Suddenly, Wales looked every inch the nation currently sandwiched between Mali and Jordan in the Fifa listings; the nation ranked 58th in the world. Suddenly, Paul Jones was an ageing goalkeeper, Darren Barnard a Grimsby Town full-back, Andy Johnson a limited midfielder, and John Hartson a one-dimensional striker. Even Mark Hughes, the architect behind the team's recent transformation, suddenly seemed utterly lost.
Second best in every department and overawed by the occasion, Wales were found out in their Euro 2004 play-off at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday. The bluff of the last 15 months, a period that saw them defeat Italy and lead their qualifying group at the halfway point, was not enough to bring qualification for next summer's finals in Portugal. Instead, Wales's 45-year wait for an invitation to a major tournament goes on. So, too, does the worrying talk of several players retiring and, worse still, Hughes resigning.
Wales can ill-afford to lose any members of their small squad, but keeping the manager must surely be the Football Association of Wales's priority. The scale may be different, but Hughes has done for Welsh football what Clive Woodward has done for English rugby. "We're in better shape than we used to be," the 40-year-old says proudly, "that's for sure. We have a good structure nowadays, and a proper, professional way of approaching games. I'm definitely happy about that, although at this moment in time I still feel like a failure because the plan was to qualify. I know we have come a long way, but I am also aware that people will look at our result against Russia and say, 'Well, we didn't do it yet again'."
The immediate aftermath of a crushing blow is never the best time for sportsmen to make rational comments, which may go some way towards explaining the mixed messages that emerged from the camp immediately after Russia's 1-0 victory in Cardiff. While Ryan Giggs said he would almost certainly carry on representing his country, the rest of the team's spine - most notably goalkeeper Jones, the centre-back Andy Melville, the central midfielder Mark Pembridge, the captain, Gary Speed, and Hartson - all kept strangely quiet about their futures.
For his part, Hughes used that old favourite about being "contracted until 2006 but at the mercy of my employers", although the truth is that he runs no risk of being sacked. Rather, those closest to Hughes believe that the key to him staying is limiting the number of high-profile retirements.
"It's easy to get down on yourself and make rash decisions after a night like this," says Hughes, whose stock has risen considerably during the past 18 months, thus prompting interest from Premiership clubs, "but we must keep going. It's important that everyone goes away to have a think about things. No one should pronounce until they have reviewed the situation in the cold light of day.
"I'm hoping that there isn't a mass exodus. I think we've shown the players that we can provide them with the right environment to prosper, and I'd like to think they still want to be part of this group."
Speed, who is one of Hughes's best friends, is the most likely candidate for retirement. He is now 34 and would not be involved in another competitive fixture until the eve of his 35th birthday. Understandably, the Welsh manager will not discuss his captain's future, but he does admit that multiple departures would almost certainly jeopardise his country's chances of qualifying for a major event in the near future. "Given the size of the squad I have," he says, "any loss would have a huge impact. We have a decent mix of old and new at the moment and I feel we can go places. That's why we need to stay together as a group."
Hughes knows that his pleas will fall on a number of deaf ears, but hopes that the players who do retire will at least be granted the time to "make the decision themselves". He knows only too well that those who play for the Premiership big guns will be encouraged to hang up their international boots. One need only look at the influences of Sir Alex Ferguson on the Republic of Ireland's Roy Keane, and of Sir Bobby Robson on Alan Shearer, to understand that high-profile retirements are often joint decisions.
"There is a lot of pressure from clubs," Hughes says, "because international football is an irritation to them. The players have got to be strong and make their own decisions. We need them to carry on."
One factor that may persuade Hughes to continue is that he firmly believes Wales are one qualification away from becoming a credible force in the game. "I've always said that the hardest part is breaking our duck," he says. "Once we do that, we'll have an impact in a major tournament because we have the players who can change a game. But we need to qualify, because the longer it goes on, the longer we'll be drawn in groups with the better sides."
Much of Hughes's continued hunger derives from the fact that he has witnessed near-misses as both player and manager. He was part of the 1993 squad that fell at the final qualifying hurdle for the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States. That night, Romania were the tormentors; on Wednesday, it was Russia's turn. "It's difficult to accept these sorts of failures," Hughes admits, "and I'm sure it will hurt many of us for some time."
At least the manager might have another chance of reaching the promised land with Wales, something that cannot be said for many of his senior players. "It would be a travesty if guys like Ryan [Giggs] and John [Hartson] did not go on to the bigger stages," Hughes says. "I've been a player myself and I know that, although you think you're going to get plenty of opportunities, you often only get one go at the big prize."
The whole of Wales will be hoping Hughes is wrong on that count.Reuse content