Back to normality

Any follower of Welsh football younger than 25 or so has only ever known years of success – qualification for tournament after tournament, thrilling wins, sparkling performances, great players, capacity crowds and high positions in the world rankings. This unprecedented period, including its Toshack/Speed gestation, lasted for around 15 years, coinciding with the emergence of Gareth Bale as Cymru’s first authentically world class player of the modern era and continuing through to his retirement last year. So it is understandable if the generation of fans reared on glory and habituated to victory, might have got the impression that Cymru winning is normal – but that impression could not be further from the truth. For those unconversant with what’s been happening these last 147 years, brief hints of the traumatic reality can be read here, here and here for starters.

Cymru’s Golden Age was simply the exception that proves the rule. By the law of averages the third-oldest football nation in the world was bound to have a heyday sometime or other if we waited long enough – after all, as the old adage goes, a monkey sat at a typewriter for eternity will eventually type out the complete works of Shakespeare. It just took the stars to align, serendipity to smile on us and the once-in-a-lifetime freak emergence of soccer genius Bale.

That era is now well and truly over, as this month’s two defeats* in Euro 2024 qualifying to Armenia in Cardiff and then Turkey in Samsun have agonisingly confirmed. However some of the hysterical and negative reactions to these setbacks are wholly unjustified. Sack Rob Page!…Drop Aaron Ramsey!…Lynch Joe Rodon!…Garotte Joe Morrell!…and so on, sound to me like the uncomprehending tantrums of the historically illiterate who know nothing about either Wales or football. FIFA has 211 members and to beat any of them is tricky, especially for a small country of 3million people that doesn’t have a professional domestic pyramid and lacks any national system to produce players. Instead Cymru relies on the random chance that clubs from another FIFA member (England) might inadvertently develop the occasional Welsh player or have the odd player on their books with a Welsh ancestor who isn’t wanted by England. No other footballing nation arranges its affairs in this way. No other footballing nation operates with such a handicap.

Armenia, for instance, another small country with 3million people, an ancient culture and a long history of invasions and colonisation, has a fully professional two-tier national league and no less than five football academies around the country operated by the governing body (the FFA). That’s why the current squad of 25 players called up to play Cymru and Latvia in the Euros this month contained 15 players with clubs in the Armenian League, five playing abroad who were produced by Armenian clubs and five who qualify as Armenian through ancestry. As for the 25-man squad called up by Cymru to face Armenia and Turkey, not one plays in the Cymru Leagues, every single player bar Ramsey (currently with French club Nice) is with an English club, only two were produced by Welsh pyramid clubs (Bradshaw – Aberystwyth T, Broadhead – Bangor C) and no less than 13 were not born in Wales and only qualify through ancestry. The British/English mass media crowing about the ‘humiliation’ of Cymru by Armenia in Cardiff got it wrong as usual: the humiliation happened before a ball was kicked.

This is the fundamental, institutionalised flaw in Welsh football. Hey, guess what, to play international football successfully you need FOOTBALLERS!! Lots and lots of them! Who knew? And to produce those footballers you need a strong domestic structure of viable clubs churning out conveyor belts of players decade after decade – you know, like what happens in the rest of the world…

And never forget the most important fact of all: if Wales had no national league, as was the case before 1992, then today, as UEFA and FIFA have made clear, Wales would have no international team. Hey, guess what, to be international you must first be national! Who knew?

But I’ve been writing stuff like this for at least the last 30 years and still the FAW hasn’t grasped the nettle to do what is necessary – not just to bring sustained success in international football, but also to ensure Cymru has an international football future at all. This is what the FAW should do:

  • Withdraw consent for any football club based in Wales to play in another country’s pyramid
  • Notify the English FA, UEFA and FIFA
  • Arrange the rapid, orderly movement of the five English clubs (Cardiff City, Merthyr Town, Newport County, Swansea City and Wrexham) into the Welsh pyramid
  • Take legal action against the English FA, the five clubs and the BBC for compensatory damages for the 31 years and counting that Welsh domestic football and its hundreds of clubs have been crippled and impoverished by another country operating within our borders.

Will the FAW do any such thing or are all the passionate, progressive plans of impressive Chief Executive Noel Mooney just PR posturing?

I’m not holding my breath. However, I glean some small encouragement from the comments made recently by Mike Harris, chairman of Cymru Premier champions The New Saints. He criticised Rob Page for not picking a single player from the Welsh pyramid in his Euro squad, pointing out that Wales is one of the very few nations to never select a player from its own domestic top flight. TNS, for instance, has Category A academy status and has hosts of promising young Welsh players with regular experience of European football. Yet it is doubtful whether thoroughly conventional Page, saturated in the primacy of English football since Watford snapped him up for their academy when he was 11, has ever attended a Cymru Premier match or could name a single TNS player. This must change, and the FAW must start making it compulsory that every Cymru squad must include some players from the domestic game. As Harris put it, quite apart from the positive impact and enhanced awareness and reputation this would give the Cymru Premier, the FAW should “ensure there is a pathway from the domestic league to running out in the famous red shirt of Wales.”

Updated head-to-head records: v Armenia P3, W0, D2, L1, Goals F4-A6; v Turkey P8, W4, D1, L3, Goals F12-A9