Football: Speed is driven by patriotic fervour

European Championship: Wales emerge from the doldrums to rediscover that winning feeling
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The Independent Online
GARY SPEED was doing his PR bit, swinging a golf club for the benefit of photographers and chuckling at the incongruity of doing it at Prescoed Prison, Usk, where Wales train. "Is that it, everyone happy?" he asked. Not as content as you appear to be could have been the reply.

He was the relaxed ambassador a captain of his country ought to be, which is noteworthy on several counts, not least of which is that he could have been a focal point for glowering discontent within the Welsh squad instead of becoming its cement. The smiles at Prescoed could easily have been converted to snarls.

How close he came to causing an enduring rift between himself and the Wales manager Bobby Gould only they know - and neither is too forthcoming - but a flash point occurred that could have permanently fractured their relationship.

Speed, a fierce patriot, was so disgusted by Wales' lamentable display when they lost 4-0 to Tunisia last June he let rip in the dressing room. "All the frustrations boiled up within Gary and he could hold them no longer," an un-named team-mate was quoted afterwards and as Gould is no slowcoach when it comes to expressing opinions either you can imagine the ferocity of the exchange.

"The game shouldn't have happened, it was too much in terms of the season and energy levels," Graham Williams, Gould's assistant, said. "The Tunisians messed us around something terrible, putting the kick-off time back and putting it forward again. They didn't even give us balls to train with.

"Everything was getting to people, someone had to say something and Gary did. He was like a volcano, he was disappointed about the result and he just exploded. It was a game too far."

Some managers might have clumsily flexed their selectorial muscles. Players have been known to petulantly turn their backs on international football, but thankfully for Wales neither acted before they put their restraint and sense in gear. The air was cleared by the storm, Gould retained Speed as his captain and a bond appears to have been forged.

"We knew a lot of things had to change," Williams continued, reflecting on the new mood. "Bobby knew it too and is man enough to do it. He now has me to bounce ideas off and we try to get Gary, Mark Hughes and the other players involved in conversations and team talks. We don't just say: `Bobby and I are going to do this or that'. We've become more of a team."

In terms of results, surprisingly so. The 2-0 defeat by Italy at Anfield was a scoreline that did not do justice to Wales and they have beaten Denmark away and Belarus at home to reach second place in Group One. A good result against Switzerland in Zurich tomorrow will mean that hopes will be rising that qualification for the European Championship finals via second place and the play-offs is feasible.

The atmosphere as the Welsh players assembled last week could not be much more of a contrast to the rancour and unhappiness of Tunisia. "The spirit now is like it was in the best times," Speed said. "It's important because we don't see each other that often, six months since the last time, but when we met again it was if we'd all been together yesterday. Everyone gets on and we take that on to the pitch."

Speed will win his 50th cap tomorrow - collecting them at the rate of two to one compared to Ryan Giggs since the Manchester United winger made his international debut in 1992 - and at 29 is the most consistently available influence in Wales' midfield. He is also, with the senior men Mark Hughes and Dean Saunders, best placed to weigh Wales' recent history.

"We've had some very good times and some very bad ones," he said. "The high point was when we were beating Germany, Brazil and Belgium at home without it being strange. It wasn't expected but it wasn't an upset either. That's the aim. To get back to Cardiff Arms Park and make it the fortress it once was."

As for low, he did not hesitate to nominate November 1993 when a win over Romania in Cardiff would have gained Wales a place in the following summer's World Cup. Instead Paul Bodin hit the bar with a penalty and Wales missed out on their first major finals since 1958. "It was an absolute sickener," Speed said, "and worse now than it was at the time because you look back and think we were so close.

"Things needed to change and maybe they didn't change as quickly as they should have done. We needed a fresh start and maybe, if the bad times hadn't happened, we'd still be stale and struggling. People have made a conscious effort to get out of the rut."

No one more so than Speed. Against Italy, in his first game after his Tunisian outburst, he comfortably eclipsed Demetrio Albertini and Eusebio Di Francesco and was the dominant midfield force on a pitch purportedly littered with them. "He was outstanding, the best game I've seen him play for Wales," Williams said. "His leadership was immense and it was a pity he was on the losing side because he outshone a lot of the Italians. In the dressing room afterwards he was so upset about the result.

"He's very, very Welsh. He plays Welsh music in his car all the time and he desperately wants his country to do well."

Speed, whose form has been outstanding for his club, Newcastle, since he moved inside from the left wing and into the centre of the seemingly doubting Ruud Gullit's plans, missed the game against Belarus because of suspension, a win that was secured also without Giggs and John Hartson. That, he believes, is relevant. "We've struggled at times in the past because we haven't got strength in depth. If Giggsy or Sparky Hughes were missing we'd struggle, so to get the results we did was helpful for our confidence."

As for the Swiss game, he added: "We're confident of getting a result but if we draw or win out there it'll be a great result only if we win at home. It's no point doing well on Wednesday if we blow it back in Wales."

If that suggests something more depth than the usual "taking each game as it comes", then it has also been noticed within the Welsh FA. "He talks sense and is very knowledgeable about his football," Williams said. "When he speaks you listen because even as a coach I can learn from him.

"When we played Belarus he was on the bench and it was interesting to watch him. He was analysing the match, he was analysing Bobby and myself and how we work and thinking about how things can improve.

"He'll be a coach in the future, I'm sure of that. He's still young, of course, but when Bobby and I leave he and Mark Hughes will make a very good partnership. I'm sure he could be a future Wales manager."

For now, Speed is happy with his current role. "It's the greatest honour in the game to be captain of your country," he said, "and it's not one I take lightly at all." Bobby Gould will gladly vouch for that.

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