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Russell Todd; next up... Dublin

(March 01, 2017)

Pêl-droed:
Next up... Dublin

Cymru-Wales, at Cardiff City Stadium
  

For those fans whose primary allegiance lies with international as opposed to club football, this column comes towards the end of those most difficult months of the season.

Over four months drift by between the final qualifier of the old calendar year and the first of the new. The once traditional international friendly window in February was scrapped under pressure of Europe’s club elite; a pawn in the power struggle in Europe in which the primacy and profitability of the Champions League is all-important. The FA Cup, with its iconic third round in early January, is another to have had to compromise. And whereas the February friendly slot was swiftly terminated, the FA Cup continues to suffer a lingering death; it is now a pale imitation of its illustrious former self, emasculated and, sadly, increasingly irrelevant. Neil Warnock spoke after Cardiff City’s limp home exit to Fulham of struggling to get out of bed on the day of the game, in a competition that sees many English Premier League and Championship clubs field reserve sides. Fair enough; there are footballing grounds for doing so. The hollow platitudes of many are nauseous though, with the broadcasters imitating many clubs by resting their first choice anchors and pundits and drafting in their understudies for the third round coverage.

Increasingly, the romance of the cup is less a distraction during the internationally-barren months of deep winter. And what many fans of Welsh clubs in the English pyramid would do for a distraction in what is largely a turgid season for them all, with Merthyr Town, in the running for promotion, the one exception. Meanwhile, the Welsh Premier League has turned into a procession for The New Saints.

Nonetheless, the wait will be almost over. Wales travel to Dublin on 24 March to face a Republic of Ireland side that sits atop Qualifying Group D. The more superstitious will be concerned that Wales haven’t beaten the Irish in a quarter of a century, when Mark Pembridge scored the only goal at Dublin’s Royal Society Showground in 1992, on his second Wales appearance. Indeed, a Jason Koumas brace at the Millennium Stadium ten years ago is the only time in five attempts in which Wales have not drawn a blank against Ireland.

Arguably, the current Irish vintage lacks the individual talent of its predecessors over the last couple of decades. But it has abundant self-belief and camaraderie. Indeed, the squad’s spirit is similar to that of the Wales squad; but it is the latter that has the greater sprinkling of stardust, even more so given Robbie Brady will be suspended for the Dublin clash.

That Wales have not recaptured their form of France last summer is patently the case. However the qualifying group for France built momentum steadily and slowly, rather than setting-off at a searing pace. The corresponding fixture at the halfway point of that campaign, Israel away in Haifa, was the one in which Wales were most fluent and incisive.

Gareth Bale, By Steindy (talk) 12:31, 25 October 2016 (UTC) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Another parallel – or omen should you invest your emotions in such things – is that Gareth Bale had not long returned after an injury lay-off ahead of that Israel game. That injury, admittedly, was not as serious as his current ankle problem – sustained in a Champions League win over Sporting on 22 November - which required surgery. However, Bale returned to action ahead of schedule, firstly against Espanyol on 18 February, then playing 88 minutes against Villareal; scoring the first goal, inspiring his team to come back from 2-0 down. So he should get some games under his belt before Dublin. Don’t uncross your fingers just yet though...

Given the importance of the game, Chris Coleman is unlikely to be radical in his squad or team selection, so expect to see the usual faces. However, he will have decisions to make. Tom Lawrence has been in blistering form for Ipswich Town, scoring a series of impressive long range and individual goals and his ability to play wide and between the lines would take dribbling responsibilities away from Bale. At the other end of the pitch, Wayne Hennessey is shipping goals – though three Goal of the Season contenders from Oliver Giroud, Dele Alli and Andy Carroll were among them - in a freefall Crystal Palace team, whom Sam Allardyce has not yet galvanised following his arrival in late December. Coleman was linked with the Palace vacancy but confirmed, albeit via Mrs Coleman, that he will see out his Wales contract and then look to move abroad. With Coleman linked previously with Hull City and Swansea’s vacancies this season, hopefully future links with EPL sides will now be muted.

Given that Hennessey was also at fault for the late Serbian equaliser in November there is more competition for his shirt than at any time since he made his debut almost a decade ago. He will start in Dublin, but Danny Ward and uncapped pair Chris Maxwell and Adam Davies are impressing in the Championship either side of the Pennines, for Huddersfield, Preston North End and Barnsley respectively. Maxwell in particular caught the eye in Preston’s FA Cup tie against Arsenal with an assured and assertive display. Maxwell made up the numbers pre-tournament with the Euro 2016 squad, but it was Davies who was called-up ahead of October’s Austria and Georgia double header as a replacement for the crocked Danny Ward.

A bold, and potentially provocative, selection would be Ben Woodburn. Cheshire-born but eligible for Wales via a Welsh grandparent, Woodburn made an immediate impact for Liverpool when he scored against Leeds United late on in an EFL Cup tie, making Woodburn Liverpool’s youngest ever scorer. He has figured modestly for Liverpool since then and, as one of The Guardian’s ‘ones to watch’ in 2017, is highly rated. Fortunately, he has been involved in the Welsh set-up since 13 years of age, winning the Victory Shield and captaining Wales’ under 17s along the way. Obviously, he is still eligible to represent the land of his birth at senior level. However, he has previous when it comes to resisting England’s overtures. At under 16 level he was selected by both countries for clashing fixtures, opting for Wales.

Naturally, questions were asked of England manager Gareth Southgate about how England’s set-up had missed out on Woodburn. His criticism of Wales was thinly veiled when he suggested “other countries” are getting “boys in too young [and] going younger”; though Southgate had little compunction in subsequently trying to entice into the England system Celtic’s 13 year old English-born Karamoko Dembele who is eligible for Côte d'Ivoire through parentage, and Scotland via the home nations’ compulsory schooling agreement. Coleman is confident that Woodburn is committed to the red dragon rather than the three lions and showed in his selection of 16 year old Harry Wilson in 2013 that he can be adventurous in his selections. Might there be room for Woodburn in Coleman’s squad for Dublin? If not, he should at the very least emulate the likes of Ethan Ampadu, Regan Poole and Tyler Roberts and be invited to train with the likes of Bale, Allen and Ramsey.

Finally, the prospect of playing the Republic of Ireland is also a reminder of how an international team can convert a history of qualification failure into routine qualification; Wales could find worse role models to emulate. In the 14 World Cups and European Championships since qualifying for Euro 88, Ireland have reached five, and lost four times in a play-off. Three points at the Aviva Stadium would be a timely first step for Wales in achieving something comparable.

Russell Todd, March 2017

If you enjoyed this you will probably like Russell's previous piece too:
Pêl-droed: the beautiful country's beautiful game; December 2016

 

Russell Tweets as @llannerch
his website is: independenttropicalwales.wordpress.com
and he is one of the team Tweeting on Podcast Pêl-droed

Podcast Pêl-droed's website is: www.podcastpeldroed.cymru

 

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan:
Caregos Cyf., 2017

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