Wales is a proud footballing nation and, given its meagre population, a prolific one too. Not many countries of three million people have produced so many of the game’s great names, from Ivor Allchurch and John Charles through Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs all the way to Gareth Bale.
However, memories of their solitary FIFA World Cup™ appearance, when Allchurch and Charles inspired a run to the 1958 quarter-finals, are now the stuff of legend and, for most, long-forgotten history. Over half a century has passed since that Swedish success story, and the team Gary Speed took charge of late last year showed little indication of being capable of penning a sequel. All it takes, indeed, is a look at the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to illustrate the depths to which Wales have sunk, with 117th position leaving them below the likes of Antigua and Barbuda, Gambia and Faroe Islands in the global pecking order.
Their slide has been steady and seemingly inexorable, but Speed – himself a 76-times-capped stalwart of the national team – believes that better days lie ahead. As he told FIFA.com: “We have limitations in Wales, and it gets more and more difficult every time you don’t qualify and drop further down the ranking. We saw that recently with the pots for the World Cup draw. Our population obviously isn’t the biggest, and inevitably you have peaks and troughs in terms of producing players. But I do believe we can aspire to be a lot better than we have been in recent years.
“I’m realistic, and the remit I’ve set myself isn’t to demand that we qualify for every single tournament. That would be asking a bit too much. What I want to see is us competing; to make sure that we’re there or thereabouts when it comes to the qualifying places. I look at the likes of Republic of Ireland in that respect. They don’t make every tournament but they’re generally fighting for a place right down to the last couple of matches whatever happens, and that’s where I want us to be. We’ve been there before and I believe that getting back to that position is a realistic ambition. It’s not going to be easy but the advantage that I have is that we have some top young players already showing they can do something.”
Adopting a long-term approach was the natural choice for the 41-year-old when he took over a team that, with no points from their first three qualifiers, were already effectively out of the race for UEFA EURO 2012. So it was that Brazil 2014 became Speed’s focus, with his goal to build a youthful team around a formidable core of Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Craig Bellamy and Joe Ledley.
For fans waiting for tangible signs of progress, Friday brought relief in the shape of a 2-1 victory over the impressive and erstwhile unbeaten Montenegro. It was a result that raised eyebrows across Europe, although for Speed it merely provided affirmation of the heartening signs that he has been witnessing behind the scenes.
“I’ve been really encouraged by what I’ve seen,” he said. “As you can see, we have some tremendously talented young players in this squad and, if we can get them on the ball, we can cause anyone problems. I’ve also been delighted at the way the players have responded to what we’ve said to them and asked of them – they’ve really bought into to the structure we’re trying to put into place.
“I’ve been in the job for almost nine months now and, for me, the goal has always been getting the team ready for September 2012, when World Cup qualifying begins. Don’t get me wrong, we want to play well and win matches in the meantime. But we’ve a longer-term goal and that’s most definitely to make sure we develop a team that’s ready to go and compete with the big teams in our group for a place at the World Cup. We might be going through a transitional period at the moment, but we still have ambitions of playing at these big tournaments and that’s what everyone’s working towards.”
The Brazil 2014 Preliminary Draw hardly made Speed’s task any easier, with Wales pitted against Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Scotland and FYR Macedonia in a section that fails to provide a single easy match. However, the open nature of the group, with each team capable of inflicting damage on the others, has allowed the former Everton midfielder to retain genuine hope of springing a surprise. And upsetting the odds will also be the goal when Speed takes his team to Wembley tomorrow evening, where England – comfortable 2-0 victors in the corresponding meeting in March – are aiming to take another giant step towards EURO qualification.
“We can get a result at Wembley,” he said. “I think we have learned from playing England at the Millennium, we have learned from our friendly with Australia and we have learned from Montenegro. Hopefully beating Montenegro is the start of where we want to go. Wembley will be different, although Montenegro are a good side. It is a challenge because of the quality England have. Their record in qualifiers is as good as anyone’s. It will be tough, but we will go there with a bit of confidence.”
Little will be expected of Wembley’s Welsh visitors, especially against a side that has lost just once in its last 16 qualifiers. Nonetheless, Speed’s quiet revolution is raising hopes that this proud nation's days in the doldrums could well be numbered.