John Toshack has been ousted as manager of Wales following a predictable 1-0 defeat to Montenegro in Wales’ first Euro 2012 qualifier. The powder-puff performance in Podgorica, against a side ranked below Wales in UEFA’s rankings and only in its 3rd year of playing international football, has virtually wiped out Welsh chances of qualification from Group G (which also contains Bulgaria, England and Switzerland) almost before it has properly begun. There is no end in sight to Wales’ football nightmare.
Nothing caretaker manager Brian Flynn does, or for that matter any Ryan Giggs-centred ‘big name’ managerial team the FAW may cobble together in the future, will make any difference. The fact is, managing Wales is an impossible task. I will repeat here something I have been saying to anyone who will listen for decades, and something you will read nowhere else: WALES WILL NEVER QUALIFY FOR ANY TOURNAMENT FINALS SO LONG AS SIX WELSH CLUBS REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE IN THE WELSH PYRAMID.
Toshack’s squad for the Montenegro match illustrates the problem. Of the 24 players selected (out of a tiny pool of under 50 available professional Welsh footballers – the fewest pro rata of any country in the world, and the fewest numerically of anywhere bar San Marino, a microstate with the population of Abergavenny) a mere 13 were actually born in Wales, a paltry six were developed by Welsh-based clubs and none at all were the products of Welsh pyramid clubs. It goes without saying that these figures are also world record lows in each category. In effect, Wales leaves the development of Welsh players entirely to England and the random chance that a few decent ones might emerge courtesy of our kindly neighbour. And, when this strategy fails to deliver, plan B is to scour family trees and boost numbers by hunting down anyone with a single Welsh grandparent who fancies upping their sale value with a back-door into international football.
No other footballing nation operates this way. The other 205 FIFA nations have got it into their heads that to play international football you need some players! How radical! For some reason or other they are not tempted to follow the Welsh way: probably because it guarantees decade after decade of perpetual failure, as the Welsh record so damningly confirms. It is only a suggestion, but perhaps we should have a look at how the rest of the planet does it? It’s not that complicated.
I will try to make this simple. To play football you require football players. To create football players you will be needing a network of football clubs. To build viable, professional clubs the done thing is to have a competitive, professional national football league. And to ensure that your league is properly resourced, reported on, sponsored and sustainable you have all your clubs in it. It’s not GCSE science, let alone the rocket variety!
Everybody else has sussed out that if you want to be international you must first be national. Yet in Wales these unexceptional facts of life are turned on their head to become unthinkable heresies. Here six clubs are permitted to spit in the face of the game’s agreed world-wide structure, ignore the plain facts of geography and undermine Wales’ entire domestic system by playing in English leagues. Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay and Merthyr Town, operating on the premise that Wales = Rubbish, England = Epicentre of the Solar System, have the backing of the entire Welsh establishment, from Neil Kinnock to Nicky Wire, for their untenable position. This lickspittle masochism, with its implicit message that Wales is uniquely incapable and must forever cower behind mummy England’s petticoats, has baleful consequences, there for all to see. No football nation could bear the crippling handicap of having six of its biggest clubs playing in another’s leagues (try to imagine the English Premier league without Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd, Man City, Liverpool and Villa, say), and none but Wales would contemplate allowing it. What would cause uproar the whole world over goes without a whimper of protest here. On the contrary, the perverse anomaly is treated as non-negotiable, utterly natural and meant to be. Governing body the FAW doesn’t even have a policy on the matter, being the very embodiment of a stereotype wrongly assumed to be long dead: the fawning Taff, ludicrously flattered to be allowed to scavenge a few stale crumbs from under the Englishman’s table.
A byword for all that is wrong in colonised Wales, the FAW is a national joke, specialising in incredible ineptitude, torpor and dereliction of duty. They have it in their power to end Wales’ global debasement tomorrow by instructing FIFA, UEFA and the English FA that they no longer consent to the six playing in the English pyramid. But this collection of time-serving bureaucrats and gravy-train freeloaders has never been up to the challenge of running Wales’ most important institution. Unheralded, unheeded and often unhinged, the FAW, along with its international sides and its competitions, is actually the jewel in the crown of Welsh identity – the only pan-Wales body with international recognition, sovereignty, influence and world-wide reach (rugby cannot compare: only 95 countries play rugby union and it is a significant sport in just 18). But the FAW has long been hijacked by deeply conservative reactionaries sheltering within a preposterously Byzantine, uber-local structure, perfectly designed to entrench the status quo. Lacking the brains or spunk to stand up to the bullying enemies of Welsh soccer, the FAW is reduced to doing their bidding; nothing must be done to rock the boat or provoke screaming headlines in the Echo. But what else can be expected from an organisation that once infamously chucked players off a plane heading to an overseas match to make way for FAW councillors and their luggage? The blunders are legion: letting the English FA pocket our vote at FIFA for years in exchange for silence and a laundered pittance; letting the WRU scrap a popular ticketing policy at the Millennium Stadium so tickets no longer went on general sale but got snapped up by rugby debenture holders; refusing to implement a Welsh language policy when dealing with clubs from the Welsh-speaking north-west; boycotting an Assembly Government review of football because their culture of secrecy means they don’t feel obliged to account for their (in)actions to anyone; using multi-million pound grants from UEFA specifically intended for cash-strapped clubs to purchase new offices in Splott; allowing The New Saints to move their home ground from Llansantffraid in Powys to Oswestry in Shropshire with the justification that Oswestry was a “founder member of the FAW”, a plain untruth as individuals not clubs founded the FAW in 1876 and a spectacular own-goal further blurring the boundaries between Welsh and English football; allowing one of the six refuseniks Merthyr Tydfil to be wound up, reformed as Merthyr Town and drop from level 7 to level 10 of the English pyramid, to play off-the-radar fixtures against the likes of Chard Town and Oldland Abbotonians, rather than grab the opportunity to take Merthyr back for Wales and veto the new club’s insulting shenanigans; and on and on and on – whatever the FAW touch they get it hopelessly wrong. And whoever comes within their malign orbit is soon infected by the disease. John Toshack is a good example of this phenomena.
