Here we go again

Wales’ campaign to qualify for the Euro 2020 finals has got off to a great start with a hard-earned, slightly fortuitous 1-0 win over Slovakia in Cardiff. It’s not easy beating anyone in international football, much less a team of the quality of the slick and cynical Slovaks, highly motivated to avenge that sensational defeat by Wales in the Euro 2016 finals. Considering Wales were without Ramsey, Chester, Ampadu, Tom Lawrence and Vokes because of injury, and that Slovakia had already won their first Group E match, 2-0 at home to Hungary, this was an excellent performance, featuring vital saves by goalie Wayne Hennessey, obdurate defending by centre-backs James Lawrence and Chris Mepham, and menacing counterattacking by dangerous forwards Bale, Brooks, Wilson and goal-scorer Daniel James.

In only his second Wales appearance, the Yorkshire-born Hull City product, currently on Swansea City’s books, made the difference between the two sides with his lightning speed and quick-thinking moment of opportunism. He could be a real find, and I’m past caring that he’s yet another Welshman (Dan’s dad’s from Aberdâr), simply because the overarching aim is to qualify by any means necessary and thereby get Welsh football’s desperate hands on some more of that lovely UEFA lucre. Nowadays every country uses FIFA’s liberal rules to boost their ranks via the nationality of a parent or grandparent, so Wales must play that game too or else be left even further behind, a curious soccer relic in an impoverished wilderness – especially given that Wales barely has any structure or system for producing home-grown players at all. Yes, we need as many co-opted mercenaries as we can muster. In this process Wales actually has an inbuilt advantage over all the other nations looking to recruit talent because one of the key qualities of Welshness is that it is a choice, and has been since our conquest and subjugation. Given that there is no such thing as a Welsh passport and there are no racial, religious or linguistic barriers to being Welsh, the mere declaration of it is quite sufficient qualification. Choosing Welsh identity is a decision that has to be consciously made, swimming against the tide of cradle-to-grave British propaganda. It is therefore open to anybody who has the good taste, principles, courage, resourcefulness, intelligence and sensitivity to discover and adopt it. After all, countless numbers of born-and-bred ‘Welsh’ have been doing precisely the opposite for centuries: using the ever-available Welsh opt-out to renounce and disown Wales in favour of the perceived advantages of British or English identity. It’s a two-way street, and I’d be perfectly happy if Wales fielded eleven Brazilians claiming their nan once ran a brothel in Borth if they were good enough.

The head-to-head record against Slovakia now reads P4, W3, D0, L1, Goals F9-A8. The return match at their place is in October, but before then Wales take on Croatia and Hungary away in June and Azerbaijan at home in September. The Group concludes in November, the top two qualifying for Euro 2020. We’ve got a chance, but it’s far too early to indulge in hare-brained hope. As Ryan Giggs would probably say, let’s just take each game as it comes…

One interesting aspect of the Slovakia game has been missed by all the media, so as usual it is down to me to notice it, research it and now report it (he said egotistically). For the first time ever Wales fielded a team containing three who do not play for a club from either Wales or England: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid, Spain), James Lawrence (Anderlecht, Belgium) and Matthew Smith (FC Twente, Netherlands). Traditionally, precious few Welsh footballers have travelled further than the English leagues and those that did often fell off the FAW’s radar anyway. As a result, only the following (in chronological order) have been capped by Wales while with clubs outside Wales/England:

Thomas Britten (1858-1910): In 1878 Britten was capped when a player for Parkgrove, a long-defunct club from the Govan area of Glasgow. In what was Wales’ 3rd international match Scotland inflicted a disastrous 9-0 hammering at the 1st Hampden Park, Wales’ record defeat to this day. He won another cap in 1880, another comprehensive defeat by Scotland at the same venue (5-1), while back in Wales playing for Presteigne, the precursor of today’s Presteigne St Andrews, struggling at tier 4 (mid) in the Welsh pyramid. Then the English FA discovered he was born just two miles from the Welsh border in Shobdon, Herefordshire. In the days when place of birth was the only criterion, their objections abruptly ended his international career.

Humphrey Jones (1862-1946): Instrumental in the development of football in Bangor, Jones won six Welsh caps in 1885 and 1886 while a Bangor City half-back, before the classics scholar moved to Scotland to take up a teaching post and won a further eight caps between 1887 and 1891, three when with Queens Park in Glasgow and five with East Stirlingshire in Falkirk.

