How good are Wales without Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey?
On the evidence of their recent Euros preparation matches against Northern Ireland and Ukraine, a lot more ordinary than with them.
These were certainly not performances of the calibre of that which beat current world number two side Belgium last season with Bale and Ramsey in the side. And not ones which are likely to have Euros opponents Russia, Slovakia and England quaking in their boots. The hopes of Wales fans and the fears of their Euro 2016 opponents largely revolve around Bale and Ramsey and their attitudes to these games will largely be governed by whether they are both fit, well and present for action. According to the BBC after the Northern Ireland game, “a Wales side without them,” produced “a willing – but somewhat blunt – performance which exposed their lack of strength in depth at times.” It was ever thus for the smaller international teams.
In the past thirty years, Wales have been able to call upon the stellar talents of Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Neville Southall, Kevin Ratcliffe, Dean Saunders, Ryan Giggs, Simon Davies, Craig Bellamy, Gary Speed, and John Hartson. It is quite amazing that a country as small as Wales; with a relatively recent professional league and a long time battle with Rugby for the position as the country’s most popular sport, has been able to produce as many modern world class talents. Scotland, for one national side, would have been very happy to have been able to pick any of these players.
However, the problem is that they have never had sufficient strength in depth. Good players – yes; good team – maybe; good squad – hardly ever. When it comes to compensating for injury, lack of form, or intransigent clubs releasing players, this is an absolute must for international football success.
An exception is the squad that could and probably should have qualified for the world cup in Spain in 1982. This is largely a forgotten group, perhaps because they didn’t really play together that often and because, of course, failure tends to be conveniently forgotten. Only at the end of this qualifying campaign and in a couple of tune up games for the finals themselves - tune ups for the teams that had qualified, not for Wales of course - did this team start to come together, but by the time the next tournament started, some were already gone, others on their way out and so a moment was lost.
Consider this group then – Dai Davies challenged in goal by an emerging Neville Southall; a defence with the experience of Joey Jones and Leighton Philips now joined by the fast and intelligent Kevin Ratcliffe, and combative Peter Nicholas. In midfield and up front are where things really get interesting though. The combination of Terry Yorath’s tough tackling leadership and Brian Flynn’s skilful prompting was the basis for Welsh progress in the late 70’s and early 80’s. They could count on John Mahoney to share creative responsibilities, and Robbie James to supply graft and craft. On the wings there was an embarrassment of riches with the devastating Leighton James and irrepressible Mickey Thomas. These are two of the greatest wingers Wales has ever produced and they were instrumental in the 4 - 1 destruction of England in their Home Championship encounter at Swansea in 1980. They were joined by Carl Harris, another terrific winger and one who had blistering pace. Up front Ian Walsh led the line and late bloomer Gordon Davies had latterly come into the squad. The gifted Alan Curtis played between midfield and attack and Ian Rush was coming off the back of a debut season at Liverpool where he had just scored 30 goals. There were also David Giles, Jeremy Charles, Chris Marustik, Paul Price, Byron Stevenson – all decent top division players during a high watermark period for welsh club football. These players would have made Spain ’82 a time for the best Wales squad in living memory, but it never happened....
Well there were of course a number of missteps and poor decisions along the way. Captain Yorath, so influential in the side, moved to Canada to play in the NASL and was subsequently dropped, never to play for his country again, reportedly because the Welsh FA didn’t want to pay his air fare for games. Mickey Thomas, his life beginning to fall into the chaos that would see him jailed in later years, simply failed to turn up for at least one squad get together. Home games at club stadiums were generally played out in a fractious atmosphere generated by fans of rival welsh teams and provided little in the way of support for the national team.
But the main reason was the home game against Iceland in October 1981. As a paradigm example of the disasters that have effected welsh international football over the years, from Joe Jordan’s hand to Yegor Titov’s failed drug test, and Wales’ consequent failure to qualify for a single international tournament between 1958 and 2016, this game can’t be beaten. Mike England, the manager, remarked subsequently, “Our match with Iceland at Swansea will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
It was played at the Vetch Field, Swansea on the 14th of October, 1981 and up to this point Wales’ campaign could hardly have gone better. Comfortable away victories to Turkey and Iceland had pushed them to the top of their qualifying group in the early stages. A narrow home victory against Czechoslovakia had nudged them in front of their biggest rivals for second place as it was widely accepted that a powerful USSR team would ultimately win the group. However, a frustrating goalless home draw against the Soviets showed just how much Welsh expectation had grown. This game was followed by a decent break for Wales when the Czechoslovakian team could only draw away to Iceland. This meant that a home victory against the team that they had already beaten 4 – 0 away from home would go a long way towards ensuring welsh qualification for World Cup ‘82. On a black evening at the Vetch Field gloom seemed to envelop the ground, even as expectations remained high. Possibly there were already problems with the floodlights but they weren’t sufficient to delay the start. There would be more of them later.
