Toshack still the favourite as Speed cools on top job

Lack of strength in depth undermines Welsh cause as factions talk up contenders
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The Klinsmann-style mass celebratory dive towards the corner housing their supporters provided an apt summation of Wednesday night in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium: ecstasy for Poland, agony, and plenty more besides, for Wales.

The Klinsmann-style mass celebratory dive towards the corner housing their supporters provided an apt summation of Wednesday night in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium: ecstasy for Poland, agony, and plenty more besides, for Wales.

Four games played in Group Six, just two points in the bag. Unless you are young and optimistic like Robert Earnshaw, World Cup qualification is now beyond them. Other opinions varied from guarded despair to downright gloom. To deepen that gloom, squabbles are erupting as readily as Welsh defensive gaffes as rival factions line up behind the candidates to replace the departed manager, Mark Hughes.

The FA of Wales intend to have their new man installed before a training camp next month. Who that man will be is unclear. The experienced John Toshack is favoured by a majority of FAW members. The totally inexperienced and newly retired team captain, Gary Speed, is wanted by the bulk of his dressing-room colleagues, although last night he was distancing himself from the job. Meanwhile, others in the frame or jostling to get there include Ian Rush and Brian Flynn, and, looking beyond natives of the Principality, Liverpool's recently redundant Frenchman, Gérard Houllier. The national morning paper, the Western Mail, cleared its back page on Thursday for a "Save Our Soccer" editorial. Claiming that it was "speaking on behalf of a nation", the publication urged the appointment of Toshack as the one man "big enough, strong enough and bold enough" to take control and apply the torch to Hughes's "ageing and underachieving team."

Hughes himself, stepping down after five years, noticeably failed to mention the name of Toshack but felt Speed "would be a good appointment", while the midfielder Robbie Savage, self-appointed dressing-room shop steward, warned that if the FAW decided on anything other than a Speed-Flynn ticket "there will be a few players looking long and hard at their future". Not Savage himself, apparently, as he subsequently confirmed his intention to play under whoever came
in, thus rounding out a few hours of headless-chicken stuff in which he was fortunate not to be red-carded in the second successive game for Wales for wild challenges once his team fell behind. Bouncing the ball off the back of a Polish head was typically infuriating provocation but fortunately the French referee, Alain Sars, opted for leniency and also managed to restrain the goalkeeper, Jerzy Dudek, from applying something more than a ball to Savage's head.

So in defeat Wales ended up with disappointment further marred by that sort of squalid behaviour. The fact that this was their 10th straight competitive match without a win was, many will consider, an unfair blight on the Hughes reign, which ironically began with a stretch
of nine World Cup qualifying games without success after taking sole charge in 2000-01.

Before returning to his new job at Blackburn, Hughes offered a thought or two late on Wednesday night about the frustrations of being Welsh manager. Having seen Ryan Giggs drop out of the Poland game with a virus, Hughes pinpointed a lack of strength in depth as crucial. "We can't cope with missing key players," he said. "That has always been the case over the years and it is still a problem. For the last five years we have been able to get through only because we are organised and show commitment.

"It's frustrating that we haven't got enough players. We are asking the guys to go up a level in matches like this, and it is difficult for them to do so. The players will give whoever comes in everything they have but at times, because of the level we are playing at, it's not enough."

Giving their all turned out to be nowhere near enough against Poland. Although almost 57,000 turned up, Welsh fervour had been sapped by the manner of defeat by England five days earlier, and the minority Polish fans consistently supplied more decibels. The home supporters briefly rallied when Earnshaw put Wales in front just before the hour and Earnshaw himself felt Wales could still turn disaster into qualification "if we carry on like we did for the first 70 minutes tonight."

Football is a 90-minute matter, however, as Poland went on to prove with three goals, all of them excellent and only marginally associated with slipshod defending. Hughes was just as culpable as outpaced defenders like James Collins and Mark Delaney, taking off Speed at 1-1 with 12 minutes left and bringing on his totem-pole centre-forward, John Hartson, having been bold enough to start with two small, quick strikers in Earnshaw and Craig Bellamy. Speed's removal, and Savage's mindless insistence on retribution rather than contribution, opened up the middle of the park for the Poles. A measure of Hughes's frustration could be seen in his spats with the French officials in those last few disastrous minutes, though he had told the team beforehand that getting a win towards qualification was more important than winning one for the departing gaffer.

"Mark told us afterwards we had done well, that we had given our all and couldn't have done any more, and that he had enjoyed working with us," said Earnshaw. "We have enjoyed working with him as well, but we have to look forward now. Obviously, Gary Speed would be a good manager, but it's nothing to do with me. I will play for whoever comes in. As long as the FAW bring in a good man who can take us forward, that's the main thing. Sometimes it's good to take into account the players' opinions."

Hughes expects his opinion to be taken into account, too. "But possibly they need to listen to people who have a different view to me. Maybe I have been too close to it. I am worried as a Welshman because I want Wales to continue to move forward. I think Gary would be a good appointment as long as he had good staff around him. That would help Welsh football, but I am not here to put words into people's mouths."

After a few days' reflection, Speed spoke for himself last night. "If you've got aspirations to be a manager, obviously coaching your country would be a great honour," he said. "But you only get one shot at it and for me this time I don't think I could give it my full attention. We want the best man for the job and I don't think that's me at the moment. I definitely won't be applying for it."

What happens next on the field was illustrated at the final whistle on Wednesday by Bellamy. Sitting in the centre circle, he slowly removed his boots and trudged off in his socks. Clearly, he thinks it's all over.

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