Football: Welsh deficiencies cruelly exposed

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The Independent Online
The timing was perfect. No sooner had the Welsh FA announced a massive new investment programme in youth football than the senior team showed how badly it was needed.

Wales were not so much beaten by the Netherlands at Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday night as dismembered. Were it not for Neville Southall the Dutch would have run up the sort of score Barry John and company used to achieve on the hallowed turf.

As it was Southall's heroics earned Wales respectability but no one who witnessed the match will be fooled by the 3-1 scoreline. The brutal truth is that Wales, for all their effort, are simply not on the same plane as the Dutch. Even their passionate supporters realised this. When Ronald de Boer scored the Netherlands' third a strange sound rippled across the ground, that of applause for an opponent's goal. By then the match was a masterclass, not a contest.

So where now for Wales? The short-term is bleak indeed - a trip to Eindhoven to face the Dutch again. Stout hearts will be needed for that trip.

Long-term is harder to assess. International conditions are increasingly against small countries like Wales but, after years of apparent neglect, the Football Association of Wales are working to remedy the situation. The development scheme, which includes pounds 200,000 of Football Trust money, local authority and FAW involvement, follows a revamping of the association's leadership and the establishment of the League of Wales.

The latter remains controversial. A clutch of clubs remain outside the system, from the likes of Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham to Merthyr Tydfil, Colwyn Bay and Newport AFC. They believe that only through the English leagues can they achieve their potential and maintain standards.

However, the European exploits of Barry Town in particular have given the League of Wales valuable publicity. Were the exiles to relent, internal standards would rise and the league would gain a higher profile.

Yet the national team will inevitably remain reliant on English-based players and the aim must be to place as many Welshmen in the Premiership as possible. At present there are simply not enough. A glance at the Welsh substitutes' clubs told the story - Huddersfield, Birmingham, Wrexham, Sheffield United, Crewe and Bolton. There are now more Norwegians playing in the Premiership than Welshmen - and almost as many Dutch.

Thus the coaching scheme. Without Football Trust support it would probably not be possible. Ever since the home internationals were abandoned, the Welsh FA have struggled financially. "It is extremely tight," admitted David Collins, the FAW secretary general. Collins, incidentally, joined the organisation from industry. This is something the FA are continually being told to do and it appears, in this case, to have been a success.

To raise gate income, attract more families (especially from mid and north Wales) and concentrate attention on the national side, the FAW have moved home games to Saturday. They have also cancelled domestic league football on these days. This, and the appointment of Bobby Gould - a PR natural, he even looks like Max Clifford - has raised the team's profile at a time when rugby is suffering from poor results and internal division.

While Collins insists that football does not profit from rugby's struggles - "It is better if the rugby team are doing well because it lifts the whole country" - he admits that they are often competing for the same youthful talent.

Welsh football needs the promising young ball player to admire Ryan Giggs rather than Scott Gibbs and for that they need success. Thus a decent performance in the World Cup is vital both financially and in the long- term.

Yet the side are simply not good enough. They just about kept the Dutch at bay in the first half, largely through a hard-working midfield in which Barry Horne was outstanding. The 34-year-old's bold run also created the goal though the scorer, Dean Saunders, looked offside.

Hughes nearly added a second but, even if he had, one suspects the Dutch would have prevailed. They were more of a team than usual, they were resilient and patient. Having lacked an attacking focus in the first half they introduced the impressive debutant Roy Makaay and began cutting through the defence at will. In one six-minute spell alone Southall made half a dozen magnificent saves.

In front of him Wales were tiring. Gould's preference for the game but inexperienced Marcus Browning and John Robinson ahead of David Phillips and Vinnie Jones seemed increasingly misguided. The attack became isolated - how they missed Giggs, suspended for two foolish bookings against San Marino.

The end, when it came, was cruel for Southall. A deflection, a scramble, and Pierre Van Hooijdonk lashed in from four yards. The substitute quickly headed another. "I'm sending a video to Tommy Burns," he crowed, flushed with a powerful new argument in his contract war with Celtic.

Ronald de Boer, flourishing now he had been pulled back to midfield, headed the third and it was all over. Well, there was still time for Hughes to be booked - he now misses Eindhoven which may force Gould to kiss-and- make-up with Ian Rush.

Southall, 38, trudged off before being coaxed into admitting it was probably his "finest hour" with Wales. "He can play for another 10 years," said Gus Hiddink, the Dutch coach. He may need to. A good proportion of that coaching money should be put into finding goalkeepers. Wales are going to need them.

Goals: Saunders (16) 1-0; Van Hooijdonk (72) 1-1; Van Hooijdonk (75) 1-2; R de Boer (78) 1-3.

WALES (3-5-2): Southall (Everton); Melville (Sunderland), Bowen (West Ham), Symons (Manchester City); Robinson (Charlton), Browning (Bristol Rovers), Horne (Birmingham), Pembridge (Sheffield Wednesday), Speed (Everton); Saunders (Nottingham Forest), Hughes (Chelsea). Substitutes: Legg (Birmingham) for Pembridge, 64; Jenkins (Huddersfield) for Browning, 84. Substitutes not used: Phillips (Wrexham), Taylor (Sheffield United), Savage (Crewe), Blake (Bolton), Marriot (Wrexham, gk).

NETHERLANDS (4-4-2): Van der Sar (Ajax); Vierklau (Vitesse), Valckx (PSV Eindhoven), F de Boer (Ajax), Bogarde (Ajax); Winter (Internazionale), Seedorf (Real Madrid), Jonk (PSV), Cocu (PSV); R de Boer (Ajax), Cruyff (Manchester United). Substitutes: Makaay (Vitesse) for Cruyff, h-t; Van Hooijdonk (Celtic) for Vierklau, 71; Van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord) for R de Boer, 89. Substitutes not used: Numan (PSV), Ooijer (Roda JC), De Goey (Feyenoord, gk).

Referee: A Lopez Nieto (Spain).

Bookings: Wales: Speed, Hughes. Netherlands: Valckx.

Man of the Match: Southall.

Attendance: 25,000.