As we walked triumphantly underneath the Ninian Park railway bridge, I heard the first Scottish accent complaining about the Welsh ‘needing to cheat to win a game’. I laughed involuntarily and uproariously. This was a Scot complaining about us cheating. A Scot! I thought it must be a joke, some playful, intentional irony, but no, she was serious. That exchange put the seal on a perfect evening. If the Scots felt robbed, well good – bloody great! Because their sense of injustice after losing a meaningless bottom-of-the-table dead rubber is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the sickening disappointment that we felt in 1977, and 1985. Friday’s win didn’t even go close to repaying them for those sporting burglaries.
So now that the grass has been combed and the hangover has receded, let’s talk about what happened to give us a victory that was made ever more delicious by it’s rarity. Let’s relive that once-in-a-decade evening when things went right for Wales. We’ve spent years tasting fungi in our fruitless expeditions across the muddy football fields of Europe, poisonously peppered by the occasional destroying angel. But we unexpectedly unearthed a perigord truffle on Friday night, and I can’t resist stirring a few tasty morsels into the thin cawl of Welsh football.
The first thing that went right was the choice of stadium. Cardiff City’s ground was just about full with an official attendance of 23,000, and I would say it was about evenly populated, with maybe 10,000 visitors who had infiltrated all four corners of the arena. The atmosphere was absolutely bouncing because of this genial invasion, and those who complain about the proximity of the whiskey-breaths should relax. What are we saying? That we can’t sit alongside people because they want our opponents to win? This wasn’t England, whose presence would be denying Welsh fans a ticket. This was Scotland, whose benign, if outrageously-drunken support helped create a special night for everybody who experienced it. We even had those under-rated elements which play a part in so many memorable football evenings – there were streams of driving rain, glistening through the rays of powerful sparkling floodlights. The scenario was perfect.
This atmosphere was what the move to more compact stadia was meant to achieve, and though a game like this deserved a full Millennium, the FAW should be given credit for their decision. I was reminded a lot of the match against Belarus in 1999, played in similar circumstances, with a Welsh hardcore which gave encouragement even as we were losing. This time of course, we had the Barry Horns as accompaniment. There is a school of thought that Wales’ cheerleading brass band is an unwanted imposition – an unnecessary infliction upon a traditional football crowd-generated atmosphere. But the truth is that for years now, the Barry Horns have provided the only atmosphere at Wales games, and only miserabilists would complain of their presence.
The match build-up had been peppered with some poisonous sneering from sections of our own people. They would boycott the match while a Swansea man was in charge. Chris Coleman’s patchy career had been rubbished constantly and his abilities demeaned until the impression was created that Arthur Picton had been given the task of managing the world cup favourites. Yes, Wales had been awful under Coleman, but they had also been awful under every other manager, including Gary Speed. The criticism of Coleman might be acceptable if it was based on any of his decisions. If you called him useless, I could respect your view, but if you call him a useless Jack twat, you’re only revealing the prejudice behind your opinion. He has behaved impeccably in a very difficult circumstances. His decisions have been proved right – he made the correct call for the captaincy, and his substitutions on Friday were decisive. At on Friday, we would see what Coleman was all about – he had spent previous games trying to replicate another man’s management. If he was going to fail, at least he would now fail by his own methods.
The tactics were plain to see right from the start, and I was mightily relieved to watch Chris Gunter, and the impressive debutant Ben Davies clear their lines without hesitation. The back-five tiki-taka passing game is great if you have the players for it, but I don’t think Wales have ever looked comfortable playing football on their own six yard line. Coleman’s tactics were simple. Clear your lines, play football when our footballers are in possession, but otherwise play to your players’ relative strengths. Use Bale as often as you can, let Morrison fight for it in the air, and let Vaughan win the ball for Ramsey and Allen to play. It is unsophisticated and unfashionable, but it gives us a chance to compete.
The team was understandably low on confidence, and gave the ball away a lot. But luckily we were facing weak opponents. I think a more technical side would have destroyed us again, but the Scots were leaden, prosaic and unimaginative opponents. And Ramsey and Allen started to control the game. Ramsey in particular demanded possession in attacking areas, and his influence led to a Scottish substitution which successfully targeted his dominance. At times, Ramsey was careless and inaccurate, but he bossed the game. And when Gareth Bale presented the no-longer-bald Steve Morison with a simple chance, Wales should have scored and gone on to a comfortable victory. But he missed, and another elemental defensive failure saw the double-r’ed Morrison score for Scotland. Until we find another centre-half to accompany Williams, this will continue to happen. Darcy Blake gives his all, but I don’t think he would claim to be an international class centre-back. This goal wasn’t particularly his fault, but I think a more influential figure would help organise a flaky defence.
It was an exciting game even if the Swansea and Cardiff supporters are used to watching more accomplished football. But to be critical of the standard is pointless. Those are the players available to Wales and Scotland, and they tried their best. This was committed football from two teams who represented their countries proudly, and it was a pleasure to witness. I thought Wales were denied three or four straightforward penalty claims, though things weren’t so cut and dried on later television viewings. It was suggested to me that Ramsey purposely took a booking to avoid a trip to Croatia, and I don’t think I‘d have complained in hindsight if he’d been sent off for one of two dives in the area.
Gareth Bale’s penalty was well-deserved though, as admitted by Maloney, who fouled him. Bale was stupendous throughout. We’ve had great players before, but not since John Charles has one of them been such an influence on a game. Only one player has come close to this in recent years and he was disappointingly missing; Craig Bellamy’s performance in the 5-2 win over Slovakia in 2007 was outstanding – if he’d have been playing on Friday, we’d have destroyed Scotland on both flanks. And Ryan Giggs constantly failed to match Bale’s commitment and drive, which leads me to call this the greatest individual performance I’ve ever seen from a Welsh player. Even after 80 minutes with a defeat looking likely, I was reasonably content. This is what it’s come too. I was happy enough to see an improvement, even though we were losing.
On another day we would have lost. Scotland’s second would have been justifiably allowed, and Bale’s shot would have travelled a metre wider and hit the post. We would have argued about the merits of the performance and read plenty of bile aimed at our manager. People put themselves in such an entrenched position with their views on the FAW and the manager. Welsh success would prove them wrong, so how can it be enjoyed? This is one of the curious things about football. You can be drawing 1-1 in the 89th minute, and one piece of misfortune, or individual brilliance causes people to completely disregard the previous 88 minutes of play. The final result colours our whole perception of the performance.
Thankfully, the 89th minute of this particular contest belonged to Gareth Bale. No man is an island, and others played their part – Ramsey closed down in midfield and forced the error which allowed Allen to release our talisman to earn a free kick. And then Gareth Bale produced something extraordinary. With three minutes left, he scored the greatest goal that I’ve ever seen live. That one instant released an explosion of joy that I haven’t experienced since Ledley’s FA Cup semi-final winner against Barnsley. I’ll admit that I’d grown disillusioned with the game recently, but my enthusiasm was instantly reignited – I’ll treasure the memory of that unexpected, shocking, beautiful goal sequence for the rest of my life. Nights like this only happen for Wales once in a decade, but when the elements fuse to create such spectacular magic, international football is simply unsurpassed.