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Thursday, 14 October 2004

1144: WALES: Tough times ahead for n

by : Alex Wolstenholme

With Mark Hughes in charge of Wales for the last time on Wednesday night, speculation about a successor is rife among fans and media in the Principality.

Welsh bookmakers stopped taking bets on John Toshack last week after a flood of money for the former Real Madrid boss although Toshack is hampered by the fact that he has walked out on the Welsh job before (after one game) and has angered the current group of players with some forthright criticism of their performances and Mark Hughes’s tactics in recent games.

The other major candidates for the job appear to be a `dream team` partnership of Brian Flynn and Gary Speed or current Newcastle number two Dean Saunders.

Whoever does take charge though may find a tough task on their hands to guide Wales to that elusive major championship.

The Mark Hughes era has been slightly over-hyped by some in the media. A famous win over Italy and Hughes’s status as a big-name player has blinded some to a very poor run in recent qualifiers, the throwing away of a very good position in their Euro 2004 group and disappointing performances in big games against Russia and England.

However it cannot be denied that Hughes has restored a sense of pride to the Welsh national side and delivered some very good results. The Italy game aside, Wales have turned in some very professional performances, especially away from home at venues where they would have been humiliated in the past.

But qualification for Germany 2006 looks a distant prospect and the mainstays of the Welsh side are not getting any younger.

Gary Speed, Ryan Giggs and John Hartson are all in their thirties and very unlikely to have another World Cup campaign in them. Paul Jones, Andy Melville and Mark Pembridge are others who won’t be around for much longer.

The Welsh defence meanwhile is very threadbare, as evidenced when the injury to Andy Melville on Saturday forced Mark Delaney to play at centre half and Simon Davies to fill in at right back.

Although there are still some talented players to work with, Wales’s long-term prospects are probably less bright than Scotland’s despite the current woes of Berti Vogt’s side.

Scotland’s structure of professional football combined with the financial restraints it’s clubs are currently practicing and the system of under-21 leagues mean that Scotland will continue to produce a steady stream of players for it’s national mananar to pick from. Even the Old Firm clubs have more Scottish players on their teamsheets today than five years ago.

Despite the efforts of some League of Wales clubs, Wales does not have the same kind of structure and are reliant on the youth systems at Cardiff and Swansea together with the occasional Welsh qualified gem coming through the ranks at a Premiership side.

The cycle of good players that saw Southall, Ratcliffe, Hughes and Rush in the eighties and now Giggs, Davies, Bellamy and Speed in the early part of the 21st century may have to turn again before Wales get their next shot at the big time.

Alex Wolstenholme

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