Football: Oval ball eclipses Toshack's return

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The Independent Online
WHEN WALES were charging towards qualification for last summer's European Championship, Mark Hughes remarked that he could see the day when football replaced rugby as the principality's national sport.

The roar that erupted last Saturday night in the Millennium Stadium has put paid to that debate. As an event, Toshack the Second Coming has been overshadowed by the silver boots of Gavin Henson.

Nevertheless, John Tosh-ack's second spell in charge of Welsh football is an event that probably deserves to be marked by more than the 15,000 crowd expected at the Millennium Stadium for this evening's friendly with Hungary on a pitch still scarred by the rugby international. If the first spell, a contentious one-match affair 11 years ago, was a short- term fling full of bluster - he claimed Wales would win Euro 96 - this time it is about the slow rebuild.

For the first time since 1990, Wales are without Gary Speed, who has been followed into international retirement by Mark Pembridge and Andy Melville, two others who played in Toshack's only match as an international manager - a shambolic 3-1 defeat by Norway.

Toshack had initially discarded the 37-year-old veteran Paul Jones for Hungary's visit, only to recall him after Mark Crossley suffered a family bereavement. Other aspects are not auspicious. Ryan Giggs, who has decided not only to carry on his international career until the 2008 European Championship but to accept the captaincy, has withdrawn from the squad with a hamstring injury. Robbie Savage, another big-hitter, has also pulled out.

Nevertheless, at least Craig Bellamy remains. The irony is that Bellamy, whose relationship with his manager at Newcastle, Graeme Souness, disintegrated over his employment as a midfielder rather than a striker, was first used on the right wing for Wales by Hughes.

Toshack has said his best position was "as a right-sided attacker", although Bellamy will be hoping the emphasis is on the word "attacker".

"Very often players with a problem at club level take advantage of the international situation for their personal good," Toshack said.

"What Bellamy has done is buy himself a little bit of time. But football is a strange, strange game. Lots of things could happen at Newcastle in four months. Celtic could get into the Champions' League and he might stay on, but he will have more options in the summer."

WALES (probable, 4-4-1-1): Coyne (Burnley); Weston (Cardiff), Page (Cardiff), Collins (Sunderland), Partridge (Motherwell); Davies (Tottenham), Robinson (Sunderland), Roberts (Wrexham), Koumas (West Bromwich); Bellamy (Celtic); Hartson (Celtic).