Wales continue revival with hasten Speed

As England did their best to betray any optimism that may have occurred to any fan before, or that may have come flooding in with a delightfully efficient first 40 minutes in Podgorica before the self-destruct button was so wilfully pressed, it was easy to miss the other game in group G, that of Switzerland’s visit to Wales with the away team still in contention for the runners-up spot, aiming to set-up an effective play off with Montenegro who were busy erasing any hopes that Fabio Capello has a team correctly equipped for Euro 2012. Through all the concerns and worries of the same old vulnerably naive England, they got there in the end, and so did Montenegro, confirmed as group runners-up and entrants into the play-offs.

That was courtesy of events in Cardiff where Switzerland succumbed to an ever improving Wales team, marshalled by Gary Speed into a new era that is promising such a lot upon the culmination of this qualifying process. Speed has come too late to make a difference to any lingering hopes of going to Poland and Ukraine, but he has salvaged enough time to steer the Welsh into much calmer waters after being rock bottom of group G with no goals scored at the time of his appointment.

Certified as Wales manager in December of last year, he had to wait two months until his first fixture, a 3-0 loss to the Republic of Ireland in the AVIVA tournament suggested a lot of work to be done, as did his first competitive game, the visit of England to Cardiff in which Capello’s team leeched onto woeful disorganisation with two goals from Darren Bent. An up-hill task beckoned for Speed, to breathe fresh life into a side with no confidence that went on to be disposed of by Scotland in Dublin and then lose a deflating friendly to Australia in Cardiff. Speed’s first win, the 2-0 success over Northern Ireland in the final game of the Nations tournament in Ireland sandwiched those two defeats, but there were no obvious signs that Speed was the correct man to turn fortunes around.

Regardless of his status as Wales’ most capped outfield player in history, it was a slightly odd choice given his lack of experience in a managerial job, he had only taken charge of 18 matches in a very short stint at Sheffield United in which he only managed six wins, leaving the Blades stranded down in 20th position in League One at the time of his departure for the Wales post. To appoint Speed would have been to appoint a novice who was failing his maiden job by some margin, yet the Welsh FA saw enough in his promise to take a justified gamble. Speed did have considerable pedigree in terms of experience, having made a mammoth 535 appearances in the Premier League and his relatively youthful age of 41 installed him as the choice with the Welsh FA to succeed John Toshack.

His first act as National team coach was to restore pride in playing for the team, before the game with Ireland, Speed spoke of a “Welsh Way”, in that international breaks were designed to be fun in a suggestion they had become more of a chore under the guidance of Toshack, who only managed ten wins out of 29 competitive games in charge in a six-year reign. Toshack had to deal with issues surrounding the squad including the horrific loss of the services of Aaron Ramsey for seven months after his injury at Stoke. Pundits had been outspoken of Toshack, most notably Iwan Roberts and Robbie Savage, the latter taking a sabbatical from national commitments after his fall-out with Toshack in 2005. Savage was rumoured to be a surprise member of Speed’s team for the new era, but was overlooked as Speed favoured the youthful route that Toshack, to his credit, left in legacy of turning to a batch of exciting under-21 graduates such as Lewin Nyatanga and Chris Gunter. Speed was quick to put an emphasis on passion and hard-work, an elaboration on Craig Bellamy’s words that Welsh citizens were naturally laborious and the national team should reflect it. Instructions for the learning of the National anthem were strictly laid down and a togetherness bounded by pride and ambition forged a bright new era.

The relocations to Cardiff City’s Community stadium and Swansea’s Liberty have also helped causes, criticised for a lack of atmosphere in the Toshack era, the Millennium stadium was often detriment to the team with pockets of supporters spread around a vast area, it was almost impossible to create any kind of sound and it was too easy for visiting teams. The last regular game held there, a 3-1 defeat to Russia in 2009, attracted 14,505, a tiny amount in proportion to the 74,500 when full capacity. Moving to more intimate surroundings has seen noise levels improve and the team improve because of a more vocal support, which Montenegro and Switzerland have discovered.

By looking at the players Speed has chosen, it is easy to see dynamic of the team has changed to a younger, increasingly vibrant nature and it is Ramsey’s elevation to the captaincy at the age of 20 that epitomises the faith in youth that has been integral to Speed’s reign so far. His usual midfield partner, Celtic’s Joe Ledley, has earned forty caps despite only being 24 years of age, that these players are being ingrained in the national team from such a young age can only mean benefit for the long-term. In the latest squad, only two players were over the age of 30, defender Danny Collins and the effervescent Bellamy who is embarking on a return to the top level with Liverpool. This is in contrast to the 6 players in excess of 30 named in John Toshack’s final squad as new energy has been installed into the side. 17 year old Jonathon Williams of Crystal Palace was even called up alongside Adam Matthews of Celtic, who is only 19.

A month after the defeat to Australia, Wales managed to defeat Montenegro, something not replicated by England in group G, with a 2-1 win in Cardiff that saw a much needed boost for morale. Defeat to the same opposition had sounded the death knell for Toshack’s reign but this had a buoying affect for Speed, such an unexpected victory gave a base on which to build the future. Four days later, a very impressive performance was served up at Wembley in which Wales, spearheaded by the excellent Ramsey, deserved to come away with much more than a narrow 1-0 defeat, Robert Earnshaw’s dreadful miss costing them a famous, but just result. Despite the disappointment of the score-line, they had fired out major warning signs that they were indeed a better team, more fearless and comfortable with the ball, an unrecognisable improvement on the startlingly poor side England had encountered six months previous.

Then another highlight has followed with victory over Switzerland in their penultimate group game, a 2-0 win in the Liberty Stadium of Swansea which ended Swiss hopes of qualification. Hindered by the 55th minute sending off of Reto Ziegler, the visitors succumbed to an Aaron Ramsey penalty five minutes after the red card and then Gareth Bale struck with 19 minutes left, coolly finishing off a finely threaded through ball from Steve Morison. With it came Switzerland’s elimination and further feeling that Wales are journeying an uphill tangent. Gary Speed has restored fresh avidity to a team that was in fear of sinking so low into stagnation and a bright future awaits him and his promising generation of absorbing talent. A trip to Sofia awaits for the final stop of this qualifying process that may lean to the side of the hypothetical “what might have been”, yet Speed will see it as the latest marker en route to a crack at qualification for Brazil in 2014, and this new “Welsh way” promises to bring them more prepared than ever before.

Adam Gray @MonkeyLunch21



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