When England first played Wales, at the Kennington Oval in 1879, the home team was picked from those players who had not been chosen for the game the selectors really cared about, against Scotland. England won 2-1 in front of a crowd of 200 after a match reduced to two halves of 30 minutes because of bad weather.
A cynic might suggest that England could apply the same policy for today's World Cup qualifying match against Wales at Old Trafford. While the Welsh have made progress under Mark Hughes, who steps down after Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Poland to work full-time with Blackburn Rovers, there is no escaping the fact that in most areas of the pitch, and in defence in particular, they look seriously outclassed.
As England prepare to unleash their three most dangerous forwards, Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and Jermain Defoe, Hughes has to confront them with players who are out of favour with their clubs or in struggling teams. Paul Jones, the goalkeeper, and Andy Melville, one of the central defenders, are not first choices for their Coca-Cola Championship clubs, Wolves and West Ham respectively. At least their teams are higher up the table than 23rd-placed Cardiff City, who provide the other centre-back, Daniel Gabbidon.
Sven Goran Eriksson is naturally cautious, but with Rooney fit again and Defoe pressing Owen for a place, the England coach is clearly tempted to play three forwards. Although Eriksson insisted yesterday that he had still to decide on his formation, the likelihood is that Rooney will play "in the hole", behind Owen and Rooney.
Steve McClaren, one of Eriksson's assistants, mischievously laid out the bibs for Thursday's training session at Carrington in a diamond formation. At Old Trafford yesterday he had them arranged in a conventional 4-4-2 shape. He was not fooling Hughes, who only half-mockingly hailed "the power of the press" for breaking the news of Eriksson's experiment with a three-man attack.
Hughes gave little away about his own team, but he has been planning a 4-1-4-1 line-up designed to counter the threat of Rooney. Under such a plan Simon Davies would move inside to replace the suspended Robbie Savage, while Craig Bellamy would play on the right, leaving John Hartson to lead the attack single-handed. It is a counter-attacking formation Hughes has used to good effect in the past.
Central to the plan would be the use of Mark Pembridge to man-mark Rooney just in front of the Welsh back four. Pembridge knows Rooney well from his four years at Everton, having left Goodison Park only a year ago to join Fulham.
Hughes acknowledged that Rooney was "a fantastic talent" and added: "Taking my Welsh hat off, I really enjoy watching him play. He has a great attitude and is very positive in everything he does. There is a youthful exuberance to his game and I think he is a joy to watch. He is a threat to us."
Hughes also knows, however, that he has forwards of his own who could trouble England. He has Bellamy's pace and Hartson's physical presence, but above all he has Ryan Giggs, the one Welshman who would walk into the present England team.
"I think we will see a great performance from Ryan," Hughes said. "This is a big stage and Ryan is a world-class performer. It is a stage he is used to and he has had a wonderful career at Old Trafford. It is another opportunity for him to show to people, if they still need showing, what a quality performer he is. Sometimes Ryan is just unplayable. It doesn't matter how well defenders play, it is impossible to stop him when he is in full flow."
Moreover, if anyone knows how form and reputations can be overturned in the maelstrom of a home nations international, it is Hughes. The Wales manager, who has been speaking to Sir Alex Ferguson as he prepares for this game, scored the only goal in the last meeting between the two sides in 1984. The Welsh line-up on that occasion included luminaries such as Jeff Hopkins, David Phillips and Alan Davies.
While Wales will miss Savage, who would have been most likely to send temperatures soaring today, the red dragon rarely fails to breathe fire when confronted by the old enemy, in whatever contest and on whatever stage. The dismantling of the Home International Championship has rankled with the Welsh, which pours more fuel on today's encounter. It is indeed extraordinary that it has taken a World Cup draw to bring together for the first time since 1984 two countries which share a border and have so much in common. In the previous 126 years they found time to play each other 97 times.
Eriksson, who agrees with Hughes that the first 20 minutes could be all important, recognises the need for England to play with as much fire in their bellies. "I really hope that we're up for it as much as Wales, because if we're not, there is a big risk that we won't win," he said. "Even if you have the best 11 footballers in the world out there, you will not win matches if you don't fight, win the tackles, be first on the ball and win the second balls."
At least Eriksson has players who have tasted the special flavour of a home international. Gary Neville said this week that he had never known a more passionate occasion than the Euro 96 victory over Scotland at Wembley, a game in which Sol Campbell also played. Campbell, Phil Neville, David Beckham and Michael Owen played in the only other recent encounter with a home nation, the two-legged play-off against Scotland before Euro 2000, which England won 2-1 on aggregate.
After draws against Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland in their first two games, Wales badly need a result, though Hughes refuses to concede that the group might be all but over if England win. England, with four points from away games against Austria and Poland, are in a prominent position. It is hard to see the chequered flag coming down with anything other than a healthy gap between the three lions and the pursuing dragon.Reuse content