Robert Atherton (1876-1917): Born in Bethesda, Bobby Atherton’s family moved to Edinburgh when he was a child. Thoroughly Scottish, he was developed by Heart of Midlothian before joining Edinburgh rivals Hibernian in 1898. The versatile forward won six Welsh caps between 1899 and 1903 while with Hibs, becoming a club legend as he captained the Easter Road side to their second Scottish Cup win in 1902 (a Hibs captain wouldn’t lift the trophy again until 2016) and then a first Scottish League title in 1903 (won only three times subsequently). Atherton switched to the English leagues, won three more Welsh caps with Middlesbrough and earned a move to big-spending upstarts Chelsea in 1906, but a serious injury forced him to hang up his boots when at his peak. He joined the Merchant Navy and was killed at the height of WW1 when his ship hit a mine in the North Sea.

Thomas Edwards (1906-1980): Llanelli product Edwards had a flourishing career in both segments of Ireland’s domestic football, firstly with League of Ireland club Fordsons, forerunners of Cork City, then with Irish League clubs Portadown, Linfield and Coleraine. His salad days were in the 1930s with perennial Northern Irish giants Linfield of Belfast (52 championships and counting since the League’s first season in 1891). The industrious half-back was part of a Linfield side that won three League titles and two Irish Cup finals, and it was during this period that he won his solitary Wales cap – looking out of his depth in a 2-3 defeat by Scotland at Wrecsam in 1931.

Ben Ellis (1906-1966): Full back Ellis made his name in the inter-war Welsh League with Aberbargoed and Bargoed Athletic, distant predecessors of Aberbargoed Buds (tier 3 south) and AFC Bargoed (tier 7 south-east) in today’s Welsh pyramid, and was noticed by Bangor from the Irish League – that’s Bangor County Down, not Gwynedd, there are two you know! Bangor made a tidy profit selling him to top-flight Scottish League club Motherwell in 1930 and he became a football legend in the Lanarkshire steel town, being part of the side that won the Scottish League title in 1932 – the only time to date that Motherwell have been Scottish champions. He played out the rest of his career at Fir Park, good enough to win six Welsh caps in a strong Wales side between 1931 and 1936, and then lived out the rest of his life in Motherwell.

Freddie Warren (1907-1986): Willowy winger Warren was first selected for Wales in 1929 when with his home-town club Cardiff City. City were forced to liquidate most of their valuable assets as they plunged down the English leagues, so he was sold to Middlesbrough in 1930, winning three more caps across six successful seasons at Ayresome Park before, in 1936, joining Hearts in Scotland. At Tynecastle he got capped twice more, in 1937 and 1938, before WW2 ended his playing days.

John Charles (1931-2004): The Gentle Giant from Cwmbwrla in Swansea won a total of 38 Welsh caps, eleven of them while playing in Italy’s Serie A: seven between 1957 and 1962 with Juventus, who had signed him from Leeds United for a record fee, and four with Roma in season 1962/63. The magnificent centre-forward, never booked in his 22-year playing career, became an all-time hero in Turin, the shining star in a side that won three Italian championships and two Italian Cups for La Vecchia Signora. But this Italian romance didn’t help his Wales career; Juventus so frequently refused to release him for international duty that they made the notoriously disobliging English clubs the FAW usually had to deal with seem positively helpful by comparison.

Nick Deacy (1953-): Cardiffian Deacy, a gangling, rangey centre-forward, took an unusual football path which began at Cardiff Corinthians, then contenders in the pre-pyramid Welsh League but these days languishing down in tier 6 south-east. Via Merthyr Tydfil and Hereford United, he moved to PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch League in 1975 and surprised everybody by staying at Eindhoven for four years, an important member of a squad that won two Dutch titles and the 1978 UEFA Cup. Between 1975 and 1979 he won 11 Welsh caps at PSV and one more when he briefly played for Beringen, then in Belgium’s top division but dissolved in 2002 and replaced by a ‘phoenix’ club that is currently stuck in Belgium’s lowly provincial leagues. Deacy’s weird career fizzled out back in England with Hull City and Bury.

Terry Yorath (1950-): He won his first Welsh cap in 1970 while with powerful Leeds United, and went on to win the English title with them in 1974. In contrast, the last three of Terry Yorath’s 59 Welsh appearances came in 1981 when he was playing for Vancouver Whitecaps, a Canadian club operating in the North American Soccer League (NASL). Formed in 1973, the Whitecaps were dissolved in 1984 when the NASL folded. A second, humbler attempt at embedding soccer in Ice Hockey Territory lasted from 1986 until that club was also dissolved in 2010 and replaced by today’s third version of the Vancouver Whitecaps, currently one of three Canada-based outfits in the USA’s flash-the-cash, 24-team Major League Soccer. Yorath’s life has been turbulent and traumatic: while with Bradford City he witnessed the horrors of the 1985 Valley Parade fire disaster; his 15 year-old son died in front of him of an undetected heart defect in 1992; he’s been sentenced to community service for drink driving; he was Wales manager when Paul Bodin missed that penalty; and his good friend, Swansea and Wales player Alan Davies (1961-1992), committed suicide. Yet he battles on. He’ll be alright, he’s a Grangetown boy, he can take the hard knocks…

