Football: Toshack puts reliance on Bellamy to ignite Wales

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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 any further debate. As an event, Toshack the Second Coming has been thoroughly 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 find themselves 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, whose decision not only to carry on his international career until the 2008 European Championship but to accept the captaincy, has withdrawn from the squad with a hamstring injury.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, albeit one who did not welcome Toshack's appointment, has also pulled out, leaving a very thin-looking starting line-up indeed.

Nevertheless, at least Craig Bellamy remains at the team hotel in the Vale of Glamorgan. 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 opined that his best position was "as a right-sided attacker", although Bellamy - who is never shy of offering any manager his opinion - will be hoping the emphasis is on the word "attacker". Tonight, Bellamy might have something to prove to an audience on the Tyne rather than the Taff.

"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 by going to Celtic on loan. Something had to give and certainly Graeme Souness was getting pretty excited.

"But football is a strange, strange game. Lots of things could happen at Newcastle in four months. Who knows? Celtic could get into the Champions' League and he might stay on, but he will have more options in the summer than he had in the transfer window."

There are some faint echoes of Toshack's last appointment. Then, certain players, especially Ian Rush, had been incensed by the manner of Terry Yorath's dismissal as Wales manager and considered retiring from international football. Some of Hughes's senior players, mostly now retired, were angered by the bracing manner in which Toshack criticised Hughes's teams as a pundit for BBC Wales.

One view which Toshack expressed frequently was that Giggs, the principality's one world-class footballer, rarely produced the level of performance for his country that he did for Manchester United. Yesterday, despite making Giggs his captain, this was a view Toshack was not prepared to concede. "His performances for his club of late have been some of his best ever but he maybe has not always been as effective for Wales as he has been for Manchester United - but that sometimes happens with truly great players."

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).