Following two losses in four days this month against Croatia (2-1) and Hungary (1-0), Ryan Giggs was spot on when he said that Wales “will have to win nearly every game now” to qualify for Euro 2020. Looking at those Euro qualifying groups that have also contained five teams across the previous five tournaments (there have been 19 – most were groups of six prior to this tournament), the average number of points necessary to achieve 2nd place has been 15. After three games Wales have just three points and lie 4th out of five in Group E, so will require at least another 12 points to come 2nd and qualify. That would entail winning four out of the five remaining games, a highly improbable scenario judging by the unremarkable performances in Osijek and Budapest, and when one factors in the knowledge that 16 points plus have had to be garnered eight times out of the sample of 19 to finish 2nd, I think it is fairly safe to say, after mulling over the mathematics and carefully weighing up the permutations, that we are up an allegorical alligator-infested creek without the proverbial paddle.
The back-to-back defeats were similar in that Wales were by no means outplayed and could, perhaps should, have got something from both matches. But could-haves and should-haves count for nothing in football, or in life come to think of it. The worry is that Wales seem to have forgotten how to win and the old familiar losing habit is again becoming entrenched. It’s beginning to look like Euro 2016 was merely the exception that proves the rule, the anomalous blip that was always going to happen if you wait long enough – after all, they do say that a monkey sitting at a keyboard for eternity will eventually type out the complete works of Shakespeare…
Wales’ head-to-head record against Croatia is now P5, W0, D1, L4, Goals F3-A9. Croatia are thus one of only three countries played at least five times that Wales have never beaten (72 out of FIFA’s membership of 209 have so far been encountered, disregarding countries that no longer exist). The loss-rate against them has risen to 80% – a rate only exceeded against our two arch bogeymen: Sweden (85%) and the Netherlands (100%). When Croatia come to Cardiff for the return fixture in October, assuming results in the home game against Azerbaijan and the away game in Slovakia haven’t already eliminated Wales, that Croat curse is going to have to be crushed. The 2018 World Cup finalists are in transition and by no means invincible – so long as you’ve got a midfield that can retain possession of the ball and a natural centre-forward who can put it in the net. And those are just some of the limitations Ryan Giggs is having to deal with as he juggles an incoherent mix of old stagers on the wain, callow novices with potential and decent club performers who will never be of international quality. Incidentally, a record that was only set in the previous game against Slovakia (see https://tinyurl.com/yxp9onea) was broken in the Croatia match when Rabbi Matondo came on as substitute to join Bale, J Lawrence and Smith on the pitch and bring the number of non English league players on the pitch to four! If you’re wondering what specific records have ever been broken in consecutive matches before, well I’m checking it out and have already reached game 11 (v England 1882) so, going at the rate of 10 games a week and allowing for the ever-accumulating games and some holidays, I should have all the answers in, ooh, around 15 months’ time. And no, as I’ve repeated 836 times already, I DO NOT HAVE OBSSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER!
The Hungary loss was particularly painful because the Magyars are one of the few significant European teams Wales have done well against since the first meeting in the 1958 World Cup Finals. After the eminently avoidable defeat, notable for Chris Gunter extending his record all-time appearance total to 95 and record goal-scorer Gareth Bale missing a sitter my Great Uncle Absalom could have knocked in with his white stick, the head-to-head against Hungary has reached; P11, W5, D2, L4, F15-A15.
With James Lawrence and Tom Lawrence in the starting line-up in Budapest, Wales fielded two unrelated players with the same surname (discounting those with archetypal Welsh surnames like Davies, Evans, Hughes, Jones, Roberts, Williams etc) for the first time since Neil Taylor and Jake Taylor against Cyprus in 2014. Although Lawrence is a rare surname in Wales, James and Tom are not the first Lawrences to win Welsh caps. Workmanlike wing-half Eddie Lawrence (1907-1994), a Druids product from Cefn Mawr, played twice for Wales in 1930 and 1931 while with Clapton Orient and Notts County respectively. He just missed being in the same Wales team as his contemporary Sid Lawrence (1909-1949), a full-back developed by Penrhiwceiber Rangers who won eight caps between 1931 and 1935 when with Swansea Town. Poor Sid, a Vetch Field linchpin through the 1930s, took the then traditional option for retired footballers and became a pub landlord – an unhealthy option always liable to bring about premature death. It would have been quite something had this pair of Lawrences also played together for Wales like the current pair, because then I could have made some suitably obtuse witty reference to another pair of contemporaneous Lawrences: DH (1885-1930) and TE (1888-1935). But, like Euro 2020, it was not to be.