Uefa threatens the progress of Wales youth

Under-21 matches currently run parallel with European championship and World Cup qualifiers, and national associations are able to cut down on expense and administration by sending both teams to the same destination.

However, at the beginning of the 2006-07 season, a new one-year tournament will be staged by Uefa, which Wales may have to pre-qualify for. It will mean doubling expenses because under-21 teams will not be able to travel with the seniors.

A Football Association of Wales spokesman, Ceri Stennett, said: "If we don't get through the pre-qualifying stage there will be no meaningful matches to play for a whole year and we will be restricted to friendlies."

Countries such as Northern Ireland do not even compete in top-level under-21 football because of costs and, while Wales do not wish emulate them, the new format would affect the smaller footballing nations.

However, they need high-quality opposition to be able to supply John Toshack's senior squad with promising youngsters - the cornerstone of the manager's five-year plan for an overall improvement in Welsh football. Losing the opportunity to match themselves against the likes of England, Austria and Poland would have a damaging effect.

Toshack has already promoted David Vaughan, Craig Davies, Lewis Price, Richard Duffy and James Collins to his senior squad, and is expected to do likewise with Peter Gilbert, Lewin Nyatanga, Joe Ledley and Ramon Calliste.

The Wales Under-21 manager, Brian Flynn, has devoted all his energies of late to bringing the under-17s, under-19s and under-21s together almost as a club unit with the prospect of rapid progress to the senior team for some candidates.

His team have just two more qualifiers left against Germany and Azerbaijan next month before an under-20 game in Cyprus in November.

By that time the captain Lee Beevers, Lee Wogan, Gilbert, Andrew Crofts, Arron Davies, Mark Jones, Anthony Pulis and Vaughan will all be too old for competitive under-21 football.

That means Flynn will soon be concentrating on under-17 and under-19 European qualifiers to try to find the next batch of young players. An under-17 qualifying group will be staged in north Wales later this month against Estonia, Switzerland and Kazakhstan, while in October the under-19s travel to France to play their qualifiers against the hosts, San Marino and Austria. They also play an under-19 warm-up friendly in Northern Ireland on Tuesday.

None of this preparation will have much point if by the time next season starts, there is no under-21 tournament to contest - or one which is financial prohibitive.

Flynn's side were given a lesson in the darker arts of top-level football on Tuesday night when they lost 3-2 to Poland despite leading twice. Wales had scored twice in the first half through the lively David Cotterill and impressive Vaughan, and were leading at the break despite a Pawel Brozek strike.

Poland stepped up the pace after the interval and Brozek equalised before Karol Gregorek's late winner. In that second period Poland turned on the rough stuff: sly pushes, diving and a couple of blatant pieces of intimidation which riled Flynn's young charges, and in particular Beevers, who was booked for dissent.

Flynn said: "If they are going to play at this level, there were things going on out on the pitch they will have to get used to. They are a very young side and they did allow themselves to get frustrated and distracted."