Football / World Cup: Unsung Horne breathes fire into the dragon: Henry Winter on an industrious Welsh side who are poised to emulate the illustrious class of 1958

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WHEN Wales last ventured among the world's footballing elite, Harold MacMillan was at No 10 and Elvis, a regular at No 1, had just swapped guitar and quiff for rifle and crew- cut. Thirty-five years have slipped past since Ivor Allchurch, Mel and John Charles caught the world's imagination in the Swedish finals, but after Wednesday's vital 2-0 victory over Cyprus in Cardiff, their successors in those blood-red shirts are within 90 minutes of qualifying for only their second World Cup.

A group of four are still in competition in Group Four: the simple equation after the memorable Arms Park occasion is that if Wales beat Romania by two clear goals before a sold-out, strident home crowd on 17 November, they will be through. Any victory will suffice if Belgium, playing simultaneously, prise a point from the RCS in Brussels.

Romania, needing at least a point, will be determined to turn Welsh 'ifs' into 'if onlys', and possess a battery of technically adept individuals capable of making life difficult for the hosts. Players like Ioan Sabau and Marius Lacatus, the Gheorghes, Hagi and Popescu, and a prodigious pair who scored in the midweek win over Belgium, Ilie Dumitrescu and Florin Raducioiu.

The Welsh rightly refuse to be overawed. 'Romania are a good team. We lost 5-1 there. But we've beaten Germany and Brazil here, so we're not frightened,' Dean Saunders, whose goal broke the Cypriots' resistance, said.

Cyprus's subjugation was secured at a price. Bookings for the two Marks, Hughes and Aizlewood, both offenders in previous ties, means that Terry Yorath must prepare for the Romanian denouement without two of his most tireless competitors. Fortunately, in a squad often criticised for lacking depth, Yorath can select potential replacements of the quality of Gary Speed (while Paul Bodin returns in defence) and Clayton Blackmore.

Above all, Wales are at home, where the hwyl will be high, and Romania have hardly prospered on their rivals' territory, losing in both Brussels and Kosice. Motivating his players will not prove a problem for Yorath. 'I don't care what Ian Rush, Dean Saunders or Mark Hughes have ever done,' he said. 'This is the biggest thing that will ever happen to them. It could be the best night or one of the saddest.'

If the Romanians are hustled out of their elegant stride Wales will take their own skill-infused football west. The relentless forward probing, focused on moving the ball to Saunders and Rush as Ryan Giggs searches for avenues of opportunity, represents an intimidating sight to any side, however accomplished, and if the attacking triumvirate click Romania will be in trouble.

The guile and goals of Wales's Tricky Trio have earned them the plaudits but their success is rooted in the consistent performances of a largely unheralded midfielder, Barry Horne, the outstanding presence against the prickly Cypriots.

As befits a chemistry graduate, Horne has acquired a reputation for mixing it, an assessment that overshadows the qualities that encour- aged Yorath to entrust him with the captaincy. Yorath's appraisal is simple: 'He gives everything.'

The 30-year-old Evertonian certainly did this week, concentrating on the legitimate disruption of enemy incursions and, having repossessed the ball, distributing it effectively. One penalty-box tackle, executed with the timing a Swiss watch-maker would envy, ended an alarming Cypriot raid, Horne sliding in to spirit the ball away from Andreas Sotiriou. The most exacting of climaxes, against Romania's midfield artists, looks tailor-made for more Horne heroics.