Hughes believes Wales can take giant leap forwards

Red Dragons can clinch first visit to major finals since 1958 with defeat of Russia while Scotland coach relies on team spirit
Click to follow
The Independent Football

As attempts at gamesmanship go, this will take some beating. Midway through Mark Hughes' pre-match press conference yesterday afternoon, a Russian journalist stood up to ask the Wales coach whether he would indeed be taking up the vacant managerial post at Spartak Moscow.

The question was greeted with a mixture of amusement and derision by the wily Hughes, but the Russian intentions were clear. "I have had no contact with any club," Hughes snapped back, "either in my home country or in Russia. It's news to me."

No doubt Premiership clubs will eventually come knocking at the 40-year-old's door, but Hughes's only present concern is to guide his country to their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup finals. It has been an unbearably long wait, but one that Hughes believes is about to come to an end. "Overall I think we're a lot stronger as a group than any Welsh side before," he said. "We're in good shape."

In the past, such optimistic talk would have been dismissed out of hand, but Wales have undoubtedly made enormous progress during Hughes' four-year tenure. The question now is whether they can make the leap from being a team that are hard to beat to one that can qualify for World Cups and European Championships.

"The initial part of qualifying for a major tournament will be the toughest," Hughes admitted, "but once we get to one we'll have a big impact because we have the players that can make things happen in a game."

Did Hughes therefore feel that Wales, were they to qualify for next summer's Euro 2004 finals, could make good progress in Portugal? "Absolutely," he said. "We'd have the great advantage of having been together for a long time, so yeah..." Hughes suddenly stopped in his tracks. "But we might be getting a bit ahead of ourselves," he quickly added.

Perhaps so, but those comments show how confident Hughes is about the two-legged play-off with Russia. He has seen at first hand just how hungry his players are to succeed where previous Welsh generations have failed. "For many of the older players, this will be their best opportunity [to qualify]," Hughes said, knowing that defeat would mean the likely retirements of several key members of the squad. "The younger players may feel they'll get other opportunities, but it doesn't always work like that. When I didn't qualify, I always felt I'd have a better chance next time, but it never happened. They have to be careful."

As a player, Hughes's only flirtation with qualification came 10 years ago, when a win against Romania at Cardiff Arms Park would have sent Terry Yorath's team to the 1994 World Cup in the United States. In the event, Paul Bodin missed a penalty and the Welsh lost 2-1. "That was tough," said Hughes, who watched from the stands that night because of suspension, "although I'm lucky because I've got a second chance. Not many people get that opportunity, so I'm desperate to take it."

Judging from the mood in the camp, Hughes' passion is infectious. However, desire alone will not carry Wales through. "Every player will have to give their best ever performance for Wales," is Hughes' blunt warning. "That's our only chance." Much, too, will depend on the Russian players and weather. Gary Speed joked that conditions were "no worse than on a November morning in Newcastle", but the truth is that temperatures are tumbling and snow has been forecast for today. "No matter how cold it gets," the captain said, "that will be no valid excuse for failure. We know what we have to do."

Not conceding a goal will be the main priority, although keeping Dynamo Moscow's in-form striker Dmitry Bulykin quiet will not be easy. In fact, the entire Russian team are on a high at the moment, having been transformed by their new manager, Georgi Yartsev, since he took over in August. Old faces such as Aleksandr Mostovoi and Viktor Onopko have returned to the fray, while the Portsmouth midfielder Alexei Smertin has recovered from knee surgery in time for today's game.

Wales have been badly hit by injuries, with two of their regular midfielders, Mark Pembridge and Simon Davies, having to withdraw, although another key player, Robbie Savage, has been passed fit.

With Craig Bellamy also missing, much of the creative impetus will depend upon Ryan Giggs. The Manchester United winger is a marked man, having been singled out by Yartsev as the "only real Welsh threat". Hughes smiled at the provocative comment. "It's a bit of nip and tuck at the moment," he said, "but that's all part of the build-up to a big game and we're enjoying it. The interest in Welsh football is suddenly huge and that's how we want it to continue."