Mark Hughes (1963-): It is sometimes forgotten that Hughes’ trophy-laden years at Manchester United (two English League titles, four FA Cups, European Cup Winners Cup) straddled two seasons (1986-1988) when he played abroad for Barcelona in Spain and then Bayern Munich in Germany. In this period he won 10 of his total 72 Welsh caps, two with Barça, eight with Bayern. His playing career had glorious late chapters at Chelsea (further FA Cup and Cup Winners Cup medals) and he continued playing at a high level until aged 39. Today, after serial failures and disappointments in both national and club management, the Rhiwabon-born bruiser has lost the sparkiness of old. I reckon he could recharge his batteries and find new, worthwhile purpose in both life and football if he put some small change out of his many millions into somewhere it could really make a difference: a Welsh pyramid club such as Cefn Druids, the oldest club in Wales, 150 years old this year, a club that was grown, rather like Hughesy himself, from Rhiwabon rootstock.

Ian Rush (1961-): Juventus thought they were getting another John Charles when they signed goal-machine Rush from Liverpool in 1987, but the St Asaph-born striker had a difficult time in Italy and returned to Anfield after one frustrating season. Big John is still beatified in Turin, but Rushie’s legacy is merely that famous but probably apocryphal ‘quote’: “I couldn’t settle in Italy, it was like living in a foreign country.” He won six of his 73 Welsh caps in 1987/88 while with Juventus, by this time compelled by FIFA to release players for internationals. On retiring as a player he had accumulated five English League titles plus three FA Cup and two European Cup victories with Liverpool, as well as breaking multiple goalscoring records.

Peter Nicholas (1959-): It’s particularly odd that I should forget to include Peter Nicholas of all people in the first version of this article, because a few years ago he actually bought me a drink in the Splott Cottage and we had a good natter about football. Top Maesglas bloke – and can he put ’em away! The midfield enforcer from Newport, discovered by Crystal Palace, won five of his 73 Welsh caps while with Aberdeen in 1987/88, the first Welshman to be capped playing for a Scottish club since Freddie Warren 50 years previously. He only spent one season at Pittodrie before returning to the English pyramid and seeing out a high-level playing career that was stubbornly trophy-free. It was back in Wales as a manager that he really made his mark: he’s the only person to date to have won the Welsh title with two different clubs: Barry Town in 2000/01 and Llanelli in 2007/08.

Dean Saunders (1964-): Swansea-born Saunders never stayed with any football club for very long, the archetypal happy wanderer turned out for 12 different sides in his 19 years as a player. But he was always a loyal Wales stalwart throughout a barren era for the national team – in fact his 75 caps mean that he appeared for Wales more often than all his clubs bar Aston Villa and Derby County. He spent one season with Galatasary of Turkey in 1995/96 and another with Benfica of Portugal in 1998/99, winning three and five caps respectively in those periods.

Mark Pembridge (1970-): Luton Town product Pembridge, from Merthyr, joined Saunders at Benfica in 1998/99, making the Lisbon goliaths the first club outside the UK to field two Welsh internationals. Scottish manager Graeme Souness was gambling on ‘British’ qualities (ie: running around like a headless chicken) to sort out Benfica’s slump: the club that has won 36 of the 84 Portuguese titles to date hadn’t won the Liga for five whole years at the time. It didn’t work, and Pembridge returned to the English pyramid at the end of the season (as did Souness) having added three caps to his ultimate tally of 54 at the Estádio da Luz.

John Hartson (1975-): Another Luton Town apprentice, burly battering-ram Hartson from Swansea started a trend of significant numbers of Welshman playing in Scotland when he moved from Coventry City, one of seven English League clubs he served, to Celtic in 2001. He spent five years at Celtic Park, winning three Scottish League titles and two Scottish Cups and duly joining the long roll-call of Glasgow football idols (well, for the Green half of Glasgow at any rate). As a Celtic player he won 25 of his 51 Welsh caps. Having conquered aggressive cancer in 2009, he took the worn-out track to football punditry – a perplexingly popular option for ex-pros unable to string together a coherent sentence.

