x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Light at the end of the tunnel for Welsh football

Ranked 117th in the world, Wales have been hampered by a lack of strength in depth, shorn of experience in recent times, but their youth hold plenty of promise for the future.

Gareth Bale, centre, is one of the poster boys for Wales' next generation of players.
Gareth Bale, centre, is one of the poster boys for Wales' next generation of players.

While footballers can take advantage of the global market to roam far and wide, there is often a correlation between success for club and country in areas where talent flowers. Then there is the polar opposite: Wales.

The best of times has doubled up as the worst of times.

With Swansea City promoted to the English Premier League and Cardiff City narrowly missing out, the club game in the Principality is arguably as strong as it is has been for half a century, but the national team has hit a historic low.

A world ranking of 117th is a numerical indication of their struggles, but it was illustrated most graphically last month. When the European nations were placed in pools ahead of the draw for 2014 World Cup qualifying, Wales were in the sixth group. The Faroe Islands were in the fifth pot.

Wales, it seemed, had hit rock bottom. But perhaps the bounce-back has begun.

A Montenegro side ranked 98 places above them were defeated on Friday, probably their biggest scalp in competitive internationals since Italy lost at the Millennium Stadium nine years ago.

They travel across the Severn Bridge to take on England tonight as outsiders. Then again, as Gareth Bale said: "We're always going to be massive underdogs whoever we're playing at the moment."

It is the consequence of John Toshack's ruinous reign when, with the exceptions of Craig Bellamy and James Collins, virtually every experienced player of note retired from international football. If the senior side almost doubled up as the Under 21 team, the reasons were two-fold. Able players were emerging, but there was no one left to block their path into the side.

It is why Gary Speed, Toshack's successor can say: "I played with some great players for Wales, but those sides were never as good as what we've potentially got now."

It is high praise when a team is at a low ebb, especially as Speed is a former teammate of Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Neville Southall and Kevin Ratcliffe in his country's colours.

They almost qualified for the 1994 World Cup, during a season when the highest-placed Welsh club in the English pyramid was a lowly 58th.

Now, in contrast, two of Speed's squad are at ambitious Cardiff and three others - Neil Taylor, Ashley Williams and Joe Allen - were among the promoted Swans.

They are an upwardly-mobile group. Among those elevated in England, Andrew Crofts went up with Norwich City, who promptly signed Steve Morison, while Queens Park Rangers recruited Danny Gabbidon.

Just as pertinently, there are Welsh representatives at three of the Premier League's big six: Bellamy has rejoined Liverpool, Bale is at Tottenham Hotspur and Aaron Ramsey is in the Arsenal midfield.

Each, in that respect, harks back to players such as Rush and Giggs, capable of competing on the highest stage for club, if not country.

For them, the Champions League had to serve a dual function as their World Cup, because international football deprived them of the real thing. It can be the lot of the Welsh superstar.

Now Bale and Ramsey are the poster boys for the next generation. The latter is the new captain, Bellamy relinquishing the armband so that a squad with 11 men aged 22 or under can be led by one of their own.

They are learning on the job: after this qualifying campaign began with five successive defeats, it has become a dress rehearsal for future attempts.

But the legacy of past defeats will impede them, with Wales' lowly ranking making for a tougher draw, while the perennial problem of the small nation - a lack of strength in depth - could be apparent tonight when Bellamy, harshly, and David Vaughan are suspended.

And yet there is a sense of renewed optimism.

"The Montenegro game showed the potential in this squad," Bale said. "The team's looking strong, we've a better squad now and we're definitely looking to a brighter future."

In one sense, that it is inevitable. Compared to the last few years, it could barely be bleaker. But from the depths of 117th, flanked by Haiti and Grenada, things may be finally looking up for Wales again.