Football / World Cup: Phillips' chance to unravel a twist of fate: Once more Wales need a win to qualify. Phil Shaw meets a man who has been this way before

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HAD David Phillips been able to steer clear of David Speedie's shot the way he now avoids reliving the moment, Wales would probably have reached the World Cup finals eight years ago and the psychological barrier they face against Romania in Cardiff tomorrow might not exist.

Picture the scene. Wales lead Scotland 1-0 with 10 minutes remaining in their last qualifying match at Ninian Park when Speedie - later to become Phillips's colleague at Coventry and a close friend - hooks the ball goalwards. It strikes the young defender's arm two yards away, and the Dutch referee points to the spot. Davie Cooper converts the penalty which eventually sends the Scots, rather than Wales, to Mexico.

Now 30 and playing for Nottingham Forest after transfers totalling pounds 1.4m, Phillips has been a mainstay of the Welsh side for nine years. Remarkably for one who talks cheerfully about his own 'anonymity', Romania's visit to the Arms Park will bring his 49th cap. But while the parallels with Wales's position in 1985 are painfully obvious, Phillips is politely intent upon accentuating the positive.

'I haven't thought of the handball incident for years,' he says. 'Obviously I felt it was a dubious decision, but that's in the past and I prefer to live for the present. Anyway, everything was overshadowed by the death of Jock Stein (Scotland's manager) at the match. It didn't seem appropriate to feel sorry for ourselves.

'I'm very philosophical about it now. It was just one incident in what is, after all, a game. When there are people caught up in wars and famine, you're very lucky to be playing football and it's not right to dwell on a particular misfortune.'

Although Phillips may not adorn his sleeve with his heart, the red dragon on his chest is worn with genuine pride. Born in Germany of a Welsh father who was in the RAF, his patriotism was merely intensified by frequent family upheavals to distant parts.

In his formative years, however, he lived in Bridgend, where he watched Steve Fenwick, John Lloyd and Vivian Jenkins throw an odd-shaped ball around at the Brewery Field without being corrupted, and regarded himself as Welsh from the moment he could speak.

'As a small boy I was taught to hate the English by a teacher who was staunch Plaid Cymru. I don't 'hate' anyone now, but I've always supported Wales at anything, even if it was tiddlywinks. I'm not one of those guys who gets in by going to a shop and picking up a daffodil.'

Phillips also lived in the Netherlands, where the 'Total Football' of Cruyff and Krol, Neeskens and Haan clearly rubbed off on him. He is likely to play right-back against Romania, but is equally accomplished on either side of midfield and last week helped tame Steve Bull as sweeper for Forest at Wolves. He also strikes a dead ball like a Dutch master, and was Norwich's second top scorer in 1991-92.

His international breakthrough came against England shortly before leaving Plymouth, his first club, for Manchester City in 1984. Mark Hughes, like Mark Bowen a former team-mate of Phillips's in the Under- 18s, scored the game's only goal.

Whereas Hughes was to flit between Manchester, Barcelona and Munich for a time, Phillips's career followed a more modest path: next to Coventry, where he made a characteristically unsung contribution to their FA Cup triumph, and on to Norwich. Wales, meanwhile, were enduring further narrow failures to qualify for various finals, though Phillips leaves complaints of hoodoos, bad luck and worse refereeing to others.

'We were fortunate to get into the 1958 World Cup finals by the back door, but in my time it's been incredible how often we've been drawn in groups with top-class teams at their peak - the Germans, the Dutch and so on. We've come desperately close without quite breaking through the threshold.

'But now we've got a stronger squad than ever, full of exciting attacking players but also very closely knit. Several of us have grown up together in the footballing sense. With young players of the calibre of Ryan Giggs coming through too, things have changed in Wales. People are going into sports shops and buying football gear, with rugby taking a back seat.'

Yet the present campaign had a wretched start, a 5-1 humiliation in Bucharest against tomorrow's opponents. Phillips recalls a match where 'everything went wrong' and acknowledges the playmaking genius of Gheorghe Hagi ('like Maradona at his best'), but remains convinced that Wales can banish their reputation as the nearly men of major tournaments.

His optimism is based on the organisation and camaraderie instilled by Terry Yorath - no one withdraws from a Welsh squad nowadays unless their ailment is bordering on terminal - and on the capacity of the venue itself to coax the best from the players.

'Mike England used to favour Wrexham as our HQ, and we didn't often get beaten there. But the national stadium is something else: the atmosphere, the facilities, the pitch. . .even when we played Cyprus, a week after the Bruno-Lewis fight, it was immaculate.'

They have some pretty neat ball- parks in the United States too, though Phillips has not allowed himself to imagine stepping out there next summer. It is not the fear of tempting fate that inhibits him, rather a determination not to be distracted from the task in hand.

'This is the biggest match of my career. Realistically, it could be my last chance of going to the World Cup, and the same applies to Ian Rush, Neville Southall and Mark Hughes. If you asked Ryan Giggs, who's not even 20, he'd probably say it would be the pinnacle of his career as well.'

And if he gives the Speedie episode a moment's thought it will be purely to stiffen his resolve. 'I look at football as an up-and-down life. When you get lows, you work at cancelling them out. I believe that applies to life in general. For instance, my wife had a couple of miscarriages but we now have a son, who is fabulous.'

Phillips Jnr, now at the toddler stage, is already earmarked for the land of his father. 'There's no danger of him playing for England,' Phillips says. There is a smile, and then the face assumes once more the quiet intensity on which Wales can depend in their hour and a half of need.

----------------------------------------------------------------- A HISTORY OF WELSH NEAR-MISSES ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1977: Wales, captained by Terry Yorath, must beat Scotland in their penultimate fixture at Anfield to go level on points at the top of their World Cup group. With 11 minutes left and the game goalless, David Jones is ruled to have handled - although the culprit was almost certainly Joe Jordan - and Don Masson scores from the spot. It finishes 2-0. 1979: In Mike Smith's final campaign as manager, Wales finish third in a four-team section - headed by West Germany, the tournament's eventual winners - in the qualifying for the European Championship finals. 1981: A 2-2 flop in their last but one match against Iceland at Swansea, followed by defeat in the Soviet Union, gives Czechoslovakia a chance to deny a Welsh side now managed by Mike England for the second World Cup qualifying place on goal difference. The Czechs seize it by drawing with the Soviets. 1983: A 1-1 draw with Yugoslavia in Cardiff - when victory would have guaranteed reaching the European Championship finals - leaves Wales needing Bulgaria to draw in Split a week later if they are to go through. In injury time it is 2-2, but then Yugoslavia score again to qualify by one point. 1985: A home win against Scotland would clinch at least a play-off with Australia for a place in the World Cup finals. Wales hold an early lead until 10 minutes from the end - an eerily similar time to the Anfield incident eight years earlier - when another dubious penalty shatters their hopes. 1987: Going into their final European Championship group game, victory over Czechoslovakia in Prague will ensure Wales's qualification. They lose 2-0, and Denmark go through instead. 1989: Now rebuilding under Yorath's managership, Wales prop up a World Cup qualifying section containing both the European champions, the Netherlands, and the eventual winners of Italia '90, West Germany. 1991: Ian Rush's goal at the Arms Park means Wales are the only side to beat the Germans, who otherwise win all five matches. Yet they finish a point behind - albeit with a better record than England or Scotland, both of whom proceed to the European Championship showpiece in Sweden. -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)