Honeymoon over

A 1-2 defeat at home to Denmark in the Nations League decider followed by a 1-0 defeat away to Albania in a friendly bring Ryan Giggs’ managerial record to five losses in nine games and his honeymoon period to a shuddering halt. Euro 2016 glory now seems a distant memory and increasingly looks like it was just a one-off, the statistical anomaly that was always likely to happen if you wait long enough, the fluky exception that merely proves the rule of systemic, habitual, ingrained and everlasting Welsh football mediocrity.

This isn’t nihilistic negativity; I’m old enough and ugly enough to have experienced so many disappointing performances and so many bad results that I can recognise a familiar pattern when I see it. This is simply business as usual, the time-worn norm that young Welsh fans don’t yet grasp, being trapped by their screens in a perpetual present where five years ago is ‘before my time’ ancient history, while being deluded by the relentless cock-eyed optimism of Anglo-American consumer capitalism into believing the lie of their exceptionalism and specialness. As it did once for me, the ceiniog will eventually drop.

Against Denmark it was simply a matter of Wales being thoroughly outclassed by a side that were superior in every department. The Danes are deservedly promoted to the A Leagues, while Wales stay in the B Leagues which will be reconfigured for the next Nations League campaign (between the completion of Euro 2020 and the commencement of World Cup 2022 qualifying). Failure to beat Denmark in Cardiff means Wales lost the chance of having an insurance policy of automatic entry into Euro 2020 qualifying play-offs, and now can only qualify for the tournament by the orthodox, and nearly always unsuccessful, route via the qualification groups (drawn next month). What’s more disturbing is the patent fading from prominence of Wales’ two shining stars, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey.

Notwithstanding Bale’s late consolation against Denmark, which increased his all-time scoring record to 31 goals, he is beginning to look like a spent force who can no longer singlehandedly change the course of a match. The rapier speed is now more a cumbersome gallop, the howitzer shooting a hit-or-miss blunderbuss, the coiled power a delicate tangle of sinews one wrong tweak away from the ice-pack. Always a bit injury-prone, it’s all catching up with him. This is to be expected, given the high levels he has played at for 12 years. Next year he’s 30, and for 90% of professional footballers since the game was first organised that is very near the end. We can only pray he will still be able to pull world-class moments out of the hat for a year or two yet, but it cannot be guaranteed. As for Ramsey, you can see why Arsenal are not extending his contract when it expires at the end of this season. The flair, the quick thinking and the appetite just don’t seem to be there any more. His terrible double fracture of the right leg in 2010 at the start of his distinguished Arsenal service was always going to curtail his career, and he reaches age 28 next month. To replace players of their calibre is not going to be possible because their emergence was just a happy accident rather than the result of a concerted, calculated strategy to produce a conveyer belt of quality footballers. The best hope of anything approaching the Bale/Ramsey standard comes from 21-year-olds David Brooks and Harry Wilson and 18-year-old Ethan Ampadu, but none of them are anywhere near the finished article at this juncture.

Wales’ head-to-head record against little Denmark now stands at P10, W4, D0, L6, Goals F9-A12. At least Denmark have a football pedigree – European Champions in 1992, five times qualifiers for the World Cup finals and currently ranked 10th in the world – whereas Albania are archetypal minnows regularly put to the sword (Scotland beat them 4-0 away in the Nations League for heaven’s sake) and have a World Cup qualifying record even worse than Wales (they’ve never qualified). The defeat in Elbasan, where Wales had never played before, was terrible. Even allowing for the biased Macedonian referee giving them a farcical penalty (scored by Russian League journeyman Bekim Balaj) and denying Wales a stonewall penalty, the limp performance stank and Giggs was quite right to criticise his players. However, he should look first at his team selection. Every match counts towards rankings in international football, even friendlies, so for Wales ranked 18th to lose to Albania ranked 60th means Wales will inevitably drop quite a few places and as a result get a tougher draw for Euro 2020 qualifying. Trying out a host of inexperienced youngsters, including the likes of Lockyer, Freeman, James and Matondo, was flagrantly disrespectful to Albania, and you could see they intended to punish Wales for the arrogance, especially after aristocrats Bale and Ramsey were thrown on to no avail in the last 30 minutes. Giggs needs to understand that there are no easy matches in international soccer and not make the same mistake again. Wales have only played Albania twice previously, in Euro 1996 qualifying, winning 2-0 at the old Arms Park and drawing 1-1 in Tirana. This first ever loss to Albania thus takes the head-to-head tally to P3, W1, D1, L1, Goals F3-A2. Incidentally the goal scorers in that inaugural meeting in Cardiff back in 1994 were a certain C Coleman and R Giggs, Wales’ last two managers. I wonder if there were two future Welsh managers on the pitch in Elbasan this week…

Perhaps Chris Gunter might take that path in years to come. Who knows? Right now he’s basking in his status as the most capped Welsh footballer of all time (that’s 142 years and counting), having won his 93rd cap in Albania to pass Neville Southall’s record of 92 which had lasted 21 years. The solidly efficient Reading full back, a rare Cardiff City product for Wales, is 29 and has the wonderful gift for any footballer of seeming to be immune to injury, as evidenced by his 419 English League appearances to date. He might well have it in him to top the century of Welsh caps and go on to set a dizzy new highwater mark that might never be exceeded. We shall see. To celebrate his place among the Welsh immortals I will end this piece by pointing out something about Chris that has tickled the puerile prat in me for years. His name is very nearly a spoonerism – oh, if only his parents had called him Casper, Clint, Clyde, Cole or Conrad!