Hughes backs Speed as successor

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On the eve of his farewell to Welsh football, Mark Hughes gave his backing yesterday to Gary Speed to succeed him and preserve the continuity of his five-year reign.

On the eve of his farewell to Welsh football, Mark Hughes gave his backing yesterday to Gary Speed to succeed him and preserve the continuity of his five-year reign.

Since Hughes' departure after tonight's World Cup qualifier with Poland has been known about for nearly a month, it may seem strange that the Football Association of Wales has not yet consulted the man who dragged its nation's football from ridicule - his predecessor, Bobby Gould, once attended a press conference wearing a Max Wall mask. However, since the men in blazers appear determined to approach John Toshack, a man Hughes cordially dislikes, the FAW might already know the outcome of any conversation.

"Gary Speed would be a very good appointment," Hughes said. "He has the qualities to be a good manager. Whether he's in a position to take the job, I don't know. It would be a similar situation to the one I was in when I took over."

Although he has qualified for his Uefa B coaching badge and is looking for a suitable venue to take the A certificate, the untried Speed would be a risk, even if his inexperience was tempered by employing the former Wrexham and Swansea manager, Brian Flynn, as his assistant. Speed would probably initially attempt to combine managing Wales with playing Premiership football and has admitted that Sam Allardyce, his manager at Bolton, would have to be consulted over any appointment.

Toshack's criticism of the Hughes regime has made the man whose managerial record at Real Madrid and Real Sociedad eclipses that of any other candidates highly unpopular in the Wales dressing-room. Hughes insisted there was no need for radical change particularly among his back-room staff. Some, including Ryan Giggs, may announce their retirement from international football once Hughes has said his goodbyes at the Millennium Stadium.

As Wales have continued the stumbling football that has accompanied them in competitive matches since their 4-0 humbling in Milan 13 months ago, Toshack's criticisms of what he sees as over-cautious play, seem more valid. However, victory over the Poles in Cardiff would make it more likely that Toshack succeeds, since Wales would be merely a point behind Poland, the team most likely to take second place in Group Six.

For all the bluster and hype, facing Poland in Cardiff was always going to be a more important match for Wales than facingEngland in Manchester. Hughes seemed to acknowledge that victory at Old Trafford had been unlikely but recognised that success this evening would be essential. "It is a big call," he reflected. "I have always said it is important to win your home games, but we have already dropped points at home."

Poland are a hardened, physical side that have won with ease in Belfast and Vienna. Hughes has been angered by criticism of his tactics at Old Trafford, where John Hartson, employed as a lone striker, was effortlessly smothered by Rio Ferdinand. The Welsh media have made much of his refusal to start with Robert Earnshaw, although Hughes, through gritted teeth, pointed out that on Saturday David Beckham scored immediately after the West Bromwich striker was thrown on and said he finished the match with four forwards. Tonight Wales will have no option but to attack with both Hartson and Craig Bellamy.

The Newcastle striker, who has spent much of his time in a red shirt employed on the right flank, said this was a position he was no longer prepared to occupy. "For me to be judged, I need to be playing up front," Bellamy said, a point to be noted at St James' Park, where Graeme Souness has taken to using him on the wings to accommodate Alan Shearer and Patrick Kluivert.

"I'm at my best when I'm picking up the ball and running at the centre-backs. I am not a right-winger." Bellamy remarked, half-jokingly, that when he swapped shirts with his marker, Ashley Cole, the Englishman's was notable for its lack of sweat.

WALES (probable, 4-4-2): Jones (Wolverhampton); Weston (Cardiff), Delaney (Aston Villa), Gabbidon (Cardiff), Thatcher (Manchester City); Davies (Tottenham), Savage (Birmingham), Speed (Bolton), Giggs (Manchester United); Bellamy (Newcastle), Hartson (Celtic).

POLAND (probable, 4-4-2): Dudek (Liverpool); Baszczynski (Wisla Krakow), Hajto (Nurnberg), Bak (Lens), Rzasa (Heerenveen); Radomski (Heerenveen), Kosowski (Kaiserslautern), Mila (Groclin), Kryzynowek (Bayer Leverkusen); Zurawski (Wisla Krakow), Frankowski (Wisla Krakow).