If there was no Yorath in the Welsh side to drive them on then there was the vastly experienced Leighton James captaining the team and, if Brian Flynn could only make the bench on this occasion, then John Mahoney was there to apply touch and vision from midfield. The tireless Robbie James had a terrific game, constantly urging on the attack, switching play from side to side. He put Wales ahead on the 25th minute when he curled a shot into the corner of the goal, even as he fell from a defender’s challenge; and Ian Walsh could have stretched that lead with a relatively easy chance from the edge of the six yard box, only minutes later. At this point it was all Wales with wave after wave of attacks raining down on the Icelandic goal. Both Robbie and Leighton James had further chances as did Ian Walsh. The Icelanders had barely managed to make it out of their own half. Yet they were always combative and defended resolutely.
It’s possible that Wales thought this game would be simpler than it turned out to be. They had brushed the Icelandic team aside in Reykjavik, emerging with a four - nil victory the previous December, but part of their spirited commitment to attack was down to the resources available – though Mike England had several excellent defenders such as Joey Jones and the young Keven Ratcliffe, there were undeniably less options at the back than in midfield and upfront. Coupled with his own positive footballing philosophy, developed during his time spent playing in the North American Soccer League, in effect this meant getting the ball forward as quickly as possible and especially giving it to his exciting wingers. However, Iceland were in the midst of putting together a decent run. They had recently beaten Turkey and drawn with Czechoslovakia and would draw with England too before the season was done. And you could see why in this game. They were tenacious and never seemed beaten.
Just when things looked as if they would drift to a decent if not comfortable lead at half time, the lights went out for Wales. Quite literally.
One corner of the ground had already lost power and the referee, Anders Mattson of Finland, decided to continue, but when a second corner went dark he didn’t have much choice except to take the players off. 48 minutes later the teams played out the last ninety seconds of the first half before switching ends and starting the second, but Wales’ momentum had gone. Almost immediately they conceded a sloppy equaliser with both Jeremy Charles and goalkeeper Davies ponderous when defending a cross ball that was turned home at close range by Sigurvinsson and though Curtis put the welsh back in front with a header from a corner seven minutes later, within another seven Iceland were level again. As the Welsh pressed, Sigurvinsson scored the second Iceland goal, lashing home a close drive into the roof of the net when given too much time in the box. Thereafter Wales found it difficult to pick up their game and the Icelandic goal was not unduly threatened before the final whistle. Even the addition of goal machine Ian Rush, enjoying a riot of a first full season with Liverpool, did nothing to change the final result or alleviate the disappointment felt by the Welsh public.
It was not all over of course but the bubble of Welsh optimism had been burst. A month later they went to Tbilisi in Georgia, home ground to most of the excellent soviet team they faced. They were routed 3 – 0. One last straw remained – that the soviets would do the same to Czechoslovakia in their final game of the group; one in which they needed just one point to clinch their world cup place. Perhaps predictably, the game finished 1 – 1. In those cold war days of Warsaw Pact solidarity, the result certainly came as no surprise to Mike England. “I knew it would be a draw,” he remarked. In the next few months, Rush established himself in the side, scoring the winner against the great 80’s French side in Paris; Southall displaced Dai Davies in goal and started an international career littered with world class performances; Ratcliffe continued to gain experience and confidence in a welsh rear guard for which he became the mainstay. All three would surely have played in Spain and might even have turned a good side into a great one. We will never know.
Yorath never returned to the side; Leighton James only played a handful more international games, Carl Harris and John Mahoney saw their international careers wind down. For a small country at international level, it really is about getting all your ducks in a row. Maybe that will happen this summer when Wales take their place at an international finals tournament for the first time in 58 years with genuine world stars Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey in their ranks. Their showpiece game will come on June 16th in Lens when Wales play England in their second group game, the first time these old enemies will have been matched in a finals tournament.
But consider this. Had the lights not gone down on Welsh hopes that night in Swansea, 35 years ago, then Wales, not Czechoslovakia, would have gone to the 1982 World Cup Finals, and who played England in their second group game of that tournament? Czechoslovakia. England won that one in fairly straightforward fashion, 2 – 0, but, with that 4 -1 Welsh drubbing from two summers’ before still in their minds, who would have bet against the men in red repeating the feat?