Football: Gould faces first test of strategy

Wales' World Cup qualifier against the Netherlands in Cardiff tonight could be a defining evening for Bobby Gould. The former Wimbledon and Coventry manager has enjoyed a relatively gentle first season in charge of the Welsh side, but this is the first real test of his strategy.

Gould was a controversial, and somewhat surprising, choice to replace Mike Smith last summer, being selected ahead of candidates such as Mike Walker, who possessed both Welsh blood and successful European club experience. In seven matches in charge he has won and lost three games apiece - but the wins have been against Moldova, at home, and San Marino twice.

In the meantime, he has blooded a lot of young players, and taken a firm line with Wales' senior superstars - Ian Rush, Neville Southall and Mark Hughes. They have, in the past, been accused of player power and Gould initially dropped them all (to look at young players, he said). All but Rush have since returned to the fold.

Gould has also helped to raise football's profile in the Principality after poor results, and a series of blunders by the Football Association of Wales, left supporters disaffected. Tonight's match has sold out.

Now, however, he has to produce results, starting with a win tonight, if Wales are to have any chance of qualifying for the 1998 World Cup. Unfortunately for Gould, though, Ryan Giggs is suspended - for bookings in each of the farcical encounters with San Marino.

Gould has sought to make a virtue of his absence, suggesting that it will lead to an even greater team spirit - he has been seeking to replicate Wimbledon's "crazy gang'' ethos. This has some merit, especially against opponents with such fragile morale as the Dutch.

Wales are also without the injured Chris Coleman, but Mark Pembridge has passed a fitness test. There are no fewer than four Nationwide League player in the side - hardly the pedigree to frighten the Dutch.

However, they will also be below strength, notably in attack, with Dennis Bergkamp being the latest player to be ruled out. The Dutch could thus start with an attacking pair made up of two British-based players, neither of whom are current first choices at club level.

One of these is Jordi Cruyff, the other Pierre van Hooijdonk, who is in a contractual dispute with Celtic. "That does not worry me," Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach, said. "Players are intelligent enough not to bring their club problems into the national squad. Sometimes it is a relief to be away from them.''

Comments