Craig Bellamy (1979-): Having pissed off one too many people at Newcastle United, volatile Bellamy was sent out on loan to Celtic for six months in 2005, picking up a Scottish Cup winners medal and making three of his 78 Welsh appearances while there (one alongside club-mate Hartson). At this point I could go on at length about Craig’s incident-packed life but these days I am obliged to go to Trowbridge quite frequently so I shall resist the temptation – I value my kneecaps!

David Partridge (1978-): Even though I’ve arrived at 21st century players, Partridge is one I’d completely forgotten. The Londoner, eligible for Wales via his father, won a total of seven Welsh caps, the first in 2005 when he was approaching the end of three years at Motherwell in Scotland, the remaining six during an unimpressive stay at Bristol City. Nowhere near English League quality, let alone international standard, the fact he was ever selected in the first place only goes to show the abject paucity of Welsh resources.

Carl Robinson (1976-): Workmanlike midfielder Robinson from Llandrindod Wells made his name at Wolverhampton Wanderers, a decent English pyramid second-tier fetch-and-carry merchant who managed to accrue 52 Welsh caps for want of better alternatives. At age 30 he was tempted by the ready money of Major League Soccer (MLS) and joined newly-formed Toronto FC in Canada’s biggest city. He stayed with Toronto for three years and won 16 of his Welsh caps between 2007 and 2009 while there. After retirement he moved into coaching and was head coach of aforementioned Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS for five years.

David Vaughan (1983-): We now get to those still playing, beginning with diminutive midfielder David Vaughan from Abergele, a Crewe Alexandra product who never really looked the part on the international stage but still won 42 Welsh caps. Three of those caps came during season 2007/08 which he spent in the Basque Country at Real Sociedad, then managed by a certain Chris Coleman and struggling at tier 2 of the Spanish pyramid. Vaughan is now at the veteran stage, his disappointing career coming to a sad end at Notts County, the world’s oldest professional club, as they slide out of the English League they helped found in 1888 and into non-league purgatory.

Joe Ledley (1987-): Cardiff born and bred, Ledley was an established defensive midfielder for Cardiff City and Wales when he moved to Celtic in 2010. He had four good seasons with the Scottish titans, winning the League three times and the Cup once and contributing 18 Welsh caps to his current total of 77. The utilitarian up-and-downer lacked the pace to make an impact internationally and it’s highly unlikely that he will win any more caps now that Giggs is concentrating on developing fresh talent.

Adam Matthews (1992-): Cardiff City pinched Swansea boy Matthews from right under the Jacks’ flaring nostrils and sold the promising full-back to Celtic when he was barely 19. In his four seasons at Celtic – 2010/11 to 2014/15 – he was a fairly regular first-teamer and won four League titles and one Scottish Cup as well as 14 Welsh caps, four in tandem with Ledley. To date these are his only Welsh caps and, back in England with fallen giant Sunderland in the third tier, it doesn’t look like there will be any more. Matthews was the 4th Celtic player to be capped by Wales, no other club outside Wales or England has had more – which is somehow satisfyingly appropriate.

Owain Tudur Jones (1984-): From Bangor (not the one in County Down!), Tudur Jones stood out in the Welsh Premier League as a smooth midfield operator with Porthmadog and then Bangor City, both currently striving to get out of the Welsh pyramid’s increasingly competitive tier two north. As soon as he was snaffled from Wales’ domestic structure on the cheap by Swansea City he was promptly called up by the national side. A bad knee injury which eventually forced him to quit playing in 2015 blighted a career that was wound down in Scotland with Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Hibernian and Falkirk. While at Hibernian he won the last of his seven Wales caps in 2013, coming on as sub for Joe Allen in the 90th minute against Finland. These days he is a lucid pundit on the only TV programme I watch, Sgorio (S4C, Mondays, 5.30), manspreading persuasively on the sofa while Dylan Ebenezer gurgles.

Gareth Bale (1989-): 75 Welsh caps to date, 35 of them since becoming a Real Madrid player in 2013, the most ever by any Welshman with a ‘foreign’ club. So far Wales’ record goalscorer has won one La Liga, one Spanish Cup and an incredible four Champions League titles with Real.

Owain Fôn Williams (1987-): The goalie from Penygroes was a product of Crewe’s youth system who rightly got tired of bouncing around cinderella clubs in the English pyramid’s grim nether-regions and made the exciting switch in 2015 to Inverness, a rising force from the Highlands in the Scottish Premier. Soon he made his one, and so far only, appearance for Wales, coming on as sub for Wayne Hennessey in the 2015 friendly against Holland. He recently spent a year playing in the US but is still on the books at the Caledonian Stadium, a cultured Welshman and imaginative painter, far from home by the Moray Firth.

