agree that goals like those yesterday have to be eliminated, then why are we insisting on such a high risk defensive passing game in our own area? Speed and Verheijen both praised the players’ bravery in sticking to the game plan. I call it stupidity.
I’m not sure who Gary Speed thinks that he has playing in defence – Beckenbauer? Maldini? The people that he is asking to play football in that dangerous area are James Collins – with a long history of calamity in the national side – Danny Collins – a lump of a centre half from a long-ball team – Chris Gunter, a Championship full back fresh from a blunder in his previous game, currently playing for a team who can’t buy a win, and Ashley Williams who scored a beautiful own goal, attempting a similar passing strategy at Derby a fortnight ago. Gary Speed may have an admirable philosophy, but he is playing with fire, and suffering heavy burns.
When that back four finish playing triangles in their own six yard box, they look for Ramsey, who has had plenty of time to drop deep from his position behind Morison to come and get the ball. Invariably he was followed closely by Wiltshire and Parker, and always received the ball facing his own goal in his own half with England’s midfield snapping at his heels. Add this to the responsibility he must feel as Wales’ fulcrum and it’s easy to see why he had such a woeful first half.
I felt sorry for Craig Bellamy. He admitted before the game that he has sometimes been embarrassed by Welsh performances, and for half an hour yesterday it looked like he was the only player who was making the defensive effort that underdogs require. Ledley tried too, but his touch was poor, and Andrew Crofts was sadly outclassed. I really don’t like criticising young Welsh players, but I thought Andy King was cowardly. He hid from the ball, and watched casually as the England midfield played around him, offering Danny Collins no support. He should have been replaced far earlier than he was. England had complete freedom in that midfield – Ledley and Crofts lost every 50/50 with Wilshire and Parker, and I have yet to see Ramsey make a single tackle since his comeback this season. David Vaughan only played 20 minutes and he was man of the man of the match for Wales.
After that stinking first half, Wales improved. This was partly because England were kind and merciful, but also because they started playing long balls to Morison and Bellamy. There is no shame in this. Fans don’t go to watch high minded game-plans, they go to get excited, to watch their team compete. And Morison did well – he held the ball up, he competed and he helped bring Wales back into the game. Bellamy created opportunities from seemingly hopeless situations and even Ramsey started to relax. It’s easier to play football in your opponents half, and if it takes a risk-free 60 yard pass to do that, then fine. When England fall back to defend those balls, it opens up space to allow you to revert to that passing game if you like, but rigid adherence to a single strategy offers no challenge to a high class team.
The shocking Millennium Stadium pitch meant that shots from Bellamy and King went nowhere near goal, and they also reduced Ramsey’s enthusiasm for shooting when in dangerous positions. It saved Wales too by hindering England’s shooting attempts. But think about it – if the pitch is that bad then a long game based on effort and luck against superior opponents is not an option to be ignored. I know there will be many of you reading this who pour scorn on the idea that international football can be played this way, and I’d agree with you in general. But the situation is hopeless. That argument reminds me of the people who laughed at the idea of Danny Gabbidon at left-back. “Have you seen him play for West Ham this season?”, they scoffed. Well yesterday you saw the alternative. And that’s the frustrating thing for me – people just don’t seem to grasp the reality that we have no alternatives to the players they are happy to dismiss as “crap”. We’re simply not very good, and no high concept game plan will change that – all we can do until Ramsey is as good as Stoichkov (five years) is limit our mistakes and hope for a bit of luck. That’s the depressing truth. There is no point blaming the absence of Bale – these things have always happened and always will – England were missing Steven Gerrard. Gary Speed will have to deal with these disappointments regularly, and that’s why a simpler game plan needs to be introduced so that lesser players can fill the boots of Bale and Ramsey when they inevitably miss games.
Sadly Wales’ traditional qualities have been nullified by recent developments in the sport. We achieved some success in the past through bravery, commitment and passion. In reality, that usually meant violence from Terry Yorath and refusal to be intimidated by rough-house Europeans. We stood toe-to-toe and competed physically to level the playing field. Now that football is a non-contact sport, the better footballers have all the advantage. There were five Welsh bookings yesterday as we made more challenges in the second half and we just don’t have the squad to absorb the suspensions that tough tackling will bring against dominant opponents.
We’ve been this bad before. When Mark Hughes’ new team scraped a win over Belarus in 2001, we had gone twelve games without a win. After that game, we went unbeaten for ten, creating a new Welsh record. Gary Speed is in a very similar position to Hughes, and that sort of turnaround is not unimaginable in the future with a team based around Ramsey, Bale and maybe Collison. But Wales need a win. Confidence in players and fans is desperately low and I don’t think a World Cup home game against England in front of 70,000 fans is the time to develop philosophies and to blood twenty year old captains. I hope that I’m proved wrong by history, but in the cold light of a post-match Sunday, it’s tough to be positive.