Thanks to a comical og by Azerbaijani Pavlo Pashayev and a levitating late leap by Gareth Bale to log his 32nd Welsh goal, Wales snaffled an essential 2-1 victory in the Euro 2020 qualifier last week. In a low quality match, often deficient in skill, technique, ideas and pace, Wales made hard work of it against the side ranked 109th in the world. Hennessey and Taylor were horribly accident-prone while the other defenders – Roberts, Rodon and Mepham – hardly inspired confidence either (by the way, am I the only one who finds the pronunciation of the latter’s name Mep-Ham not Meffam a rather iffy rejection of the Ancient Greek ‘ph’ digraph?). Allen huffed and puffed, Wilson seemed anxious and hurried, Lawrence disappeared for long periods, James flattered to deceive and Bale…well, although he’s currently a shadow of his former self (I blame Zidane), he was still the match winner. The one Welsh player who can be genuinely satisfied with his performance was Ethan Ampadu, stylishly pulling strings and snuffing out threats in deep midfield. One of Chelsea’s hoard of surplus stashed footballers, he has recently been loaned to German club RB Leipzig. Who knows, now he might be allowed to play the occasional game of competitive football and get even better.
In the end all that matters is Wales won, got the three points, and are therefore not yet out of the running for qualification – especially as other results have kept Group E tight. If Wales could only win the upcoming October fixtures away to Slovakia and home to Croatia we’d be right back in the mix – he said, not for one moment believing anything of the sort is going to happen.
After the victory in Cardiff the head-to-head record against Azerbaijan has reached P7, W6, D1, L0, Goals F13-A2. We’re invincible by the shores of the Caspian Sea, look you! There is an admittedly unlikely but mathematically still possible scenario ahead in which Wales would just need a win back in Baku in November to clinch qualification. Wouldn’t that be something: a showdown between the country with the world’s most polluted lake and the country with the world’s biggest…
The friendly against Belarus four days later gave Ryan Giggs the chance to try out young prospects in the cauldron of international football as well as take another look at peripheral squad members. Midfielder Joe Morrell of Lincoln City in the third tier of the English pyramid and striker Keiffer Moore of Wigan Athletic in the second tier were capped for the first time, while Danny Ward, Johnny Williams, Tom Lockyer and Will Vaulks were given rare run-outs. It worked too: Wales deservedly won 1-0 with a wickedly pinged bender from pugnacious little Manchester United winger Daniel James, who has quickly become an automatic choice. Five subs being permitted in friendlies allowed Giggs to indulge himself by bringing on Chris Gunter in the 91st minute and cheaply increase his record caps total to 96. The result brings the head-to-head record against Belarus, currently ranked 84th in the world, to P5, W4, D0, L1, Goals F8-A5. We’re big in Minsk, mind you!
Truth be told, none of the second-stringers looked of international quality except, perhaps, debutant Morrell with his awareness of space and accurate passing. Born in Ipswich and qualifying for Wales via his mother, he is only the second Lincoln City player in their 135-year history to win an international cap – and the other was Welsh too: burly one-cap wonder David Felgate from Blaenau Ffestiniog, a half-time substitute for Neville Southall in a 5-0 romp at Wrecsam against Romania in 1983. Unless he’s sold in the interim, Morrell’s likely to win another cap soon and become the Imps’ most capped player ever.
He was one of five players in the starting line-up against Belarus, along with James, Mepham, Moore and Williams, who were born in England but eligible for Wales through a parent or grandparent and, counting late subs Vaulks and Vokes, seven ‘Anglos’ altogether figured in the action. It’s a humiliation, it’s a crying shame, and it’s no way for any self-respecting footballing nation which wants a sustainable future to conduct itself but, as I’ve said many times before in my footie witterings on this site, beggars can’t be choosers. Giggs is only doing what every Welsh manager has increasingly done since FIFA relaxed eligibility rules in 2004 – and at least he has yet to top the all-time record number of Englishmen in a Welsh team: the NINE in the 2-0 win in Luxembourg in 2008 when John Toshack was in charge.
However, I’m beginning to wonder about Ryan Giggs. Certainly not about him as a football manager; I supported his appointment, still think he’s the best man for the job and reckon he’s doing quite well considering his threadbare options plus the difficulty of beating any team in international football. I wonder more about his whole outlook on life. The sad recent demise of 134-year-old Greater Manchester club Bury crystallises my doubts. The burial of the Shakers of Gigg (!) Lane, twice English Cup winners, stands in such stark contrast to the rocketing rise through the English pyramid (four promotions in five seasons) of Bury’s Greater Manchester neighbours Salford City, a minnow with no football tradition whatsoever. In a control-freak vanity project, it is Giggs and his ‘Class of ’92’ ex-Manchester United fellow millionaires (Beckham, Butt, Scholes and the Nevilles) who are chucking the buckets of money at Salford to brazenly buy success. In so doing, they crudely, and probably unknowingly, supply an object lesson in how the Beautiful Game is being utterly corrupted by rampant commodification and monetisation.
The concentration of vast wealth in the hands of a small number of clubs, facilitated by megalomaniac far-right media barons, has turned football, most glaringly in England, into the amoral, globalised plaything of juntas, oligarchs, hedge-funds, property magnates, asset-strippers, offshore finance, speculators, gamblers and chancers. It’s got to the point where they may as well just compile league tables according to disposable income and save everyone a lot of time and trouble. Those indoctrinated by the English Premier League’s overcooked histrionics and trumped-up hype might not believe it, since to them football didn’t exist before the ‘Prem’, but the outcome, I can assure them, has been the ruin of the sport. This, of course, is what happens in the end to everything capitalism touches. Giggs and the gang obviously don’t think this is wrong, as evidenced by their various other speculative ventures in Manchester; on the contrary, the wannabe business tycoons behind the security gates of their Cheshire and LA mansions want a slice of the action. At the very least, this tells us they are avaricious, shallow, ignorant and over-entitled – but David Beckham has been exhibiting those characteristics for years, so that is hardly news. Maybe it’s just me, but I have higher expectations of important Welsh public figures.
I wouldn’t mind so much if Giggs turned his attention to Wales’ football pyramid, the most impoverished and underfunded in all of Europe, and bestowed some of his munificence where it is really needed and would really make a difference. In fact the Welsh pyramid is so comprehensively un-monetised that some small change from the back of Giggsy’s purple velvet lounger would be enough to transform any club in Wales. Isn’t there a fundamental conflict of interest here: where else in the world does the manager of the national football team pour resources and energy into another nation’s football? Isn’t it part of his job description to build the game in Wales, not England? And isn’t wealth beyond the dreams of Croesus tragically pointless and ultimately destructive when all it does is make you want more?