Wales's best-laid plans unravel as Hughes eyes exit

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The Independent Football

When arranging their fixtures for the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, the Football Association of Wales bore two factors in mind. They wanted to recreate the flying start that energised their thrilling, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to make this year's European Championship and they needed to mask the two-match ban Ryan Giggs sustained against Russia.

Thus, Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland, teams eminently beatable by a Giggs-less Wales, were pencilled in. The strategy can hardly be said to have worked and this morning the FAW must be outlining other tactics; such as how to cope if, as seems increasingly likely, their manager, Mark Hughes, returns to Blackburn Rovers.

It is too trite to suggest that this is merely a long hangover from their play-off defeat to Russia. The dramatic, scarcely believable draw with Northern Ireland which saw four goals, three sendings-off and two points shared, was the eighth consecutive occasion in which Wales have failed to win a competitive international.

Two points from two games is not an irretrievable position, but three points from four will be. If either England or Poland are not beaten next month, Group Six will turn into the wearying, futile slog so many of their past World Cup campaigns have been.

Gary Speed, the Wales captain who has experienced too many of them, commented afterwards: "What this result means is that we are going to have to pick up points on the road and if we don't pick up points from the October matches against England and Poland, then you could say we're out of it. Even if we had won the first two games, we'd still have liked to have gone to Old Trafford and beaten England so nothing's changed in that respect. What is for certain is that we can't play any worse than we have in the last two games."

Of the three red cards, only Robbie Savage's appears open to appeal. Domenico Messina's refereeing performance will stick long in the throat in Cardiff and Belfast but it was the Ulstermen who suffered most. David Healy's dismissal for over-zealous celebrations baffled both managers, although as the Preston striker was shown two yellows it cannot be appealed, while Paul Jones should have been sent off for handling outside his area and Tony Capaldi was denied a blatant penalty.

Healy insisted that he uses a forearm gesture directed at his family to celebrate afer every goal he scores and is compiling a video of previous celebrations to send to Fifa. However, the forearm and clenched fist salute is regarded by Italians as one of the worst of all insults.

Savage, who emotionally claimed he was considering giving up the international game, described his dismissal for retaliating against Michael Hughes' atrocious tackle, which will cost him the chance of facing England, as "the lowest point of my career".

"It has been a terrible night," he reflected. "What else can I say?" His mood was aped by 60,000 who did not linger in the Millennium Stadium to hear what sounded like a Belfast victory party in the far corner of the ground.

Criticising Mark Hughes in the Principality is a dangerous business, given what he has achieved, but on Wednesday night his tactics of starting James Collins, a relative novice in central defence, and ignoring Welsh pleas to employ Robert Earnshaw, came horribly adrift.

Hughes explained that with Andy Melville and Robert Page not quite match-fit, he wanted to give Collins experience. This suggested that he, like many of his players, expected a routine evening, which some abysmal refereeing, poor defending and Irish grit turned on its head.

Earnshaw has scored more goals at the Millennium Stadium than any other footballer and in February's friendly against Scotland, a similar side to Northern Ireland, he excelled. In the hour he was given once the Irish were down to nine men, Earnshaw might have had three goals against a defence who appeared to be extras in the Alamo.

The Northern Ireland manager, Lawrie Sanchez, who has a way with statistics familiar to students of Alastair Campbell or Gérard Houllier, suggested that in terms of shots and pressure, his side deserved to win. The facts are, that Wales had 23 shots to four and forced 14 corners, mostly wretchedly-delivered, to one. But Sanchez was right, Northern Ireland should have won.