If Mark Hughes feels that luck deserted him during a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign, then he may find out soon that he is also running out of friends – and excuses. Wales have now managed 12 consecutive games without a victory– and have won just two games in 15 since he took the reins.
The dismal sequence has not escaped the notice of TV and radio pundits in the principality – mainly Hughes's former international team-mates – who have been queueing up to put the boot into the coach's teams and tactics. Even rewarding his close friend Ryan Giggs with the captain's armband backfired when the Manchester United winger was sent off in Oslo.
Hughes defiantly dismisses the critics. "They don't know how I work. They are not in possession of the facts. They don't know how I organise the team or prepare a team, or my staff, and when they just make throw-away comments they should just give what they say a little more thought," he says.
Claims by Hughes – who insists that he will carry on playing with Blackburn rather than coach full-time – that, as such a small nation, they could not handle the loss of so many top players for important matches like the 3-2 defeat by Norway on Wednesday are beginning to sound hollow when compared with performances by other "minnows" of Europe. Iceland, Macedonia, Switzerland and even the Faroe Islands have better qualifying records than Hughes' men, damning statistics that may see the final Group Five match against Belarus next month be Hughes's last.
The aforementioned Iceland had managed to win four of their previous eight Group Three matches and were still in with a good chance of a play-off berth in Group Three until they crashed 3-0 to a rejuvenated Northern Ireland.
Sammy McIlroy's young side gave cause for optimism on the other side of the Irish Sea with a vibrant display to follow the 1-1 draw in Denmark. The new-found form is too late to resurrect this World Cup sortie, but it bodes well for Euro 2004. George McCartney, who scored on a composed debut, Aaron Hughes, Danny Griffin, David Healy, Roy Carroll and Philip Mulryne are all only in their early 20s.
The dazzling return to form this season of Keith Gillespie, the Blackburn winger, has been another key factor. "Keith sums up our improvement," McIlroy said. "I've got great belief in him. He's done really well in these last two matches and when he plays well, he sparks off the rest."