Are Wales ready for Euro 2016 success?
“Why the hell can’t we qualify for Euro 2016?”
It’s now over a decade since Wales last threatened to qualify for a major championship. It was back in November when Wales welcomed Russia to Cardiff in the deciding match of the play-offs. Hopes were high after an impressive 0-0 draw at the Lokomotiv Stadium in Moscow, but a Vadim Evseev goal sent the Russians to Portugal and 70,000 Welsh fans home devastated. There was a brief bit of straw-clutching when it was revealed Yegor Titov tested positive for banned stimulant bromantan after the first leg, but it only led to an individual ban for the midfielder rather than the exclusion from the tournament the FAW wanted (the case was based on the idea that Titov should have been ineligible for the second leg due to the positive test, which theoretically is quite sound, but UEFA were always unlikely to overturn the result).
Thus, as a result, a generation of Welsh players missed out on competing at a major championship – some, like Gary Speed, Ryan Giggs and Andy Melville, were missing out for the second time after being part of the near miss in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, while others like Robbie Savage, John Hartson and Jason Koumas lost their only ever serious attempt.
Wales’ record in the decade since has been pretty miserable. In the immediate aftermath, Wales failed to win their next six competitive matches, destroying their bid to qualify for the 2006 World Cup from a very early stage. The disruption of losing manager Mark Hughes in late 2004, who was appointed Blackburn Rovers manager just after Wales had played their first two matches of the campaign and then proceeded to hold both jobs for a further month, was a definite hindrance.
Appointing John Toshack as his replacement was theoretically sound but a disaster in practice – yes, it was a difficult job managing a transition as so many experienced players came towards the end of their careers, but gradual decline became complete collapse. His five-year reign may have seen a win percentage of 42%, but many of these wins were against minnows. Soon Wales became one of them, dropping into the bottom pot behind the Faroe Islands for the 2014 World Cup qualification draw. It was terrible timing as Gary Speed was just turning our fortunes around with a stunning series of results in late 2011, with competitive wins against Montenegro, Switzerland and Bulgaria and a 4-1 friendly win over Norway – by the end of 2011, we were the highest climbers in the FIFA World Rankings over the last year. But the damage had already been done before this, and Wales were drawn to face Belgium, Croatia, Serbia and Scotland, making qualification virtually impossible.
Speed’s tragic death brought a halt to the progress. We lost six of our next seven matches, most of them coming under Chris Coleman. But creeping towards and into 2013, there were signs that all was not lost – two 2-1 wins over Scotland and a friendly win over Austria gave Coleman his first wins in the job, and there would be more positive results with a win over Macedonia in Cardiff and an impressive 1-1 draw with Belgium in Brussels.
It was always going to be a tough group, and it was made much harder in the circumstances. Recovery has taken a while, but it does seem to be coming – clearly progress has been made from the 6-1 thrashing in Serbia in September 2012 to the draw against Belgium, along with a friendly win earlier this year over an up-and-coming Iceland team. Wales’ 2-0 defeat in Amsterdam just over a fortnight ago, a respectable result with a very young and inexperienced side, was our first defeat in five matches. It’s no longer as bleak as it once was, and Coleman has escaped the clouds that followed him only a few months ago.
Unfortunately, Wales’ ranking hadn’t improved enough by the time of the Euro 2016 qualifying draw to escape a tough draw, leaving us in Pot Four. But I am beginning to develop quiet confidence that this is our time to mount a serious challenge of making it to France.
The draw – it’s not all that bad
Wales’ shock late draw against World Cup-bound Belgium has given new hope ahead of their upcoming rematches
Although I cringed at the time I heard the draw, examining the detail of it has actually given me a bit more confidence.
Wales’ campaign will begin in Andorra in September. Though it will be taking place on an artificial playing surface, there’s no reason why we should not win that match – if we don’t get six points from the two matches against Andorra, we don’t deserve to make a major tournament. This is followed in October by the visits of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Cyprus. Both sound intimidating, as Cyprus have a habit of popping up with decent teams once in a while which can disrupt a side like Wales, and Bosnia & Herzegovina did very well in qualification for the 2014 World Cup.
However, there is promise here. Bosnia’s World Cup will end in disappointment, as it was confirmed today that they will not progress into the second round. Coach Safet Susic, who has overseen Bosnia’s rise to prominence, thus may face some criticism. Even if he stays, there is likely to be disruption – captain Emir Spahic turns 34 in August, so will probably quit international duty after this tournament; vice-captain Zvjezdan Misimovic is now 32 and may follow him. This loss of two experienced players will no doubt affect them, although the bulk of the squad will most likely be kept in tact. In any case, this is an ideal time to play them.
As for Cyprus, they haven’t won a game since September 2012 when they beat Iceland at home, and haven’t even scored a goal since February 2013. They are currently ranked 130th in the world by FIFA. As with Andorra, Wales don’t deserve to qualify for a major tournament if they don’t beat them.
