Hughes leaves Wales with age-old problems

Gloom envelops Celtic nations as World Cup hopes disappear
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Mark Hughes began his managerial career with Wales in a shambles and he left with the Principality's football veering towards chaos. When his five years in Cardiff are summed up, he would argue it is the in-between that ought to be remembered.

After his final, painful match in charge, Hughes admitted bluntly that, although Wales had played better than their results suggested, this is "a results business". For all his success in transforming Welsh football into a credible force, for all the excellence of their play in the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign, the results make interesting reading. Of the 27 competitive internationals Wales played under him, six were won and four of those were against Belarus and Azerbaijan. Wales under Hughes became a team that was hard to beat, they were not, one glorious night against Italy apart, especially good at winning matches that mattered.

With their win bonuses totalling £100 a man, the Welsh FA who saw enormous attendances at the Millennium Stadium, especially during the European Championship qualifiers, were hardly out of pocket by the time Hughes was done.

As he prepared to work with Jack Walker's trust fund at Blackburn, Hughes' most accurate summation of Welsh football under him was that they lacked the mental strength to win when it mattered and there was precious little depth to the squad.

The succession is likely to be a messy affair. Logically there should be no choice at all. John Toshack, who has taken Real Madrid to La Liga, Brian Flynn, who has made a fair fist of managing Wrexham and Swansea, or Gary Speed, who has never managed anyone? It would be like going out for a meal and being offered a choice of Wales' most famous restaurant, The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, the local Italian or popping round to some bloke who's just been given a Jamie Oliver cookbook for his birthday. The majority on the FAW council is firmly behind Toshack and would want him in place for a training camp next month.

But Toshack's acidic criticisms of Wales under Hughes have muddied what should be clear water. The FAW may want him but many in the Wales dressing room, although not John Hartson, are more wary.

Robbie Savage, who seems to have turned himself into a kind of trade union official for the Welsh team much in the way that Gary Neville has for England, was adamant. "The FAW must speak to the players and they must speak to Mark Hughes. But don't make Gary Speed apply for the job, offer it to Gary Speed and Brian Flynn. It's not just me who wants that, it's everybody in that squad.

"You saw the reception Gary had when he came off, and I think if he was made manager, a lot of the older players would stick around." Savage then said he would carry on playing for Wales no matter who took over, which, as so often with the Birmingham City midfielder, rather undermined his militancy.

Some in the FAW have been muttering openly about being held to ransom by their players. But if Toshack and Speed are unacceptable to either party, Ian Rush, who despite only a few games as manager of Chester, impressed as an under-17 coach and has a playing record to demand respect, might be the compromise candidate.

Sam Allardyce, Speed's manager at Bolton, doubted he could combine the task of playing at the Reebok Stadium and managing Wales, even if he has retired from the international game. "I know from personal experience that when you stop playing it's the worst time in your life," he said, arguing that logically Speed should retire from all football before taking over in Cardiff. "If Mark Hughes found it difficult coaching Wales and managing in the Premiership, why should Gary find it any easier playing?"

There is more than just raw dressing-room sentiment behind appointing Speed, especially with Flynn as his assistant. Virtually every Welshman, bar the eternally optimistic Robert Earnshaw, believes the only thing that can be salvaged from this campaign is to deliver a rather more spirited performance against England in Cardiff than they did in Manchester. The 2006 World Cup is now a fantasy after just four games.

It is a long way and a long slog towards the 2008 European Championship, by then all of Wales' significant players bar Danny Gabbidon, Earnshaw, Simon Davies and Craig Bellamy will be over 30 or gone completely. There is talent in the shape of Carl Fletcher but the Under-21 side has been dreadful for years. There is not much for Toshack to work on and, if he is appointed, expectations will be great and possibly unsustainable. If Speed is to learn his trade, a fallow time might be the best place to start. It worked for Hughes and it might again.

Welsh assembly candidates for coach's job

John Toshack

Managed Swansea, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad with success and is eminently the most qualified candidate. But recent triumphs have been few and many players dislike him. Managed Wales for one match 10 years ago before walking away.

Gary Speed

Has a Uefa B coaching certificate but otherwise is entirely untried. He would, however, command the support of the dressing room he captained until Wednesday night. Has a two-year playing contract at Bolton and may not fancy the drop in wages.

Brian Flynn

Has supporters in the FAW, especially from North Wales. Did reasonably well for Wrexham and Swansea but lacks the charisma of the other candidates. Nevertheless, may still have a role to play as many feel he would make a fine assistant to Speed.