Hughes adds to Wales' cloud of doubt

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The Independent Football

What a rotten old week it has been for Welsh football. Twice the victims of on-field muggings by unfancied opposition, they also suffered robberies of a real and symbolic nature and, to top it all off, found their manager being coveted by Blackburn Rovers.

What a rotten old week it has been for Welsh football. Twice the victims of on-field muggings by unfancied opposition, they also suffered robberies of a real and symbolic nature and, to top it all off, found their manager being coveted by Blackburn Rovers.

Little wonder one Cardiff resident summed up the situation as "definitely gloom and doom". The G and D factor, given early lift-off by that draw in Azerbaijan and the rifling of the squad's baggage as they departed Baku airport, touched unprecedented levels in the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday when, under the bizarre orchestration of a preposterous Italian referee, Wales's 10 men found beating Northern Ireland's nine beyond them. And, for anyone in search of a silver lining, the skies remain dark. The next World Cup qualifying match, away to England, has escalated into a "must win".

Whether Mark Hughes will still be in charge when Wales turn up at Old Trafford on 9 October is debatable. He has not applied for the Blackburn job, and the prospect of taking on England in his old stamping ground could prove irresistible. However, such is the lure of Premiership employment that clubs, like the Mounties, tend to get their man, and Blackburn's sights seem set on Hughes, who ended his playing career with them. Having at one stage suspended all betting on Hughes, William Hill have reopened the books, citing him a 4-5 favourite to succeed Graeme Souness.

Certainly, as he surveyed the shambles in Cardiff, Hughes's desire to be as far away as possible from the helm must have been overpowering. The frustration was evident as Hughes, normally a calm touchline presence, capered and gesticulated. At his media conferences the lid was kept in place with difficulty.

In a team not over-endowed with quality, Hughes would find himself unable to call on older key personnel such as Ryan Giggs and Gary Speed for much longer and, in any case, he may with reason consider the Wales record indicates the time for his departure is imminent. The team have won just five of their 17 home games in the national stadium and the Northern Ireland débâcle, the eighth successive competitive match without a win, was indisputably the worst performance in his five-year reign.

If the presence of Hughes against England is in the balance, the absence from that match of Robbie Savage is assured, and such is Savage's dismay at the red card he was shown after nine minutes that he is muttering about lowering the curtain on his international career. That dismissal, together with that of Michael Hughes, who had chopped down Savage from behind, was the catalyst in tipping the evening into farce.

The referee, Domenico Messina, was justified in sending Hughes packing but less so with Savage, whose post-foul flailing came under that good old football description "handbags". Notwithstanding, there will be many who consider Savage's first-ever red card overdue, and there has certainly been a high bleat factor from someone whose job description with Birmingham City is linked to the doling out of pain, bruises and animosity.

Despite Savage's tirade, the more justified complaint about being sent to the showers lies with David Healy. Having dealt Wales a near-mortal blow by scoring Ireland's second goal, the Preston striker was shown one yellow card for a celebratory kick at a corner flag and an immediate second for what he described as "waving to my family". If that is how they wave up in Preston, folk from that part of Lancashire should beware taking holidays in Italy. The raised arm, bent at the elbow, dates back to Roman times as the supreme gesture of obscenity in that part of Europe, and the Italian Messina deemed it an unacceptable provocation.

The broad meaning of the gesture is, as it implies, "up yours". Once at the Italian Open tennis in that cauldron of bias, the Foro Italico, Spain's Jose Higueras became so rattled by jeers as he was in the process of dismantling an Italian opponent that he stopped playing and ceremoniously offered the bent elbow to all four sides of the stadium. He was engulfed in cans and coins and fortunate to get off court without damage.

It would be advisable if Healy chose another method of greeting his loved ones. Gestures on the field of play can be dangerous as well as silly, as Paul Gascoigne discovered, playing for Rangers against Celtic, by executing a jig and imitating the playing of a flute.

That Northern Ireland survived this second dismissal is testimony to the admirable resilience instilled by Lawrie Sanchez, who was scathing about Messina. Arguably his worst decision was to deny the Irish a penalty when Danny Gabbidon brought down Tony Capaldi. It reinforced Sanchez's complaint that the refereeing cost his side two points.

For Wales, failure to win against what they had judged the two weakest teams in Group Six is not a case for terminal dismay. There is, as Hughes pointed out, a long way to travel. But the road will be rough, especially at Old Trafford next month.