Speed seeks 'I was there' victory to launch Wales' hopeful new era
Beating England today can give credibility to manager's long-term plan of qualifying for a major tournament
The location chosen for Gary Speed's first significant Wales press conference – a golf clubhouse – was laden with irony for any who sought it, in the week that Fabio Capello has told his players they were not permitted to play the sport, and the atmosphere the new manager has rapidly engendered in his side is certainly a contrast to the buttoned-up England scene.
"It can get tedious being in a hotel for a week," said Speed – the ironic echo of Wayne Rooney's discussion of life with England in Rustenburg last summer was again unintentional. "But there's been lots going on with presentations and videos."
While Fabio Capello's decision to reinstate John Terry as captain – unfathomable and wrongheaded to many – has contributed to the sense that the Italian's era is reaching an end, Speed marched past the golf trolleys to convey a feeling that his own nation is at the beginning of something new. He has flooded them with ideas in the past six days because there has been a dual challenge to get minds around – overcoming England for the first time since 1984 this afternoon, but also beginning Wales' journey from their present dark place, 116th in the world, to becoming a side who can compete for qualification for a major tournament, which so narrowly evaded them in 1993 and 2003.
Yes, said Speed, a victory for Wales would deliver an almighty boost to a nation which has not even half-filled the Millennium Stadium in the 13 matches since England were last here in 2005. But victory is not the be all and end all. "I'm not sure [it is]" Speed said. "If [we do win] then hopefully it won't be my greatest, come the end of the career and come a few years' time I'll have even better results. We don't want to sit here in five years, saying 'remember England'. We want to remember qualifying. It would be fantastic should we win but that's not the only thing."
It is Speed's focus on the future which has seen him take the bold move to make Aaron Ramsey the youngest permanent captain in the nation's football history. There was an "interview" of sorts for the job, Ramsey revealed yesterday. Speed had taken him aside on Wednesday and asked him "one or two questions", the most testing apparently being a reminder that "some things come with being captain, dealing with press, having to face your people".
The spotlight was not as bad as he had thought, the player declared, though the assertion by the man they call "Rambo" that he is not "a screamer or a shouter" hardly needed making. Speed will argue he is looking to 2014, though, and Cardiff needs no reminding of the Welsh tradition of appointing 20-year-old captains – the bronze statue of Gareth Edwards in St David's Centre is testament to what became of another. The unvarnished truth is that Speed has very few options. Gareth Bale's susceptibility to injury and the club v country row of the past 48 hours rules out the only other contender who does not have his own game to worry about.
This Wales side, drawing more than half its players from the Championship, means Speed has a lot less at his disposal than Terry Yorath and Mark Hughes – their other two successful managers of the modern era. For Speed to achieve his goals would be a considerably finer achievement than either of those two.
His impact has been palpable though, the mood this week being resonant of the one when Hughes' arrival in 1999 signalled the end of the unpopular Bobby Gould. You see immediately why the players like his blend of realism, energy and deep appreciation of Welsh nationhood. Speed even referenced a Max Boyce song yesterday. "It is one of those [games] when people in years to come might say 'I was there' – as the song went," he declared.
He will be writing down his team talk before delivering it today, he said, and though the notepad under his arm yesterday has been with him all week, he has spontaneity to draw on. Speed used to share a car into training with Sir Bobby Robson in his Newcastle days and though he made light of the comparison, there were conversations he will draw on.
"The thing with Bobby was that he didn't know he was doing it; he was such a natural leader," Speed reflected. "He did it with ease, without thinking. He just inspired people. Unfortunately I don't have that quality, but if I can remind the players and get them as fired up as possible that's what I'll do and to the best of my ability. Every manager in the world would want what Bobby had."
Speed dealt deftly with Harry Redknapp's claims that Bale had sustained a hamstring strain with Wales – nonsensical, considering Bale has only undertaken a light warm-up here. "I haven't spoken to Harry but we swapped telephone messages and everything's fine. It was a misunderstanding so that's been nipped in the bud," Speed said. Now for the future. "If we play the best that we can, we might still not win the game," Speed said. "But we concentrate on ourselves and make sure that we are 100 per cent. If England do have an off day I am sure that will give us a chance."
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