Jones unable to stop the Welsh slump

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The Independent Online
Wales 0

Bulgaria 3

WALES went in shame to their rightful place in the international wilderness last night, humiliated for the third time in as many months by opponents, more skilful and far superior, from eastern Europe. Any remaining hope of qualifying for the 1996 European Championship was ruthlessly torn away and not even Vinnie Jones, their newly appointed saviour, could do anything about it.

After Moldova and Georgia had piled scorn on Welsh defending, it was always a fair bet that the rampant Bulgarians, semi-finalists at the World Cup, would also fill their boots. This was Wales' worst home defeat in a competitive international for 27 years; a statistic that should hasten the departure of their hapless manager, Mike Smith.

Jones, the proud Englishman with a Welsh grandfather, drew extra support to the Arms Park stadium and helped generate a lively atmosphere and a passionate response to a forlorn cause. Some of his passing was surprisingly good, too.

That said, there were other parts to his game (no prizes for guessing which ones) that were out of place in an international setting, for that matter in any sphere of the game. The wonder is that he survived without a booking, two despicable assaults on his fleet-footed opposition going unnoticed by a benign Swedish referee.

Mark Hughes, on the other hand, is capable of so much more to commend him but chose a more malevolent approach. Many of his challenges had the spectators wincing. Finally, in the 81st minute, he was cautioned for a barge in the back of Ivailo Yordanov. Later still, he was fortunate to escape a red card for a lunge on the same player which caused the Bulgarian to be taken off on a stretcher.

Bulgaria took their punishment surprisingly well. They had already dished out heavier punishment in the shape of two early goals and were to add a third through Hristo Stoichkov. A class apart throughout, Bulgaria appeared capable of scoring with every advance into Welsh territory while the home side, who sporadically roused themselves to fashion half-chances, were woeful in their finishing.

It was all depressingly predictable from a Welsh perspective. Jones, given a rousing entry to the international ranks by the Cardiff crowd, committed his first foul, after five minutes and it marked the first bout of Bulgarian ascendancy. The free-kick was cleared only to Krasimir Balakov who bent his cross beyond the 18-yard line where the sweeper, Trifon Ivanov, took careful and immaculate aim to send the ball past a helpless Neville Southall.

The disparity in class was personified by Mark Aizlewood, at 35, returning to the Welsh team after an absence of 14 months. In the 15th minute, he delayed his pass, came under pressure and eventually lost out to Emil Kostadinov. With contemptuous ease, the winger stepped inside and with great precision drove the ball inside Southall's other post.

Wales fought hard to make up the deficit, Jones seeing a header cleared off the line at the start of the second half, though it was excessively hard.

Hughes was guilty of a number of offensive challenges in a vain attempt to regain possession while, in a disgraceful spell of muscle, Jones first brought his forearm down into the face of Yordanov and followed up with a short-arm punch into Penev's midriff.

Stoichkov showed how to stay cool when, in the 51st minute, he rounded Southall and steered the ball delicately past the covering defender on the goal-line.

Afterwards, Smith signalled his intention to stay on, saying: "You shouldn't be asking me about my job, that is a question for the Welsh FA. As far as I'm concerned, the situation has not changed."

With six remining fixtures to play out in Group Seven and the prize hopelessly beyond them, the Welsh FA, which precipitated their nation's demise with their decision not to renew Terry Yorath's contract, will surely look elsewhere - to Ron Atkinson, Howard Kendall, Mike Walker or to Brian Flynn - to begin the long haul to respectability once more.

WALES (1-4-3-2): Southall (Everton); Aizlewood (Cardiff); Phillips (Nottingham Forest), Melville (Sunderland), Coleman (Crystal Palace), Bowen (Norwich); Hughes (Manchester United), Jones (Wimbledon), Speed (Leeds); Saunders (Aston Villa), Rush (Liverpool).

BULGARIA (1-3-4-2): Mikhailov (Levski); Ivanov (Neuchatel Xamax); Kremenliev (Levski), Yankov (Vallalovig), Tzvetanov (Levski); Lechkov (Hamburg), Balakov, Yordanov (Sporting Lisbon), Stoichkov (Barcelona).; Kostadinov (La Toruna), Penev (Valencia).Substitutes: Syrakov (Plodiv) for Kostadinov, 74; Kiriakov (CSKA) for Penev, 74.

Referee: L Sundell (Sweden).