James Lawton: Standing on the shoulders of the 'Gentle Giant', Ramsey can inspire a Welsh revival
Jimmy Murphy, the Wales manager, said that Charles was more than one of the greatest players he had ever seen, 'he is a messiah'
Saturday 26 March 2011
It is a brilliant stroke by Gary Speed to give Aaron Ramsey the captaincy of Wales at the age of 20 – and at a time in his career when many still wonder if he will truly grow as strong and as optimistic as he was before two broken bones threatened to kill off a potentially dazzling career.
Yes, it is an act of faith but the more you look at it the more inspired it seems. If ever a football nation needed reminding that it has a great past – and some future possibilities – it is surely Wales.
A great past, did we say? Yes, despite the fact that the recent one is pockmarked by persistent failure, the team languish at the bottom of the European Championship qualifying group which has always looked like a gift to England if they could just grow up to be fully adjusted professionals, and that such as Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy and now Gareth Bale have been isolated examples of what used to be a steady turnover of superior talent.
Bale, grievously for Wales, is absent in Cardiff today but it is still probably asking too much of the Arsenal prodigy Ramsey that he triggers some kind of revolution the first time he wears the armband.
Yet there is no doubt that Speed, a fine player in his time and new to the manager's job, is looking beyond the immediate barricades. He is seeking to do no less than revive the Welsh football culture.
It would start by identifying quite what Ramsey represents. When we do this we place him alongside his 19-year-old Arsenal team-mate Jack Wilshere, who this season has become the hope of England and its played-out "golden generation". Ramsey is a perfect example of Welsh native talent.
When we think of the titans of Welsh sport the tendency is to speak such names as Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Cliff Morgan and Phil Bennett, supreme artists of rugby, but there is a terrible omission here.
Excluded are men of the quality of Bryn Jones, Ivor Allchurch, Cliff Jones, Ron Burgess, captain of the Tottenham "push and run" team that won the league in 1951, and above all others the man some still believe to be the greatest player ever produced in these islands, John Charles.
Bryn Jones, like so many other fine players, had his career obscured by the Second World War but not before he arrived at Arsenal with a challenge of the most daunting kind: replacing the Scottish sorcerer Alex James. It says everything for the Welshman that he pulled it off with superb guile and a killer touch in front of goal.
However, if a Welsh football man is ever obliged to shoot down the heretical idea that he belongs to a second-class football nation, he need do no more than go back to the year of 1958, when Wales made their only appearance in the World Cup finals.
That tournament in Sweden will always be remembered for the emergence of the 17-year-old Pele. Forgotten, largely, is a scandal that featured Wales as the victims and Hungary, the team who had lit up the football world earlier in the decade, the villains in a play-off game for the quarter-finals.
Charles was kicked out of the tournament, under the tolerant eye of the Soviet referee Nikolai Latyshev, in a way so flagrant it has probably only been matched by the treatment handed out to Pele, principally by Portugal, in England eight years later.
It was a sombre occasion, watched by a crowd of fewer than 3,000 in Stockholm, with Free Hungary protesters draping the ground with black flags in mourning for their former prime minister, Imre Nagy, who had been executed by Soviet puppets the day before.
The Hungarians had only remnants of their revolutionary side but they had a clear idea of how best to break down Wales, who had drawn with them in a group which also saw Wales in deadlock with Mexico and Sweden. It was to neutralise Charles, who was repeatedly brutalised, without any caution from the referee.
Charles was wrecked but not before helping Allchurch score one of the World Cup's great goals, a stupendous left-footed volley that flew just inside the far post. Wales won 2-1 to meet Brazil in the quarter-finals.
Brazil had Pele, Didi, and Garrincha and, perhaps inevitably, had most of the play but Wales, without Charles and, it seemed, their very heart-beat, subsided only in the 66th minute, when Pele scored.
The Wales manager, Jimmy Murphy, Matt Busby's hugely influential right-hand man at Old Trafford who had persuaded Juventus to release Charles after his team had qualified from among the best losers with play-off victories over Israel, always swore that with the man the Italians christened the "Gentle Giant" Wales could have got by Brazil and then beaten France for a place in the final against the host nation.
At one point he told his young prodigy at United, Bobby Charlton, who was not selected by England in 1958, that he would have played him if he could and that with the great Charles Wales would have made an indelible mark on the world game. Murphy said that Charles was more than one of the greatest players he had seen, "he is a messiah".
It is, Speed would probably be the first to agree, a little early to attribute such powers to Ramsey. However, he is a player of the highest quality and has a touch that might just take Wales back to at least some of the best of its past. The manager is right to say that if you are trying to make a new team, and new horizons, there could be no better place to start.
Boycott's outburst reflects game's sad lack of humanity
Stephen Brenkley, esteemed cricket correspondent, was right to suggest here yesterday that in the area of human sensitivity Geoffrey Boycott too frequently displays the touch of a recalcitrant mule.
His dismissal of Michael Yardy's anguished departure from England's World Cup squad was a classic example, brutally rejecting, as it did, any consideration but his own view that the player had suffered too much strain while attempting to justify over-promotion by the England selectors.
One of the problems with this is that if we deplore Boycott's rough and sometimes crass style it is not so easy to deny that he has an uncomfortable habit of aiming the hammer at the head of the nail.
In of all of this there is, of course, a wider issue. Much better players than Yardy have felt the demoralising effect of a cricket schedule which seems increasingly hell-bent on squeezing out the last rupee.
New Zealand's superb victory over South Africa yesterday was another indicator that the World Cup does have an extraordinary capacity for creating drama at a time when most of its inhabitants crave nothing so much as a break from the game which pays their wages.
This was particularly obvious in the collective nervous breakdown experienced by the South Africans, though it is true that they have been making rather a practice of it for many years now.
One thing is beyond dispute. Cricket needs to ration itself a little – and perhaps also acquire a touch of humanity. In the latter category, perhaps Geoff Boycott is not the first man to consult.
Time to forget the mess and just play
We are now told that Fabio Capello has one solemn duty before sending England out to play Wales this afternoon in the wake of the John Terry controversy.
The most appropriate phrase was even spelt out for him in his own language by one national newspaper: "Scusatemi, ho fatto un casino" – "Excuse me, I have made a mess." On the other hand, there is quite a strong case for "Gioca, Bambini" – "Play, little boys."
Yes, please, just play.
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