Football: Wales winning over sceptics

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The Independent Online
THE PENALTY for prolonged disappointment was spelt out in the men's magazine Maxim last week when it revealed that half of Welsh football fans would prefer a Great Britain team to supporting the national team. Nowhere better has the effect been quantified of failing to reach major finals.

It is more than 40 years since Wales last went head to head with the world's, or even Europe's, best, which has eroded national allegiance to the point where 50 per cent would rather get behind Tony Adams and co (with Ryan Giggs as the sole Welsh representative) than endure much more of the present.

Compare that to the Scots, who were most opposed with 74.4 per cent against, Northern Ireland (66.7) and England (65.6) and, even given the vagaries of poll results, you get an idea how important a good result is in tonight's European Championship Group One qualifier against Switzerland.

Do well in Zurich - and a draw is the minimum requirement - and principality patriotism will prosper; do badly and the temptation to find another outlet for international pride will increase. A pressure-free match for Bobby Gould and his players tonight, then?

Actually, the Wales manager has looked anything but worried this last week because he has survived far worse. Six months ago Gould's job prospects looked less than promising when even the Manic Street Preachers were interrupting their concerts to urge his dismissal but victories over Denmark and Belarus last October radically altered the position.

"My head was in a noose and tightening," Gould said, "then we won two games and the atmosphere and situation has changed. Now we have to address the change and pressure that comes from creating a situation of greatest expectation.

"I recall Graham Henry [Wales' rugby union coach] was in a similar situation after two bad results this season against Ireland and Scotland. People were getting on at him, but then Wales go to Paris and produce a wonderful performance and a wonderful victory. The emotion that was shown on and off the field was fantastic."

Gould's squad is at its most harmonious since he took over three years ago, although it has not always been that way thanks to public wrangles with John Hartson, Gary Speed, Robbie Savage and Ian Rush.

That has been brushed aside by success since as Hartson, back in the fold after nine months' absence, confirmed. "The players look forward to joining up with the squad," he said, "and, no disrespect to anyone, it wasn't always like that. Results change things. If you're getting stuffed the manager comes in and wants to know what's going wrong, what are we doing wrong? If you win games you don't have meetings like that. The lads here have had days off, played golf and everything is going well. Everybody is flying."

Everyone, that is, except Giggs, who is Wales' only world-class player and who misses tonight's match with a hamstring injury incurred playing for Manchester United in the European Cup. His absence against the Swiss, who beat Belarus on Saturday, could be hurtful although, in Wales' favour, their last two wins were without him.

Even so, when Gould followed an item on cloning on Radio Four's Today yesterday, he could not resist asking for a Giggs clone as the perfect present, underlining how important is his pace and the fear he instills in the opposition.

But, as Gould said yesterday, you can only work with what you have got and the biggest weapon at his disposal is renewed confidence. "We have won two games back to back," he said, "the squad have been away, looked at the group table and come back for this game in a very positive mood believing they can really achieve something."

Now if he can only convince the Welsh public.

GROUP ONE

P W D L F A Pts

Italy 3 3 0 0 6 1 9

Wales 3 2 0 1 5 5 6

Switzerland 3 1 1 1 2 3 4

Denmark 4 0 2 2 3 5 2

Belarus 3 0 1 2 2 4 1

Fixtures: Today: Switzerland v Wales; Italy v Belarus. 5 June: Italy v Wales; Denmark v Belarus. 9 June: Switzerland v Italy; Wales v Denmark. 4 Sept: Belarus v Wales; Denmark v Switzerland. 8 Sept: Switzerland v Belarus; Italy v Denmark. 9 Oct: Wales v Switzerland; Belarus v Italy.

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