Scotland v Wales: Chris Coleman hopes club success will rub off for his side
Against Scotland, Coleman needs a taste of same heady mixture enjoyed by Swansea, Cardiff and Wrexham
The eyes of the Welsh nation will turn to Glasgow, with hopes that the pride which has been bursting through the streets of Cardiff in the six days since Rob Howley's men sent the country's spirits soaring can extend from rugby union to football. But the hearts of a sizeable proportion of the nation's population will save their hopes for Sunday, when the team which has been to hell and halfway back in the past decade finds out how it feels to go to Wembley.
Wrexham are in the FA Trophy final, 16 years on from the days when Gary Bennett, Steve Watkin and Karl Connolly took them to an FA Cup quarter-final, and for the third successive season they are also involved in an almighty battle for promotion back to the Football League, from which they plummeted shortly after moving out of administration, five years back.
The final, against Grimsby Town, is also the latest instalment in what, by any gauge, is the finest season ever for the club game in Wales. Swansea have already been and gone from Wembley – with the Capital One Cup safely in the cabinet – while Cardiff City look odds-on for automatic promotion. And jostling one place beneath Wrexham in the Conference Premier promotion slots are Newport County, last season's losing play-off finalists. In the space of 15 months, all four Welsh clubs have been to Wembley.
They've benefited from investing money to develop indigenous Welsh talent. Wrexham's Colliers Park has been a mainstay throughout financial turbulence, with the talents it has unearthed scattered around Liverpool (where Wales Under-21 player Danny Ward headed last year), Fulham, Everton and Coventry. Chris Maxwell, who was nine when he started at the club, will be Sunday's goalkeeper, having been brought back on emergency loan from Fleetwood Town.
Cardiff City's production line has been more formidable (Chris Gunter, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley, Adam Matthews) and Swansea, developed later, are delivering the same (Joe Allen, Ashley Richards).
It is fair to say that the Football Association of Wales (FAW) has been more a hindrance than a help to these clubs, at times, over the past 20 years. The association was determined in the 1990s that Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham must play in the newly constituted national League of Wales. Mike Rigg, the Wales technical director when Mark Hughes was appointed manager, fought hard against that dictat, while in a role which also entailed helping to develop the league. He knew that the cream of the Welsh crop would develop playing against Lincoln, rather than Llanelli; Colchester, not Caernarfon. Hughes's arrival, to forge a partnership the two men maintained at Manchester City and QPR, brought Rigg something of a soulmate, also deeply committed to youth development.
That philosophy was maintained by Brian Flynn, in many ways the unsung main man of Welsh national football these past 10 years, whose instructions from John Toshack, Hughes's successor, were just to get young players into club first teams, and help get the average age of his first team down from 30 to 25. Off Flynn went, hammering on managers' doors, impressing upon them the value of their Welsh players and watching as many as eight games a week. Flynn says his heart missed a beat when he saw a 15-year-old Gareth Bale, in Southampton, just as he did a 15-year-old called Ryan Giggs playing for Darland High School, at Rossett, near Wrexham, in 1988.
It was as Wrexham manager that Flynn also fought fatefully to keep clubs out of the League of Wales, even though it meant that this Sunday's finalists would be excluded from the Welsh Cup which had secured their pass to some glorious European Cup Winners' Cup nights against Real Zaragoza, Roma, Anderlecht and others.
What turns all this effort into a strong Wales team, though? The elixir of success has been so very difficult to find for a national team who again find themselves labouring 71st in the world rankings, with three points from four qualifiers in Group A. The essential commodities, which Hughes and, briefly Gary Speed, located, were a fulcrum of two or three world-class players, plus solidity in every department.
But Chris Coleman's struggle to build on what Speed had created from players scattered to the four corners from their Welsh club roots demonstrates what a challenging job this is. And what a monumentally sad loss Speed was, in so many ways.
Coleman at first tried to embrace the passing style of football Speed had bestowed – a Damascene conversion considering what a direct game he brought to Coventry City. Then, when the PR gloss faded and results were the only judge, his survivor's instinct led him back to the long ball. Wales still seem a mighty long way from the sunny uplands where Speed left them when he died so prematurely.
Coleman – whose staff are desperately seeking to get Gareth Bale recovered from a virus to play the Scots – admitted in Glasgow last night that club or rugby union success did not necessarily correlate with national football success, even though his players have this week been wandering the streets of Cardiff, where a fair few people are still basking in the rugby feats of Sam Warburton, Mike Phillips and Co.
"It depends on how many of our Welsh players are playing for the Welsh clubs," Coleman said. "We've got three players at Swansea, Cardiff could go up [with] one [Craig Bellamy]. So that's not really going to make a difference to us as a national team."
Captain Ashley Williams' glass was half full, though. "I was thinking… the other night when I was watching a re-run of the rugby game, it would be nice if we could get a win as well and keep the momentum going in Wales. Just giving the public something to cheer again would be nice."
In some respects, successful Welsh club sides compound his challenge. A poor crowd against Croatia at Swansea's Liberty Stadium next Tuesday would contrast with the enthusiasm for Michael Laudrup's players there.
For their part, Wrexham will take at least 17,000 – marginally more than Grimsby – to Wembley to watch a side probably including Joe Clarke, signed two years ago after the fans stumped up for his wages. Promotion matters considerably more than the FA Trophy for manager Andy Morrell, whose side have lost to Luton in consecutive play-off semi-finals and who are not wealthy, even by Conference standards.
But Neil Ashton, the indefatigable left-back, is fighting back from an ankle injury; Martin Riley is restored; and 36-year-old Morrell is eyeing one of his substitute's roles. They're not the first North Wales side to seek glory at the stadium but since Bangor City only drew with Northwich Victoria there, losing in a replay at Stoke in 1990, there is history to be made. Wrexham head south in fervent pursuit of it.
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