The pain of Spain is mainly on the wane

Wales’ 1-0 win over Ireland in the UEFA Nations League in Dublin has more than compensated for the chastening 1-4 drubbing by Spain in Cardiff five days previously. Wrecsam-born Harry Wilson, rising to the responsibility of taking on creative duties in the absence of both Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, scored the only goal with a sweet free kick that left Irish goalie Darren Randolph a bemused, flat-footed spectator. It was a thoroughly deserved win against a cynical and agricultural Irish side and it means Wales are top of League B4 with just the home game against Denmark to come next month.

Having done the double over Ireland in this mini-league, following a winless sequence of eight games against them that stretched back to 1992 and included the catastrophic World Cup qualifier defeat in 2017, Wales’ head-to-head record against the Republic has now moved into credit and stands at Played 17, Won 7, Drawn 4, Lost 6, Goals F18-A18. The record looks even better when one considers that 10 of those 17 games have been in Dublin. Spread across 58 years, the contests with our Celtic neighbours began in 1960, quite late considering the Republic’s first match following independence was in 1924. Wales won the friendly 3-2 (Cliff Jones 2, Phil Woosnam). It was played at Dalymount Park, to this day the home ground of Bohemians, the League of Ireland’s oldest surviving club, and back in 1960 the venue for nearly all Ireland’s international football matches. By the 1980s Lansdowne Road, home of Irish rugby, was increasingly being preferred to ramshackle, unmodernised Dalymount Park and the last soccer international played there was against Morocco in 1990. Wales never played at Dalymount again, appearing next in the Emerald Isle in 1981 at nearby Tolka Park, also in the north Dublin suburb of Drumcondra. This friendly was won 3-1 with rare goals from defenders Paul Price (his only goal for Wales in 25 appearances), Terry Boyle (his one goal in just two appearances) and Terry Yorath (one of only two goals he scored in 59 Welsh appearances). This match, watched by 15,000, was the first of only two football internationals ever held at Tolka Park; the other was also against Wales, in 1993, when Mark Hughes put Wales ahead but Ireland won with two goals in the last 15 minutes. The Tolka experiment was not tried again by the FAI and the ground, which has housed seven different League of Ireland clubs over the years, is currently home to second tier fallen giants Shelbourne.

Wales played their first match at Lansdowne Road in 1986, winning 1-0 with an Ian Rush goal. But, never a crowd-pulling attraction, they have been shunted around a few other secondary Dublin venues since then. Apart from Tolka Park, there was a friendly at the Royal Society Showground in 1992, the first ever international football match at the venerable home of the Royal Dublin Society, built in 1868 to host equestrian events. A Mark Pembridge goal secured victory for Terry Yorath’s team against Jack Charlton’s men, warming up for their second consecutive successful World Cup qualification campaign in front of 15,000 on the grassy banks in affluent Ballsbridge. The Showground, temporary home of Shamrock Rovers between 1990 and 1996, hosted only two other Irish football internationals (against Paraguay and Algeria) and is now the flashy RDS Arena, home ground of Leinster Rugby, with unique movable stands behind the goal posts to allow for showjumping events.

While Lansdowne Road was demolished and being rebuilt as the Aviva Stadium between 2007 and 2010, Wales also had the privilege of playing the first ever international football match at Croke Park, an important Euro 2008 Qualifier lost 1-0 in front of 72,500 to a goal scored, most appropriately, by Stephen Ireland. The vast edifice, built in 1884 and HQ of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) since 1913, hosted 13 football and 14 rugby internationals in the three years Lansdowne Road was out of commission. The GAA had to temporarily suspend its ban on sports seen as directly in competition with Gaelic football and hurling (in practice soccer, rugby and cricket) for these matches to take place at the third largest stadium in Europe, scene of the infamous massacre of 14 civilians during a Gaelic football match by the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1920 in the Irish War of Independence.

Wales first played under the undulating roof of the spanking new Aviva Stadium in 2011 – three times in fact, against Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, in the one-off Celtic Nations Cup that announced the Aviva’s arrival. Therefore, totting up all the Irish venues that have hosted Wales, and counting Lansdowne Road and the Aviva as separate venues, this means Wales have played at six different Dublin grounds – more than any of the 77 other countries the Republic has encountered to date. Actually, that’s nothing if one adds in the various grounds Wales played at in pre-partition Ireland up to 1920 (all in Belfast: Ulster Cricket Ground, Oldpark, Ulsterville, Solitude, Grosvenor Park, the Oval and Windsor Park) plus two games at Celtic Park Belfast rather than regular home Windsor Park in the Northern Ireland era from 1921 to date, bringing the total number of all-Ireland football grounds that have witnessed Welshmen kicking a ball around to 14! That exclamation mark makes it seem like this is astonishing, when it’s not – because if I reverse the equation and add up the Welsh venues that have hosted Ireland (pre- and post-partition, Republic and Northern) it comes to 11. Go on, admit it, you want to know. Deep breath: Racecourse, Wrecsam; Penrhyn Park, Bangor; St Helen’s, Swansea; Oval, Llandudno; Arms Park, Cardiff; Cricket Ground, Bangor; Athletic Ground, Aberdare; Ninian Park, Cardiff; Vetch Field, Swansea; Millennium Stadium, Cardiff; Cardiff City Stadium. And then there was one occasion when Wales entertained Ireland in England, in 1890 at the Old Racecourse in Shrewsbury (Wales won 5-2), so that makes the total 12 and near parity with the Irish figure. I suppose this is all just a consequence of having played football against each other for 136 years and counting…

By the way, for completion’s sake, the quite separate record of Wales against pre-partition Ireland ended in 1920 at Played 34, Won 16, Drawn 6, Lost 12, Goals F95-A59, while against Northern Ireland it currently stands at Played 62, Won 28, Drawn 18, Lost 16, Goals F95-A74. Usually these stats are combined, making an overall record of Played 96, Won 44, Drawn 24, Lost 28, Goals F190-A133.

It’s about time I ceased this avoidance strategy and mentioned the Spain game. The first meeting between the two countries for 33 years has brought the head-to-head record to Played 6, Won 1, Drawn 2, Lost 3, Goals F7-A11. Here’s hoping we don’t play them for another 33 years. Let’s move on.