After this, Wales travel to Belgium in November, where they picked up a point in World Cup qualification, before possibly the defining tie of this qualification campaign – the trip to Israel in March 2015. Israel were the Pot Three team of the group. Ranked 78th in the world, they have always been there or thereabouts in qualification, never doing enough to qualify but being consistently tricky opponents with enough talented players to occasionally make even the strongest teams sweat.
But they often frustrate themselves as much as their opponents. In their most recent qualification campaign, they picked up draws home and away against Portugal en route to 3rd place in the group with 14 points, after being beaten only by Russia, but they only won three games, the last of which came against Northern Ireland in March 2013, with the other two being comfortable wins over Luxembourg – bear in mind that Azerbaijan were also in their group, and they drew twice with them.
If they continue that form into Euro 2016 qualifying, Wales should be confident of finishing ahead of them and picking up 3rd place. But that does mean they will have to avoid losing to them twice, and probably beating them at least once. The reverse fixture in Cardiff takes place in September 2015, ahead of the visit to Bosnia and the final match at home to Andorra (an ideal final fixture). Not slipping up late on will be key.
Is the squad capable? I believe it is, but it may require some stars to align:
Goalkeepers – perhaps the biggest issue
Wayne Hennessey is now effectively unchallenged as Wales’ number 1
This used to be a strong position for Wales: after the brilliant Neville Southall retired, we had two solid Premier League-level keepers in Paul Jones and Mark Crossley. Even after they moved on, in Wayne Hennessey and Boaz Myhill Wales had found two solid Premier League-level keepers. But in the last couple of years, it has developed into a problem. Hennessey’s stock has dropped considerable of late, the sign of a career disrupted by a serious knee injury and the downward spiral of his former club Wolverhampton Wanderers, but he remains Wales’ number 1 by default. Boaz Myhill’s recent retirement from international duty has left not so much a hole behind him but a great chasm.
The most recent squad demonstrated this. Behind Hennessey were 21-year-old Connor Roberts, recently released by League Two club Cheltenham Town, and 27-year-old Owain fon Williams, recently relegated to League Two with Tranmere Rovers. Others called up include Lewis Price, third-choice keeper behind Julian Speroni and Hennessey at Crystal Palace and recently found out on loan to League Two club Mansfield Town, and uncapped youngsters David Cornell of Swansea and Danny Ward of Liverpool. Jason Brown played in Chris Coleman’s first game in charge against Mexico in 2012, but has plummeted through the leagues since and was last spotted playing for Sutton United of Conference South.
Price and Brown are the only keepers other than Myhill and Hennessey to have been capped by Wales in the last seven calendar years. Myhill’s retirement has thus left a gap behind Hennessey which seems difficult to fill. Pray to God that Hennessey doesn’t get injured again…
Defenders – depth at full-back, short at centre-back
James Chester, capped for the first time against the Netherlands, is a useful addition to the defensive ranks
This area is actually pretty solid now. Reading’s Chris Gunter, with 53 caps to his name despite being only 24, is the preferred option at right-back, with Swansea’s Ashley ‘Jazz’ Richards, Celtic’s Adam Matthews and Blackburn’s Adam Henley as cover. All of these players are under 25 at the moment. At left-back, Swansea’s Neil Taylor and Ben Davies are likely to battle over the spot, with Davies perhaps the best bet for the future. Newcastle’s Paul Dummett and Cardiff teenager Declan John serve as further cover.
The centre-back position isn’t quite as secure, though it has improved with the addition of Hull City’s James Chester, who committed to Wales this year (he is eligible through his mother being born in Rhyl) and received his first cap against the Netherlands. Captain Ashley Williams is almost guaranteed his spot, and turns 30 this summer. The other natural option would be James Collins, who turns 31 this summer (he shares Williams’ birthday), but his relationship with Chris Coleman is frosty at best and it is unclear if he has much of a future with Wales. Danny Gabbidon, who will soon be 35, is surely not far from retirement, but remains available. Barnsley’s Lewin Nyatanga, who has surprisingly accumulated 34 caps already, was also called up in the most recent friendly. The versatile Sam Ricketts enjoyed a good season at Wolves, albeit in League One, but he will soon hit 33.
Other than that, though, it’s slim pickings, and it is a problem as it’s an important position, which explains why Chester has been brought in. It is a shame that Ryan Shawcross has resisted the advances of the FAW, as he is technically still eligible to play for Wales because his only England cap came in a friendly. But having said that, I’m not sure Aaron Ramsey would be overly impressed with his inclusion…
Midfielders – experience and promise
Aaron Ramsey may no longer be captain but he’s a vital player in midfield
Centre-midfield is another position where Wales do actually have considerable depth. It goes without saying that Aaron Ramsey is top of the list at the moment, with the Arsenal midfielder in sparkling form last season. But there are numerous options for sitting alongside him.
