Football: Gould goes to ground as heat rises

Old Welsh voices are discordant over the critical state of their football nation
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The Independent Online
EVEN IF Bobby Gould appears hell-bent on making enemies of every player in his Welsh squad, he can normally be counted on as a friend to the media, a helpful voice at the end of the telephone. The past few weeks, however, have seen the Garrulous One play hard to get.

Things have reached a sticky pass between the manager and the Wales supporters and the pressure is building before their next two European Championship fixtures, which fall in the space of four days starting on Saturday and the visit to Denmark. Gould's response has been to go to ground; even the composition of his Copenhagen squad was relayed via the office fax machine.

Gould clearly feels persecuted by the voices of Welsh sport - players- turned-commentators like Mark Aizlewood, Dai Davies, Ian Walsh and Leighton James - and is refusing to take calls. It is a spat no manager will win but in isolation it can be dismissed as an irrelevancy. Of far more concern to the Football Association of Wales is the opposition that is building among those who pay at the turnstiles and who are fed up with what they receive in return.

When the best-selling pop group of their day choose to angle their most recognisable anthem around you then things are either going fantastically right or spectacularly wrong. The Manic Street Preachers recently had their 20,000-strong audience at Cardiff Castle singing along to "Everything Must Go" except that the lyrics had been changed to "Bobby Gould Must Go".

There is talk of demonstrations at Ninian Park a week on Wednesday if a defeat in Denmark is not followed by a convincing result against Belarus. To try to compete in the international arena with a small country and dwindling resources is an extraordinarily difficult task at the best of times and at the moment it is very difficult for the Englishman whose record in charge of the Principality shows five wins in 18.

What poured petrol on the flames of Welsh discontent was the incident involving Robbie Savage, which quickly blew up into a storm before and after last month's game with Italy. In an item that was, literally, a throwaway at the end of a television interview, the Leicester midfielder hurled aside with manufactured contempt an Italian shirt purporting to belong to their captain, Paolo Maldini.

To many people it was gauche, it was stupid, but ultimately it did no harm. Gould saw it differently, summoning Savage to his hotel room before breakfast on the day of the Anfield qualifier, quoting his new 10-point code of conduct and ordering Savage out of the squad. Following the public differences already aired between the manager and his players (a lengthy roll-call which includes Ian Rush, Gary Speed, Mark Hughes, John Hartson, Nathan Blake, David Phillips, Mark Bowen and Vinnie Jones) it was yet another unseemly diversion from what should be the common goal of raising Wales from their current world ranking of 103.

With a deputation led by Speed, the skipper, urging Gould to reinstate Savage, it is hard to argue that the furore did not get in the way of that day's game, which saw Wales off to a losing start in their Euro 2000 campaign despite displaying characteristic passion and commitment. The row rumbled on afterwards when player and manager came together to meet the press. Savage and Gould shared the same platform but were clearly miles apart.

It has all gone steadily downhill for Wales since Terry Yorath's team fell agonisingly short of the 1994 World Cup finals through a missed penalty. Yorath departed soon after to be succeeded by the John Toshack farce and the ineffective reign of Mike Smith. Wales were adding embarrassment to decline.

Yorath, now helping to mastermind the renaissance of Huddersfield Town, is quoted as 2-1 joint favourite with Wrexham's Brian Flynn to become the next Wales manager. He has sympathy for Gould's present position but believes he was at fault over the Savage saga.

"If players really do something wrong then you have to come down hard but I would have treated this situation in the light-hearted way it was meant," Yorath said. "I would perhaps pull Robbie to one side, but the bottom line is that Wales haven't got enough players to go kicking people out."

John Charles, the most famous Welsh player of all, has come out in support of Gould, claiming it is too early to hound from office a man appointed in 1995. However, the celebrated Leeds and Juventus defender is a minority voice amid an army of dissenters. Two successful nights in Copenhagen and Cardiff are vital to revive Welsh fortunes, renew confidence in Gould's methods and restore bounce in the personality of an enduring football figure now backed up against the wall.

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