Red mists and a divided nation

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE JOKE used to be that the only Welsh team who ever won at Cardiff Arms Park played football not rugby. But after a year in which Wales's footballers have gone from the brink of the World Cup finals to humiliation in the European Championship, n o one is cracking it any more.

Instead, the mood in the nation is one of disappointment, frustration, and anger, the more bitterly felt because Wales's problems are seen to be almost entirely self-inflicted. Just as internal blood-letting became a feature of Welsh rugby, so it has with football. And it looks as if the Taff will continue to run red.

At the Arms Park on Wednesday Wales take on the World Cup semi-finalists Bulgaria in a European Championship qualifier which could effectively end their chances of reaching the finals in England in 1996 after only four of their 10 matches. It may be 36 years since Wales were last in the finals of a major tournament, but in recent times their assaults on the high ground have been agonisingly close-run things - none more so than the last match of their World Cup qualifying campaign against Romania in Cardiff 13 months ago.

Those who take a narrow view of history - and in this instance it is hard not to - will point to the moment 29 minutes from the end of the match when Paul Bodin, the Wales left-back, missed a penalty that would have put his side 2-1 up and on their way to the victory they needed to reach the finals in the United States.

That Romania eventually won 2-1, were by far the better side, and went on to perform outstandingly in America, is neither here nor there. Wales had their chance and blew it. But, more important in the long run, when they had the chance to salvage something from the wreckage, they blew that too.

"We were in a unique position," said Mark Aizlewood, the former Wales captain, last week. "For the first time we could have been more popular than the rugby team. What's happened since has set us back 20 years." Aizlewood, player-coach at Cardiff City, said that even after Romania, "the outlook was still bright. All it needed was continuity. But to understand why it didn't happen, you have to understand Welsh football."

To an outsider, that is rather like trying to understand the Welsh language, a subject Aizlewood also knows about. He is taking lessons in it. Is it a difficult language to learn? "Murder," he said. And murder, many believe, is what the Football Association of Wales (FAW) committed against the national team.

The first blow was struck with the sacking of Terry Yorath, the manager who was only a penalty kick away from glory. Then came the John Toshack era, all 47 days of it, before the FAW turned to Mike Smith. Under him, a team drained of the spirit Yorath had spent five years fostering have had a disastrous start to their European Championship campaign, beating Albania 2-0 but losing 3-2 in Moldova and 5-0 in Georgia.

Injuries have not helped. In six matches since losing to Romania, Wales have been unable to field Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs and Dean Saunders in the same team. If the stars are finding it easier to drop out than they once did, nobody in Wales seems to be blaming them.

Yorath, after a year in which he has coached in Japan and done some media work, is now also at Cardiff, as a slightly ill-defined "director of football" while ownership of the club changes hands. Understandably, he says he is still wary of going back into the game. For the one thing most people in Wales do agree on is that the FAW handled his dismissal appallingly.

"A disgrace," said Mike England, Yorath's predecessor. "Shambolic," said Leighton James, the former Welsh international. "Farcical," said Aizlewood. The diplomatic Yorath, who claims to feel no bitterness about what happened, allows himself to say that the way events unfolded "didn't do me any good, or them". Even Alun Evans, the FAW chief executive and the man widely perceived to have been behind not only Yorath's going but other ills in Welsh football, accepts that "there were matters that should havebeen more easily resolved" and that "this was where it all went wrong".

Nominally, the stumbling block was money. Yorath wanted a pay rise from £45,000 to £60,000. The FAW wouldn't give it to him. This looked rather petty, especially after the big gates Yorath's team had commanded, but the reality is that the FAW's means remained modest - turnover of some £2m in a good year, compared, for example, with the English FA's £50m.

Whether they could have done more to capitalise on their assets, especially Giggs, is another matter. And as much of a factor in Yorath's dismissal was the politicking of the FAW council. "It was depressing enough not to qualify for the World Cup," Aizlewood said. "But to see decisions like that made for non-footballing reasons was even more depressing."

The 26-man council, made up largely of representatives from local leagues, schools, and area authorities, come in for the same criticism that their counterparts in England do - that they lack vision and expertise, and are riven with factional splits of which a long-standing divide between North and South Walians is the most glaring example.

Parochial on the one hand, the council had overblown expectations on the other, Aizlewood said. "When we didn't reach the World Cup finals they took it personally." Yorath also felt the council missed the point about Wales - a team whose world-class forwards provided a "fantastic wrapping", but that what it contained was more representative.

At times, Yorath found it difficult to do business with the council. He used to have to travel to a meeting with them in mid-Wales just to present the squad he had picked, at which point one member would always criticise his selection of Ian Rush. "It was like a crusade for him," Yorath said. But the squad was never changed, so "it was a complete waste of time".

In spite of that, Yorath said he would welcome the chance to manage Wales again. Did he now regret asking for a pay rise? "Yes," he said after only a moment's hesitation. But what about the prospect of renewing his partnership with Evans? "Alun had his moods like anyone else," Yorath said. "But most of the time I got what I wanted."

Nearly every argument in Welsh football seems to come back to Evans, a blustering 52-year-old former schoolmaster brought up in the Rhondda. He has been in the job 12 years ("If I'd failed, the council would have got rid of me"), and clearly feels maligned and misunderstood. "People always want to shoot the messenger," he said in his oak-panelled office across the road from the Arms Park, where the sense of permanence is slightly illusory. The FAW have been here only eight years, since their controversial move south from Wrexham.

Evans is at pains to point out that he has no vote, and is there to put into effect what the council decide. So why does he get so much flak? "I think it testifies to my eloquence as defender of FAW policy." Asked to explain the Yorath debacle, he talks a lot about remits and voting mechanisms and sub-committees, but says firmly, "I did not plunge any knife into him."

For Evans, there is the "real truth" about what happened with Yorath and then Toshack, but he does not want to divulge it. Toshack, back in Wales after his sacking by Real Sociedad, does not want to discuss matters Welsh either.

Yorath says he would have his old job back for the same money, while Brian Fear, the FAW president, says there needs to be more unity on the council. The man in the Ninian Park pub next to Cardiff's ground says the council should be sacked, Aizlewood says that a team that was something to be proud of is now a laughing stock. And Mike Smith, the man who must get Wales to beat Bulgaria and thinks Vinnie Jones can help them do so, says it will be difficult for him to keep his job if they fail. It's all a bit of a mess. And as Yorath says, "it could get worse before it gets better".