Earnshaw raises Welsh hopes for the future

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The Independent Football

"Robert Earnshaw - remember the name," shouted the man leaning out of a taxi window, as the car swung towards the Central Station and midnight prepared to chime in the Welsh capital. The men in kilts barely glanced up, although the man who manages their football team, Berti Vogts, is unlikely to forget it.

Vogts had first watched the 22-year-old Earnshaw - described by the Wales manager, Mark Hughes, as being "electric all night" - two years ago when his goal had given Wales a stunning victory over a German side which a little over a month later would find itself in another World Cup final. The hat-trick he scored on Wednesday might well be enough to persuade the Scottish Football Association that the experiment of employing a German manager at a salary far greater than that paid to his predecessor, Craig Brown, should be discontinued.

Two years on, it is hard to argue that Scottish football is any further forward than it was when Vogts took over. Reaching a play-off for the European Championship was an achievement, although to do so all Scotland had to manage was to finish above Iceland.

In the bars of Cardiff, the Tartan Army proved themselves good losers, although in the years since the 1998 World Cup, they have become used to it. When the screens at the Millennium Stadium flashed up an image of Vogts for a cruel and unusually long period of time, some of the 5,000 who had travelled down from all points north waved him goodbye.

Hughes admitted that he considered resignation in the wake of Wales's failure to make it to Portugal. Routing Scotland, the nation that deprived them of a place in two World Cups, would make for effective short-term revenge but the wounds of losing to a Russian side, one of whose members, Yegor Titov, had failed a drugs test in November's play-offs are, still raw.

Hughes devoted most of the two pages of his programme notes to the appeal launched by the Welsh FA to have the result and Russia's place at the European Championship overturned. Their chances of success at next month's Uefa appeal are, however, believed to be slim. Thoughts of Titov, Hughes confessed, "constantly intruded" into his thoughts as Wales prepared to play Scotland.

"The football authorities should take their cue from other sports where relay teams are stripped of their medals if one of the quartet fails a drugs test," Hughes said.

A crushing victory over Scotland and Earnshaw's glittering display at the Millennium Stadium would have offered Hughes only limited comfort. Earnshaw's goal against Germany came in a period in which Welsh football transformed itself from being judged among the worst teams in the Principality's history to being, in naked statistical terms, the best. Before overcoming Rudi Völler's side, they had held Argentina to a 1-1 draw in Cardiff.

Earnshaw will be in demand and not just from Welsh autograph hunters. Hughes ducked the question on whether he would have to leave Ninian Park to make the grade at full international level, arguing that Cardiff City are equipped to reach the Premiership. The club's manager, Lennie Lawrence, might beg to differ. With competition from Craig Bellamy and John Hartson, Earnshaw still has a fight to be the leading striker in the Welsh national side, although Hughes feels he had the temperament to succeed.

"Earnie was electric all night. If he continues to work hard, he can be as good as he wants to be," Hughes said. "Only Ernie can stop himself. But he is a good character. He is very attentive when you take him to one side to try to change something. He's always trying to learn, he's interested and it's a great trait to have."

Ultimately the questions that surround this Welsh team remain. Certainly, they impressed but they played well - as they so often have - when it did not matter. Had they reached even two-thirds of this level of passing football against Russia, the question of whether Titov's punishment should be collective would not have mattered. Even the question of whether they will be going to Germany for the 2006 World Cup was not advanced much on Wednesday night.

England, the team that most obviously bars their way, may be hated in a way Scotland are simply not but they are unlikely to be quite this hopeless.