Southall left frustrated by Welsh 'fundamental flaws'
Monday 31 March 1997
So many years, so much disappointment. As the realisation that he would never make it to a major finals crept up on Neville Southall frustration dripped out of him like water from a burst pipe. Anger followed as he confronted the enormity of the wasted effort.
His first instinct was to retire from international football after 15 years and 91 caps for guarding the goal for his country. His next, once he realised that Wales still have a razor-thin chance of reaching the World Cup's climax next year, was to have one last hurrah.
The player-coach did not join the growing chorus questioning Bobby Gould's worth - indeed he said he would go too if his manager was dismissed - but lambasted an infrastructure that has overseen 40 years of failure since Wales last reached the World Cup proper.
"I would love to be able to say that Bobby was shit," he said, "or the players are too old and the youngsters coming in are rubbish. But it's not the case. There are no simple excuses. We are talking about years of incompetence.
"Sacking Bobby Gould would be the easy option. I don't think you should dismiss someone now because of the inability of Welsh football for the past 10 years. Whoever was in charge would have had a tough job on his hands. We have a fundamental flaw in our game and its called bureaucracy. Once we sort that side of it we might have a chance.''
Southall had a litany of grievances: an unwieldy Welsh FA council of 26 members; an inability to market the game properly to bring desperately needed finance; the lack of top coaches to nurture young talent. "The manager of Hartlepool has more resources than we have," he lamented.
"We are playing at being a nation of footballers. The days have gone when you could tell youngsters to go round the back with Uncle Fred and he will teach you how to kick a ball. It has moved on from there. The game's professional now.''
As a platform to launch this diatribe, this match was rock rigid. In many ways Wales had improved on their pathetic showings against the Netherlands last autumn but their failings were still manifest. Belgium had also succumbed to the Dutch and arrived with a patched-up team in transition with a coach, George Leekens, whose one match in charge had been a lame 3-0 defeat by Northern Ireland.
Yet once Ryan Giggs' sporadic bursts of trickery had been corralled into cul-de-sacs by the wise old head of Franky Van Der Elst, the visitors enlightened the last football match at Cardiff Arms Park.
If anyone embodied the differences between the wealth of nations it was Dominique Lemoine. The Mouscron midfielder is 31 and was making his first start for his country, yet his perception of a pass was light years away from that of Barry Horne and Vinnie Jones.
He found gaps that the Welsh would not imagine, never mind see, and with two eager, quick front runners like Lokonda M'Penza and Luis Oliveira to profit from his craft, the home defence was distorted horribly. The latter had three chances to add to Betrand Crasson's and Lorenzo Staelens' goals.
Lemoine would have a half century of caps if he was Welsh, while the home side has scarcely the depth of quality to allow the talents of someone like Enzo Scifo just a cameo performance as the Belgians did. This was a team in transition, remember. Wales, with six players in the side over 30, have this painful process to go through.
They have Giggs, of course, and in Gary Speed, whose excellent display was garnished by a headed goal from Clayton Blackmore's 68th-minute corner, they have a sweeper of growing reputation. Their future, like where they will play while the National Stadium is being rebuilt, is uncertain.
"I sometimes wish we could have a real crisis," Southall said, his head bowed with the weight of what he was wishing upon his beloved country. "Maybe then people will address what's wrong." For him it was a sad night, and, for Wales, a sadder way to bid farewell to a ground of fond memory.
Goals: Crasson (24 min) 0-1; Staelens (44) 0-2; Speed (67) 1-2.
WALES (3-4-1-2): Southall (Everton); Page (Watford), Speed (Everton), Symons (Manchester City); Blackmore (Middlesbrough), Jones (Wimbledon), Horne (Birmingham), Pembridge (Sheffield Wed); Giggs (Manchester Utd); M Hughes (Chelsea), Saunders (Nottingham Forest). Substitute: Hartson (West Ham) for Saunders, 64.
BELGIUM (3-5-2): De Wilde (Sporting Lisbon); De Roover (Lierse), Van Meir (Lierse), Smidts (Antwerp); Crasson (Napoli), Van der Elst (Bruges), Staelens (Bruges), Lemoine (Mouscron), Van Kerckhoven (Lierse); L M'Penza (Mouscron), Oliveira (Fiorentina). Substitutes: M M'Penza (Mouscron) for L M'Penza, 64; Scifo (Monaco) for Oliveira, 79.
Bookings: Wales: Page, Hughes, Horne; Belgium: L M'Penza.
Referee: C Faellstrom (Sweden).
Man of the match: Lemoine.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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