Hughes may think better of trying to rebuild ageing Wales

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The Independent Football

You imagined there would be more anger as the bars of St Mary's Street began to empty and the smell of stale beer and fresh disappointment drifted into Cardiff's main thoroughfare.

Instead, people smiled sheepishly and wandered off to find a kebab or a cab. Mark Hughes was right in saying that the European Championship play-off was a great occasion and perhaps for many Welsh fans that was enough.

From the moment they overcame Italy on an October night alive with self-belief, Hughes' team has been held up as a metaphor for what a small, often ignored, nation might achieve. The Wales manager thought the journey could finish with football eclipsing rugby as the principality's national sport and, as they travelled to Australia for the World Cup, Steve Hansen's men were told to take their inspiration from the Welsh footballers.

It should have been the other way round. Had Hughes' team played against Russia with the inventiveness and spirit shown by Wales in their epic quarter-final with England in Brisbane there might have been more cause for pride. That was a heroic defeat; Wednesday night in Cardiff was altogether flatter.

Superbly though he has run most of this campaign, this might be the best time for Hughes to leave. He would make a convincing candidate to manage Tottenham, while there is the emotional pull of returning to Old Trafford as Sir Alex Ferguson's deputy - with the prospect of one day succeeding him. There are, however, no guarantees with Ferguson. Bryan Robson, Brian Kidd and Steve McClaren all imagined they might one day inherit and thus far none has.

Remaining with Wales and preparing for the long haul of another qualification campaign, this time for the 2006 World Cup, must seem peculiarly unappetising at the moment. Ian Rush remarked that it took him four weeks to overcome the despair of failing to make it to the 1994 tournament, but compared to the team he got over it quickly. Wales took nearly a decade to recover from the defeat by Romania and this squad has probably passed its peak.

For Gary Speed, Andy Melville and Paul Jones, all great servants of Welsh football, time is almost up. Ryan Giggs is nearing his thirties, while there can be only so many operations Craig Bellamy's knees can withstand. The midfield looks young and solid enough but there is no great stream of Welsh talent filtering through. The results of the Under-21 team have long been an embarrassment. As Peter Reid would reflect, having tasted the adulation of saving Leeds from relegation in May, there is something to be said for choosing the moment of your departure.

Wales have never properly qualified for a major tournament. The sainted team of 1958 was actually eliminated in the qualifers and drawn to play Israel, then the victim of an international boycott, from a pot of losers. Since then, history has weighed more heavily with each succeeding year.

The task was always daunting. To qualify for Portugal, Wales had either to finish first, ahead of Italy, or face a play-off against a side almost certainly ranked above them. Wales were seeded to finish fourth in Group Nine and their achievement, even in defeat, is a real - if intangible - one.

Perhaps when Hughes looks back, it will be the journey to Belgrade in August on which everything turned. They should have gone in April to face a Serbia and Montenegro side in complete disarray, led by a doomed manager. The four-month delay, triggered by the assassination of the Serbian prime minister, allowed the team to regroup sufficiently to win 1-0. Even so, Wales might have beaten them with a little more aggression.

Had victory been achieved, the 4-0 thrashing at San Siro which so undermined their morale might have been ridden. As they waited deep in the night at Milan's Malpensa Airport, Hughes' team, which had led the group from the outset, believed they would now be caught, even though victory over Finland at the Millennium Stadium, one of three matches they failed to win in Cardiff, would have put them back in control.

But there had been too much history, too many late failures and the prophesy hatched in the departure lounge in the small hours, was self-fulfilling.