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Welsh look to wake up to their potential

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England may be conspicuous by their absence in Euro 2008, Scotland and Northern Ireland may feel unlucky while Eire have retreated to lick their wounds but, out of all the home nations, the failure of Wales to travel to Austria and Switzerland hardly ranks on the shock scale. Indeed, bar a somewhat fortunate qualification to the 1958 World Cup, the Welsh’s appearance at major tournaments have been virtually non existent.

But these are interesting times for Welsh football. To say the team is going through a transitional period is an understatement. After coming within a play-off of qualifying for Euro 2004 under Mark Hughes the team has barely troubled the European elite in the two subsequent qualification campaigns, leading some quarters to question John Toshack’s suitability for the job.

However, despite being out of the reckoning for Euro 2008 a long time ago, Wales have been steadily making progress and until their friendly defeat to the Netherlands had gone six games unbeaten. What was even more impressive was the average age of the squad that finished the game against the Dutch – just over 20 years old.

Life after Sparky

Rebuilding after Mark Hughes tenure was always going to be a difficult task and, in truth, there were few decent candidates available after ‘Sparky’s’ departure to Blackburn Rovers, with John Toshack being the obvious and most experience coach, despite his slightly acrmonious history with the national team (he walked out after just one game in 1994) and outspoken comments as a pundit for BBC Wales.

Indeed, Toshack’s style alienated some of Wales’ Premiership stars like Robbie Savage and for his first qualification campaign in charge it was almost about who wasn’t playing for the team as who was. Savage, John Oster, Robert Earnshaw and Danny Collins are among those who’ve fallen out of favour with the Welsh boss over the past four years, which has meant several lower-league and untested player have had their chance to shine.

Yet when Toshack took over there was still an air of expectation. Wales had plenty of Premiership players, most notably Ryan Giggs, probably one of the best players never to grace a major international tournament. Giggs, along with Savage, Earnshaw, Simon Davies, Gary Speed, Jason Koumas, Mark Delaney, Danny Gabbidon and James Collins, plus veteran keeper Paul Jones, were all playing in the top flight and expected to form the backbone of the team while a new generation of Welsh footballers came through the ranks.

Except it didn’t quite happen, as Earnshaw, Gabbidon, Collins and Koumas struggled in the Premier, while Delaney and Davies were permanent fixtures on the physio’s treatment room, Savage quit international football, and Speed, Giggs and Jones were all in their thirties with no obvious replacement waiting in the wings. With an unsettled squad and plenty of new faces it was perhaps not a surprise that Wales made little impression on their qualifying group, including Northern Ireland and England, for the 2006 World Cup.

Toshack at least had the justification of needing more time to build a squad that was a mixture of callow youth and aging veterans but it was clear that midway through the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, with Wales quickly out of contention for qualifying, Toshack was under pressure from a Welsh public that is demanding at the best of times. Had the former Real Madrid manager been in charge of the national rugby team, he would have been sacked long before now.

The glow of youth

Yet, despite a defeat to Cyprus and a limp victory against San Marino, Wales seem to be slowly turning a corner and at the heart of it all is a bunch of incredibly youthful, yet talented, players, some of whom wouldn’t get served at a bar in America.

On the face of it, the Welsh squad to face the Dutch looked somewhat light on experience. Craig Bellamy was the most capped player on 50, followed by Toronto FC midfielder Carl Robinson. The next three most experienced players in the squad were Koumas, Hull’s Sam Ricketts, and Cardiff’s Joe Ledley, with teenager Lewin Nyatanga just one cap behind Ledley on 20*.

Yet if you look at the general state of Welsh football there’s a lot of cause of optimism and one of the main reasons is an uncapped teenager and possible heir apparent to Giggs – Aaron Ramsey. The 17-year-old shot to public attention through Cardiff’s FA Cup run is the subject of a bidding war between Manchester United and Arsenal and will more likely than not be a premiership player next season. Another young player that could be joining him in the Premiership is 20-year-old goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey. The shot-stopper but in the top-class performance against the Dutch and his performance for Wolves has drawn many admiring glances this season.

Meanwhile fellow teenage superstar Gareth Bale continues his injury comeback for Spurs, where he also players alongside another teenager Chris Gunther, while Ricketts and keeper Boaz Myhill will gain valuable Premiership experience with Hull in the top flight. Along with Bellamy, Koumas and Davies, that constitutes a decent number of Welsh players at the top level on English football.

The Welsh league is a lot weaker than any of its Celtic counterparts and unlikely to provide the core of the national side, unlike Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, but the country will definitely be helped by Swansea joining Cardiff in the Championship. The Bluebirds have produced several youth academy stars, including Earnshaw and Gunther, and the higher level Welsh teams play at, the better for the national game. Indeed, in Joe Ledley, they have another young player coveted by Premiership clubs, while former non-league player Paul Parry continues to draw plaudits at Ninian Park. Parry could be joined by another non-league player, Stuart Fleetwood. The Forest Green Rovers striker hit 36 goals this season and looks likely to sign for Charlton Athletic. If he can reproduce his form, a full Welsh cap can’t be far away.

Then you’ve got the more experienced players, like Gabbidon, Collins and Earnshaw, all of whom have points to prove after a mixture of disappointing seasons and injury. Earnshaw, who is just three goals away from scoring more international goals than the great John Charles, has the most to prove after failing to break through at Derby, but the diminutive striker has scored plenty of goals in the Championship, and at international level, and if he can find his scoring touch at newly-promoted Nottingham Forest, then he can force his way back into the Welsh setup.

The World Cup in 2010 may be a bit early for this young Welsh team, but come the qualification period for Euro 2012, many of the young Welsh stars should be in their prime. In four teams time, side may discount the Dragons at their peril.

*All cap numbers have increased by 1 after the Holland game.

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