At 27, Crystal Palace’s Joe Ledley remains an important player and will be for some time to come, as will Liverpool’s Joe Allen, now 24. Leicester’s Andy King will arrive in the Premier League next season at 25, while free agent Jack Collison is amazingly the same age and serves as a useful utility player. David Vaughan has one more campaign in him at 31. There are also promising youngsters coming through. Palace’s much-vaunted prospect Jon Williams, now 20, can play through the middle and out wide, while Manchester City’s Emyr Huws demonstrated his promise at Birmingham last season.
If there is one gap, it is in the lack of a true ball-winning midfielder, which may explain why Owain Tudur Jones surprisingly returned to the squad for the Netherlands friendly despite being relegated with Hibernian this season.
The wings will always be associated with one Mr Bale, but there are other useful options despite Craig Bellamy’s recent retirement. Aside from the likes of Ramsey, Vaughan, Ledley, John and Jon Williams who can all play out wide, there is also Hal Robson-Kanu of Reading, who is still only 25. Promising youngsters Harry Wilson, Lloyd Isgrove and George Williams have been called up to the senior squad, with Fulham teenager Williams impressing in his first appearance against the Netherlands. Doncaster’s David Cotterill remains on the fringes of the squad.
Forwards – still a problem, but not a crisis
Prior to his serious knee injury, Sam Vokes looked to be Wales’ lead striker going forward
The issue of the striking position has been eased somewhat of late. Until a year or two ago, it looked like being a real problem – a position filled by the likes of Ian Rush, Dean Saunders, Mark Hughes, Craig Bellamy and John Hartson in the last 20 years had become a dead-end. For a while, target man Steve Morison seemed to have the place nailed down, but his formed collapsed dramatically and he has scored only eight league goals in the last two seasons. Craig Davies has been similarly disappointing in recent seasons, dropping into League One on loan at Preston by the end of last season.
Even though we’re still at a stage where Jermaine Easter is playing for Wales (God knows why), there is a saviour – or at least there was. Sam Vokes finally delivered on his promise last season with 20 league goals for Burnley, form that seemed to suggest he was the man for Wales’ number 9 shirt for the foreseeable future. His torn ACL in March was a cruel blow, though, and he will miss the opening qualifiers.
Charlton’s Simon Church thus started against the Netherlands, with Easter also featuring, but both are very mediocre players. 20-year-old Manchester United prospect Tom Lawrence was also called up, but he is one for the future. Surely the answer is therefore to play Gareth Bale as the central “striker” – there is no point messing around with average strikers when Bale has proved he can play through the middle and Wales have more depth on the flanks which they could also utilise.
“Bring it on”
While it would be optimistic to suggest that automatic qualification for Euro 2016 is within our reach, Wales can certainly aim for a third place finish in Group B, which would guarantee at least a play-off tie. Aside from the formidable Belgian side, there is no team in the group that Wales should fear – even the Bosnians are beatable. Take twelve points from the Andorra and Cyprus games, at least two from the matches with Israel, and another one or two from the home ties against Bosnia and Belgium, and that may be enough to secure 3rd. The talent is within the squad to be able to do this.
But there are two obvious caveats. One is the fitness of key players. Hennessey, Ramsey, Bale and Vokes have all spent periods injured in the last year or so, and the lack of depth behind them leaves a massive void. With them out of the side, Wales drop from being an average European side capable of beating above-average teams to being a below-average side unlikely to trouble most teams. For Wales to do well, they have to hope that Bale and Ramsey stay fit and motivated, Hennessey edges back towards his old self, and Vokes recovers from his injury quickly and immediately picks up his form again.
The other caveat hangs over the head of the manager. When Tony Pulis was available last year and Wales were still stumbling to mediocre results, there was a strong case to dismiss Coleman. Pulis would still be an enormous step up in quality due to his organisational skills, something that would likely make him a very good international manager, and he has dropped hints that he would like the job. Certainly with him in charge I’d fancy us to make Euro 2016. But he is now engaged with a project at Crystal Palace. Coleman, meanwhile, was able to safeguard his job and recover his reputation somewhat with some improved results at the end of 2013 and the start of 2014 – as a result, we’re now up to 41st in the FIFA Rankings, which is actually pretty solid and a far cry from the depths of August 2011, where we were as low as 117th. But questions will always hang over him due to the poor start to his tenure.
As in 2011, I do think Wales are on the cusp of improvement once again. The talent is there, the mood has changed, and the fixtures have fallen kindly. This is a great opportunity. Wales probably have only two attempts at making the expanded 24-team European Championships with Bale and Ramsey, and there’s no guarantee they will have a supporting cast as strong as this come 2018. This may be the next big opportunity for qualification. Is this finally the time we put the ghosts of 1958, 1993 and 2003 to rest?