With his vast experience and proven track record at top clubs around Europe, as well as his reputation for independent thinking and his typically Cardiffian mordant realism, Toshack seemed to have all the qualities necessary to lead Welsh football out of its ‘British’ cul-de-sac. Back in 1994 he had actually advocated on Radio Wales that all Welsh clubs should be in the Welsh pyramid, the highest profile figure ever to suggest such a thing. But hopes that he might take on the big battalions of Brit Wales were soon dashed as he settled for the easy life on his lucrative FAW contract – usually wolfing paella at his Spanish hacienda. He, and under-21 manager Flynn, obediently developed the blind spot to the Welsh Premier (WP) that is de rigeur if it is to be kept marginalised and impoverished. Steve Evans played 158 WP games for TNS without a sniff of recognition; he transferred to English pyramid Wrexham and instantly won a full cap. Owain Tudur-Jones played 96 WP games for Bangor City; they counted for nothing, but 8 minutes on the field as a substitute for English pyramid Swansea was enough to get him an under-21 call-up. Over and over again Toshack, and his sidekick Flynn, snubbed decent young talent in the Welsh pyramid in favour of mediocre journeymen from the nether regions of the English pyramid who then repeatedly failed to deliver. Despite all the defeats, Toshack didn’t have the imagination to look in front of his very eyes at the thousands of Welshmen playing in our home leagues, many of whom regularly experience European club football; instead he put his energy into finding Englishmen with distant Welsh ancestry and no hope otherwise of playing international soccer. Most had hardly ever set foot in Wales previously, were less conversant with the anthem than John Redwood, and unsurprisingly played for Cymru without passion, desire or messing up their hair-dos. Having a squad of semi-detached opportunists from the English pyramid is obviously doomed to fail. No other country has such a disconnect between its domestic and its international functions, meaning a distinctively Welsh style of football has never had a chance to evolve and Wales is reduced to employing a bargain basement version of discredited, deskilled ‘British’ football, easily dealt with by half-competent international teams. And no other country repeatedly suffers so many late withdrawals due to “injury” – an inevitable consequence when your players’ first loyalty is to another country’s clubs. But Toshack never grappled with these issues and meekly followed the party line, as laid down by TrinityMirror newspapers: under no circumstances must our national league be granted any positive publicity. Wales needed leadership and vision; Toshack delivered neither. The resulting barren years will stand as a permanent stain on his record in football management. Tosh, my boyhood Grange End hero: you blew it man.
His replacement, the small-minded Flynn, accomplished next to nothing in club management at Wrexham and is even more conservative than Toshack. He is not able to bring himself to slum it and attend WP matches, even though he is paid to be on the look out for Welsh players and WP games habitually feature about 20 of them. He got the job because he is capable of burbling content-free monosyllables to camera – oh, and nobody else wanted it. His first act has been to let Craig Bellamy play in a routine league game for Cardiff against Barnsley instead of in the must-win match against Bulgaria. Bellamy, a tuppenny-halfpenny Trowbridge trickster, is by no stretch of the imagination truly international class, but along with Gareth Bale of Tottenham the Man City loanee is the best Wales have got. By releasing him Flynn has announced loud and clear that Wales’ campaign in the world’s second biggest tournament is not as important as Cardiff’s strivings in England – a message of staggering short-sightedness calculated to further embed the idea that England is vitally important and Wales doesn’t matter. Well out of his depth, Flynn makes Toshack look like a tactical genius. He will be demoted back to his under-21 post just as soon as the virtually certain forthcoming defeats to Bulgaria and Switzerland are out of the way.