Declan John (1995-): Merthyr-born John is that rare and increasingly endangered species: a Cardiff City-produced Welsh footballer. He won his first Welsh cap in 2013, but not being a Neil Warnock type (he’s a wing-back who tends to pass the ball) he was sold to Rangers in 2017. During his year at Ibrox Park he won three Welsh caps – quite suprisingly the first ever Welsh international on the payroll of the Union Jack-plastered symbol of ‘the Union’. Now back in the English pyramid with Swansea City at tier 2, his caps total has reached seven and though he isn’t in Giggs’ first XI he still has potential.

Matt Smith (1999-): From Redditch, midfielder Smith was a West Bromwich Albion apprentice until voracious Manchester City acquired him to be stockpiled and stashed away in their academy. The FAW were on to his Blackwood grandfather early and the impressive youngster moved up through the age groups until getting his first Welsh cap in 2018 despite never having played in City’s first team. Thankfully he was then loaned out to Dutch club Twente in the city of Enschede, enabling him to actually play regular competitive football. With Twente he has won four further Welsh caps.

James Lawrence (1992-): Strangely ungainly yet classy, centre-back Lawrence has come late to international football, winning his first cap at age 26 in 2018 after the FAW’s diligent researchers found out he had a grandmother from Haverfordwest. Quite frankly, who doesn’t? Nurtured in the Johann Cruyff Institute in Amsterdam, his pro career has been spent entirely outside the UK at AS Trenčín in Slovakia and, since 2018, Anderlecht in Belgium. He has three caps so far.

Rabbi Matondo (2000-): Born Liverpool, raised Cardiff, Matondo is another poached by Manchester City to fester in their reserves. The scandalously amoral English Premier League has created many monsters like City, once the authentic, endearing epitome of Manchester, now a corporate pig funded by the filthy money of the Abu Dhabi royal family, intent on accumulating and hoarding assets until all opposition is crushed. Where is the long-promised UEFA clampdown? Rhetorical question. Luckily, Bundesliga club Schalke 04 of Gelsenkirchen freed Matondo from the Etihad prison by paying £11 million for him in January 2019. Having won one cap in 2018 while in City’s under-21 side, he got his second against Trinidad & Tobago this month as a Schalke player – the first Welshman with a German club to be capped since Mark Hughes 30 years earlier.

Those then are the 28 players who have been Welsh internationals while with clubs outside Wales or England – and when Aaron Ramsey moves to Juventus next season and the likes of Smith, Lawrence and Matondo become regulars the time may not be far off when English League journeymen in the Welsh squad are the exception rather than the rule.

One further point needs to be made about the above list. It is, of course, effectively a list of players capped by Wales while outside the English pyramid. Not one single player from the Welsh pyramid has been capped since it was created in 1992, and you have to go back 89 years for the last occasion when a player was capped from the hotch-potch of disconnected leagues that existed in Wales previously – there were two in fact, when Fred Dewey (1898-1980) of Cardiff Corinthians from the Welsh League South Division 1 and John Neal (1899-1965) of Colwyn Bay from the North Wales Combination were called up to play England at The Racecourse in 1930. No other country on the planet has ignored, rejected and undermined its own domestic game for so long. It seems to be deliberate policy too, as evidenced by the Steve Evans case. The tall defender played over 150 games for TNS in the Welsh Premier League without so much as a hint that he might be good enough for Wales. Then Wrexham, at the time in tier 4 of the English pyramid, signed him in 2006 and, lo and behold, after a couple of games in the first team he was suddenly transformed into an international and the Welsh caps started flowing – even though he was exactly the same player.

There was a chance to recognise, boost, encourage and promote the Welsh pyramid in the friendly against Trinidad & Tobago that took place at Wrecsam four days before the Slovakia match. With the advent of the Nations League there are hardly any friendly matches these days. They thus provide an infrequent opportunity to take risks, be experimental and make gestures. Just putting one or two of the numerous promising young Welsh players from the WPL in the squad, and perhaps give them a run-out as subs late in the match, would have been an astute, counter-intuitive, far-sighted and positive move – so of course it didn’t happen.

As it is, a stodgy and predictable Wales won a poor game 1-0 with a last minute Ben Woodburn goal, bringing the head-to-head record against the Caribbean islands to P2, W2, D0, L0, Goals F3-A1. It’s good to be someone’s bogey team! Ryan Giggs will have learnt nothing he didn’t know already about the experienced defenders he selected, while none of the four debutants thrown in, three of them English-born hereditary Welshmen, made a compelling case that they had an international future. Next time, Giggsy, look closer to home…right, that’s enough, I must stop now – I’ve got a Colwyn Bay Supporters Club membership application form to fill out…