FOOTBALL: Toshack's clear message: the ego is grounded

New era for Wales
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The Independent Online
On the off-chance that there happen to be any self- respecting flies still left out there willing to share the same breathing space as Craig Bellamy and Robbie Savage, then a position on the Welsh team-room wall may indeed be an envious vantage point tomorrow.

Better not buzz too loudly, however, as John Toshack will almost certainly be looking to splatter even the slightest sound of discord as the Welsh manager's squad assemble for his first match in charge, a right bluebottle of a friendly with Hungary at a depressingly empty Millennium Stadium on Wednesday.

"When people ask what sort of manager I am, I use a Spanish phrase that means, `That man, he don't marry anybody'," said Toshack as he cast his eyes down a squad list that was increasingly resembling the register at a naughty boys' school. "It means no one's guaranteed a place with me."

The uncrushable egos that are Bellamy and Savage - who have been playing the role of the Ugly Sisters with such panache in the Premier-ship's recent panto season - would doubtless assume that this could never be referring to performers of their calibre, but although Toshack was careful to make sure he did not single out anyone, the inference was there.

Toshack is a man for the bitterest remedy; just ask Pedrag Mijatovic, Davor Suker and Clarence Seedorf, the so-called "Ferrari boys" whose all- powerful influence in the anarchic Real Madrid dressing room of 1999 was mercilessly dismantled in the Cardiffian's second spell at the Bernabeu. Indeed, just ask Toshack's own cousin.

It was 1981, Swansea City were at Preston North End on the last day of the season needing a win to complete their incredible rise from the bottom division to the top in four giddy years under Toshack, and the uncompromising boots of John Mahoney were seemingly central to his gameplan. The international midfielder was more a brother than a cousin, someone Toshack "used to play football and Test cricket with, in the lanes behind our houses". And in Mahoney's finest hour, he dropped him.

"I knew that my Uncle Joe, John's father, had come on a five-hour journey on the train to see his son play," Toshack said. "John was virtually crying when I told him before kick-off, and I had to end up saying, `Let's go out and win it for him'. Thank God we did. You must always do what's in the best interests of the side."

Alas, the best interests of Wales - a team so threadbare in quality that there is only the most uncomfortable of cushions to fall back on - dictate that the Savages and Bellamys are as close to "undroppable" as Toshack is ever likely to find, and this applies doubly so on nights like Wednesday. There will be some surprised faces if what had appeared a fully fit squad all turn up able and willing for duty against Lothar Matthaus's far-from- mighty Magyars.

The call that is most dreaded, but sadly most expected, is from Old Trafford concerning Ryan Giggs's availability. Not only would the presence of he-of-the-double-jointed-ankles probably double ticket sales - that up until Friday had only reached 11,000 despite being priced as low as pounds 5 - but there is a growing suspicion that Toshack will make Giggs his captain.

In truth, the 55-year-old appreciates that even this carrot may not be enough to dangle. "In all fairness, you have to understand it's not easy to come down here and play," he admitted. "It's easy to say, `You're playing for your country...', `once you pull the shirt on...' and all that, but we're all a bit wiser than that. Before they come here they will have played three games in a week. That's daft. I'm going to have to use all my powers of motivation to get them out there and perform."

Not that Toshack is in any way questioning his own ability to do just that, and although he admits "something very, very strange would have to happen" for Wales to leapfrog England or Poland to qualify for World Cup 2006, next month's double-header with Austria provides "a chance to give ourselves a squeak, and as long as it's mathematically possible to qualify we have to act and think as if we can".

His three-hour trek to Wrexham the night before his first international to run the rule over the Under-21 encounter with Germany probably signifies, however, that his mind is already on the Euro 2008 qualifiers. "I can do it, I can get Wales to a big championships," he said, challenging anyone who would dare to suggest he can't. "When people ask if I have confidence in my team, I tell them I've got confidence in myself. If I was given 11 youth- team members and told to go and play Real Madrid, I'd still think I could do it. In Spain they say people always throw stones at the trees that give out fruit. They throw stones at me because I've given off a few apples and oranges in my time."

That metaphor might become all too painfully true if Toshack fails to deliver to a footballing nation frothing at the mouth for a taste of the big time. He knows it, and also knows the scale of his task that begins this week. "Bill Shankly used to say, `You've got the recipe, now go and cook the meal'. But if you haven't got the ingredients then you struggle. If you want a ham omelette, but you haven't any ham, you can only have an omelette." It's Toshack's first mission to ensure that the odd bad egg doesn't ruin even that plain omelette.