So our national football league has the smallest sponsorship, least public funding, worst media coverage, tiniest prize-pot, shabbiest grounds and lowest attendances of any league anywhere, simply because six cymruphobic clubs state loud and clear that Wales is not good enough for them, that a Welsh championship is not worth winning, that representing Wales in Europe is less important than representing Wales in Exeter and that they would prefer to go out of business altogether rather than contribute to, yuck, Wales. Far from being the pariahs they would be the whole world over, in Wales these clubs are feted, hyped and fetishised over in what passes for the Welsh media (London-based corporations TrinityMirror and the BBC), while the thousands of clubs in the Welsh pyramid suffer an almost total media black-out. Cardiff City, the biggest of the six and Wales’ capital city club, bear most responsibility. In their south-east Wales catchment area they act like a giant Leylandii tree planted by an anti-social neighbour, blocking out all light, consuming all the nutrients and making it impossible for anything else to live much less grow. There is no club from Cardiff and its Taff, Ely and Rhymni valleys in the Welsh Premier, and hasn’t been since the brief efforts of Grange Quins five years ago. Thus all of Gwent and most of Glamorgan, an area where 40% of the Welsh population live, has no club in Wales’ national football league. If I want to watch a Welsh Premier match, the nearest is 30 miles away at Port Talbot; the longest journey any resident of a capital city must make to watch his nation’s top league. And, even on Cardiff City’s own terms, playing in England doesn’t work – as the empty trophy cabinet and perpetual financial crises prove. On Welsh terms, the bluebirds’ detachment has been disastrous. Of all the capital city clubs in Europe Cardiff City has produced the least players for its international side, because their English fixation compels them to wheel and deal in mercenaries who can out-muscle Stoke rather than nurture Welsh-qualified talent who can out-think Spain. Oh yes, Wales excels at breaking all the most undesirable football records: the only country without a representative from its capital city in its national league; the only country without a representative from its second city in its national league; the only country without a representative from its third city in its national league; the only country that sends out village teams to represent it in the world’s most important club competitions; and the only country without even an aspiration to improve matters – unlike, for instance, Montenegro.
Honoured and excited to be joining the international ranks of the world’s greatest sport three years ago, Montenegro immediately set up a professional league and all the clubs threw their weight behind it with relish. They are already reaping the benefits: their entire squad against Wales was home-grown and a conveyor belt of players is coming through their pyramid. But then Montenegro is a proud nation (they declared independence in 2006 following a referendum, won narrowly 55% to 45%, which ended their absorption within neighbours Serbia/Yugoslavia and reversed the annexation of 1918) whereas Wales has the least-developed national consciousness in Europe. Nearly 500 years of absorption within our much mightier England/Britain neighbour have taken their toll, and the colonised mentality runs deep.
In fact, it runs so deep that the Cardiff City ‘fans’ I know are blithely unaware of the self-loathing they parade. Had they beaten Portsmouth in the English Cup Final of 2008, Cardiff City would have represented England in European football – a grotesque travesty that remains the club’s ultimate dream as soon as they can wheel and deal their way into the English Premier League. It’s not enough apparently that England already have the richest and most powerful clubs in the world to represent them, they need our help too. Unimportant Welsh representation can be left to clubs that can’t afford to put a bloke on the turnstiles, while Cardiff City throw their weight behind the important English cause. When I press City supporters to explain why their club plays in and for England (I’m quite a brave man) their inarticulate responses always boil down to the same bottom line: “because we want to”. Sure they’re Welsh – if it comes with no obligations. Sure they’re Welsh – if it has no practical purpose. Sure they’re Welsh – if it confers a patina of exoticism in provincial English towns. Sure they’re Welsh – if it involves nothing more onerous than a dragon tattoo on the buttocks. Sure they’re Welsh – if you pay them enough. And, because the very existence of the WP calls into question their Welsh credentials, something all Cardiff City’s fans, management and pals in the press and BBC are acutely aware of, the only solution has been a sustained attempt to undermine and marginalise it while simultaneously bedecking themselves in a plethora of Wales-lite symbolistic garbage from sheep mascots to Cross-of-St-David away kits in an absurdly obvious attempt to conceal the fact of their treacherous Little Englander status.
But the WP will not conveniently die to save Cardiff City’s embarrassment. Now in its 19th season and restructured into a 12-club league, it has gradually progressed despite all its travails. You wouldn’t know it from the Western Mail, but the Welsh pyramid is stocked full of intriguing clubs, fascinating sagas and promising players (follow this blog for regular items covering the WP). Performances in Europe, although still brought to a shuddering halt annually by fearsome thrashings at the hands of crack European professional outfits, are improving against the odds – giving an inkling of what would be possible if all Welsh clubs pulled in the same direction.
The fact is that football is woven into the fabric of Welsh life, with clubs from Amlwch to Angle and Chepstow to Connah’s Quay and more registered semi-pro players per head of population than Brazil. Our football-mad country could have thrilling success, as has happened in similar-sized nations like Denmark, Greece and Ireland, were it not for the traitors in our midst. The time is long overdue for the Assembly government to intervene where the FAW dare not, set up a timetable for the rapid, orderly movement of the six clubs into the Welsh pyramid, seek compensatory payment from the English FA for the 19 years and counting when the income of Welsh clubs has been decimated by the absence of the six, and put funding in place to bring all clubs in the top tiers of the Welsh pyramid up to minimum UEFA standards. Only then will Wales have a chance, one day, of reaching tournament finals – and future generations of fans will not have to suffer, as past generations have, lifetimes of defeat and despair.