You’ve got to hand it to Chris Coleman: against the odds he has drilled team spirit and tight organisation into his Wales squad despite operating under the handicap of having the smallest pool of players in Europe from which to select. Never-say-die determination and a recognisable, coherent playing system, qualities rarely evident in recent Welsh sides, were rewarded with two excellent results, a gripping goalless draw against Bosnia and a nerve-racking 2-1 win over Cyprus, in last week’s Euro 2016 qualifying matches in Cardiff, leaving Wales at the top of Group B after three games.
Since Wales haven’t yet played Group favourites Belgium or unbeaten Israel this dizzy position, although enjoyable, should delude no-one; we will know a lot more after the next match in Belgium in November. If The World’s Most Expensive Footballer comes unscathed through Real Madrid’s La Liga fixtures in the interim, then it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Coleman’s A-team (Gareth Bale plus any ten uninjured others) could get a result at the King Baudouin Stadium (the royalist airbrushing given to the infamous former Heysel Stadium). But let’s not run before we can walk: we’ve been in such a position many times before and, so far, it has never ended well.
Instead, I want to ponder some side-issues to emerge after the two games:
WAYNE HENNESSEY: Brilliant against Bosnia, sloppy against Cyprus, the 6½ ft Bangor-born bean-pole is shaping up to be the Gary Sprake de nos jours.
SIMON CHURCH: Writhing on the ground after a gentle tumble in the first minute of the Cyprus match, Church wasn’t faking it. He didn’t need the modern footballer’s usual swarms of attendants (masseur, hair stylist, tattooist, libel lawyer); he needed St Johns Ambulance. The industrious but limited Charlton Athletic striker had dislocated his shoulder. Wales then had to play the whole game without an orthodox target-man, leaving ten men behind the ball and Bale to roam and do damage on his own. And it worked. By accident Chris Coleman has landed on a way to beat Belgium.
CHED EVANS: There are few alternatives to Church if Coleman wants to stick to his favoured 4-5-1 system. Just released from prison, Ched Evans is one – but the conservative Coleman is highly unlikely to challenge the knee-jerk outrage of the get-a-life Twitterati, unless Sheffield United have taken the flak first. Evans, with 53 goals in 147 English league games, has a far better goalscoring record than Church (31 in 189). However, the FAW lack the intelligence to challenge the hopeless argument of those who want to punish Evans for ever more; the ‘role model’ argument that ludicrously and insultingly claims impressionable youngsters watching him kick a ball will somehow conclude that rape is fine.
ALEX DARLINGTON: If Chris Coleman could bring himself to think outside the box there is another alternative: he’s 25, he’s a Welsh-born professional footballer, he’s brave and skilful, and he’s a natural goalscorer who has bagged 73 goals in 162 league games plus 3 goals in 17 Champions League games. Oh, my mistake, he plays for The New Saints in the Welsh football pyramid, so that’s out of the question.
CHRIS COLEMAN: Talking of the Wales manager, is it just me or is he looking significantly younger than he did a few months ago? And what a remarkably fine head of jet-black hair he has for a man of 44!
JAKE TAYLOR: The Reading forward won his first Wales cap against Cyprus, coming on as sub in the last 5 minutes. He’s a Berkshire boy born and bred, but qualifies for Wales through his paternal grandparents who were both born here: my Auntie Hazel (my mother’s sister) and Uncle Roy, who moved to Reading in the 1960s. You can imagine my anxiety, let alone my ripe language, as knackered Wales hung on: I had visions of him scoring a freak own-goal to give Cyprus an undeserved draw and effectively scupper our qualification chances – a catastrophe that I would have felt personally responsible for (I never properly engaged with his dad Nick). It didn’t happen! Message to Jake: can I borrow £20k mate? I’ll pay it back as soon as my ship comes in…
JOE LEDLEY: Cardiffian Ledley had his best games yet for Wales, showing real leadership, passion and discipline. As for that beard, he clearly doesn’t fully grasp the commodification of individuality – such things were probably not taught at Cantonian High.