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Hughes' final game sees Welsh hopes end in ruins

Wales 2 Poland 3

The farewell was a microcosm of Mark Hughes' time as manager of Wales. The performance was much better than the result, but the result was damning.

The farewell was a microcosm of Mark Hughes' time as manager of Wales. The performance was much better than the result, but the result was damning.

Whether it is John Toshack, Brian Flynn or Gary Speed who succeeds him, they have no realistic chance of taking Wales to even a play-off for a place in the World Cup finals. For an hour until Robert Earnshaw scored, Wales looked a commanding, competent team and then inexplicably fell apart, conceding three times in 14 minutes. They were, incidentally, the only shots Paul Jones had to save.

None was savable; not Tomasz Frankowski's equaliser, not the blistering drive from Maciej Zurawski that thundered into the roof of the net, nor Jacek Kryznowek's almost surgical shot from the edge of the area that reduced Hughes' hopes to ruins. This was a turnaround, cruel, emphatic and hurtful.

Hughes had quoted Robert Kennedy in the match programme, the one about "dreaming of things that never were and saying 'why not?". He is a deeper man than many realise; usually, the only quote from a Kennedy most footballers would be interested in was what Marilyn Monroe was like in bed. However, the only Roberts that mattered in the Millennium Stadium last night were Earnshaw and Savage.

The chief criticism of Hughes in Wales is that he is prone to over-caution, but now in a match he had to win and one in which he would be deprived of Ryan Giggs through illness, he was bold and decisive.

John Hartson, who had been thoroughly ineffectual at Old Trafford, was dropped in favour of Earnshaw, a man many Welsh fans thought should have started against England and Northern Ireland.

Savage gave the kind of bite to midfield so lacking in Manchester and duly got himself a (non-tactical) yellow card. Radoslaw Kaluzny had blood dripping from his head after a clash with Gary Speed moments into the contest; Hughes' team did not say goodbye to their manager without a show of passion.

They needed to be strong. This was a big, physically intimidating Polish side but last night they had small, fast attackers running at them and were unsure how to cope. With any luck - a commodity they have been unable to mine in the past year - Wales might have been two up by the interval.

The match was a little over half an hour old when Gary Speed found Craig Bellamy, who cut in from the left and attempted to beat Jerzy Dudek at the near post, failing by a couple of inches as the Liverpool keeper pushed the shot on to the post. If Bellamy had complained he had failed to make Ashley Cole break sweat at Old Trafford, then Marcin Baszczynski's shirt would have been sopping by the end.

Wales missed by fractions. Earnshaw and Mark Delaney both saw shots fly wide of the post, while Simon Davies took down a clearance beautifully on his chest and shot in one movement. Dudek, at full stretch, tipped it over the bar. Sometimes they had only themselves to blame, a flick from Earnshaw, a cross from Jason Koumas and Bellamy found himself in front of goal only to miss badly.

And then Earnshaw struck. His popularity in the principality stems not just from the fact that for most of his career he played in Cardiff but because he has a phenomenal strike rate at international level. When he lifted the ball over Dudek and into the corner of the net a dozen minutes into the second half it was his ninth goal in 17 appearances for his country. And, like many of the others, it was smartly taken; a quick free-kick from Savage, a slip by Tomasz Rzasa and Earnshaw was in. Hughes raised both fists to the heavens. They were soon to be cast down again.

In the early years of his reign the one constant feature of Welsh play was that they could not hold on to a lead in the Millennium Stadium and so it proved in the last match of all. It says something for the lack of depth in Welsh football that James Collins was asked to exchange Cardiff reserves for a World Cup qualifier. Cruelly, he failed to cut out a long ball upfield and allowed Tomasz Frankowski space to finish. Then came Zurawski and Krzynowek. Harston's late header was absolutely no consolation at all.

WALES: (4-4-2) Jones (Wolverhampton); Delaney (Aston Villa), Collins (Cardiff), Gabbidon (Cardiff), Thatcher (Manchester City); Davies (Tottenham), Savage (Birmingham) Speed (Bolton) Koumas (West Bromwich); Earnshaw (West Bromwich), Bellamy (Newcastle). Substitutes: Hartson (Celtic) for Speed, 79; Parry (Cardiff), for Koumas, 87.

POLAND: (4-4-2) Dudek (Liverpool); Baszczynski (Wisla Krakow), Hajto (Nuremburg), Bak (Lens), Rzasa (Heerenveen); Kosowski (Kaiserslautern), Kaluzny (Bayer Leverkusen), Szymkowiak (Wisla Krakow), Krzynowek (Bayer Leverkusen); Wlodarczyk (Legia Warsaw), Zurawski (Wisla Krakow). Substitutes: Klos (Wisla Krakow) for Bak, h-t; Frankowski (Wisla Krakow) for Wlodarczyk, 60; Mila (Groclin) for Kaluzny, 71.

Referee: A.Sars (France).