Speed has Wales singing from same hymn sheet at the dawn of new era
It has almost gone unrecognised in the blizzard of talk about John Terry that Wales have an unresolved captaincy issue too, though the equanimity with which the favourite for the job – Aston Villa's James Collins – accepted the new manager Gary Speed's decision to keep the players guessing yesterday provided a contrast to the noises still issuing out of the England camp.
"Nothing's been mentioned. The manager obviously has had time to think abut it. I am sure he will do it in good time," said Collins.
Whether Speed opts for Collins, Swansea City's Ashley Williams or asks Gareth Bale to carry an even greater weight of responsibility at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, Wales do feel that England's obsession may prove a distraction. "Obviously there's been a bit of a thing going on with the captaincy and they have had a few injuries and a few pull-outs," said Collins. "But we won't go into that too much."
It is hard to overstate the immediate effect that Speed, with his more modern, focused training methods seems to have had on the Wales squad. There are usually deferential mumblings, at least, for an outgoing regime but, to a man, his players have referred to the greater intensity of the training sessions at their Vale of Glamorgan base now that Speed is here and John Toshack gone.
"Professionalism" is the word that keeps cropping up and it reveals itself in the smallest ways. "It sounds silly, but things like we're all wearing the same tops around the hotel and things like that," Collins said. "Preparation before training, stretching, everything; the staff have obviously worked at various clubs and brought those things with them." The squad sense a more attacking brand of football lies ahead, too, under the former Newcastle United and Everton captain, who oversaw a 3-0 defeat to the Republic of Ireland in Dublin in his first game in charge last month but is likely to go for a 4-3-3 formation.
There are other surprises. Ryan Giggs has said he will drop into the camp (minus boots) at some stage this week and another contributor to the cause is Courtenay Hamilton, the opera singer, who will perform the national anthem on Saturday afternoon and started teaching the players Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) when they got together. The squad were issued with songsheets, printed with phonetic versions of the anthem. So yes, said Collins, all in all England do have cause to worry.
Wales' Euro 2012 qualifying campaign is effectively over with them bottom of Group G having lost all three of their opening matches. However, Speed, whose arrival has restored Aaron Ramsay, Craig Bellamy and Bale to the same Wales squad for the first time since the trip to Finland in October 2009, seems prepared to abandon the caution which characterised the Toshack era.
The overriding message yesterday was that Saturday marks the beginning of the long road to qualification for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. "That is the manager's big thing, you know," said Collins. "This is a big game for us but the long-term plan is eventually to qualify. This is the start of it. The professionalism and everything has been improved to achieve that, so hopefully this is a good start."
Wales certainly will not lose wondering what might have been in a Millennium Stadium packed to its 72,500-capacity. "It will be completely different this time with the players we've got going forward," Collins reflected, remembering the 1-0 defeat to England here in 2005. Speed also appears to have been helped by Ray Wilkins and Glenn Hoddle when it comes to motivation. Their declaration that "We'll be too much for you", plastered across the front of yesterday's Western Mail has not gone unnoticed.
Collins has had plenty of noise in his professional life lately – the suspicion is that the defender was dropped by Aston Villa last weekend because of his involvement in a drinking session on a team-bonding trip – but he sees a virtue in Wales' calm progression towards Saturday. It helps that everyone is talking about England, he believes. "You look at Birmingham in the Carling Cup – nobody was talking about them, they slipped under the radar, went in and thoroughly deserved their win. Hopefully we can do a similar thing," he said.
Speed is expected to deploy Bale and Bellamy on the wings, either side of Millwall's Steve Morison, who revealed yesterday that the vocal instruction from Ms Courtenay, who happens to be the reigning Miss Wales, had helped. Speed has confessed to the players that he used to mime the anthem, because he was afraid of getting the words wrong.
"We all had to get up and sing it on Sunday night," Morison said. "The gaffer said it wasn't compulsory but he asked us to have a go. Our aim this week is to get the fans back behind us and get the belief back. You can call the singing our X Factor."
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