Here’s something I never thought I’d be privileged enough to write in my lifetime – the Welsh national side are beginning to play like Barcelona. As sentences go its right up there with ‘Ashley Cole is a thoroughly decent chap’ and ‘You know who is really looking hot these days? Fatima Whitbread’.
Regardless, it is true – or at least in the vicinity of the truth – and though the land of my fathers has arguably possessed far better teams in its past they have never, not even close, looked so fluid and adventurous as they do at present.
Their 4-1 victory over Norway on Saturday – a country twenty-one places above them in the world rankings – was their fourth win in five but it’s the manner of their performances, and their astonishing transformation under Gary Speed, that really excites. For sustained periods at the weekend it was an eisteddfod of football, stylish and always purposeful - attractive but also constructive – and at the heart of it all was their 20 year old maestro and captain Aaron Ramsey. Though Bale and Bellamy rightfully garnered most of the plaudits for their endless running and general excellence it was Arsenal’s young prodigy who exuded everything that Speed is attempting to create. The lad is class personified, always looking for the ball whether it’s in acres of space or tricky, tight situations. Ramsey has such confidence in his ability and technique he’s happy to receive possession on the edge of his own box which gives his grateful centre-backs an easy ‘out’. This means instead of a pointless clearance that’s immediately returned with interest Wales build from the back and pass their way out of trouble. It starts things as they mean to go on. In more advanced positions he’s the orchestra of all around him, having the innate intelligence to know when to remain patient and keep things simple and when to probe and take risks. There is mercifully little tippy-tappy stuff for the sake of it; every touch is accompanied by motion and intent.
If the new Wales is Speed’s vision then Ramsey represents his former self vicariously righting wrongs.
He is the slick oil in Wales’ new-look engine room and best of all the baby-faced schemer is growing in stature with every passing week; it is not inconsequential that until mid-October he was Wenger’s only ever-present for the Gunners’ league campaign.
In terms of poise and vision Ramsey reminds me of another Welsh player from our recent past, one who unfortunately played in an era of kick-and-rush 4-4-2 in sides blessed with great talents but hindered to a man by an underdog mentality. The ex-player in question stood near to the dug-out throughout Saturday’s game, watching on with approval, looking every inch a catalogue model for Next. If the new Wales is Speed’s vision then Ramsey represents his former self vicariously righting wrongs.
In truth there were many wrongs to overturn; from an ingrained culture of failure and lack of self-worth to an over-reliance on passion and patriotic fury. These contradictions have held my country back for as long as I can remember. Quality top flight players would mystifyingly disregard their club form and class and instead run themselves into the ground, breathing dragon’s fire and brimstone, then snuff out the flames themselves the moment the going got tough. It was these symptoms and many others that the well-travelled sophisticate John Toshack was supposed to address way back in 2004.
When Toshack took up the national reins Wales were undergoing a period of transition as several of the established old-guard neared the end of their careers with an exciting crop of youngster coming through ready to take their place. It was an extensive project and one that was critical to the country’s future. After six years in charge however Operation New Wales remained thoroughly in limbo. Their dismal defeat to Montenegro in the opening fixture of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign was indicative of what they had become; a rag-tag team mainly stocked with kids who were fast becoming used to accepting defeat.
Toshack had attempted a series of successions. Speed meanwhile has opted for a full-on revolution.
Toshack had attempted a series of successions. Speed meanwhile has opted for a full-on revolution. His first decision was brave in the extreme. In fact it cannot be underestimated just how far-sighted and radical a move it was, especially coming from a rookie with less than six months managerial experience. With only a game played and qualification still a realistic goal the former Leeds man (and Wales’ most-capped player) essentially wrote off the rest of the campaign in favour of overhaul and development. He recognized that here was an opportunity like never before to forge a fresh identity and direction for a country in desperate need of both. Of course his young side did all they could to secure a route to Poland and the Ukraine next summer, but it was done in conjunction with complete change. The more the games racked up the more they became glorified friendlies as a bunch of talented kids adapted to a high-tempo possession style of football that is increasingly becoming a joy to watch. A Cymru Barcelona.
While across the Severn Bridge Capello tinkered and tweaked Speed ripped up the blueprints and started from scratch.
His second brave act was in appointing his prized starlet with the captain’s armband. It was a decision that confounded many but Speed knew precisely what he was doing. It was a symbolic gesture, to illustrate that not only will Ramsey lead his country to a bright previously unchartered future, but he is also the living embodiment of it.
It’s early days just yet but Speed’s foresight and principled fearlessness might just be enough to take Wales to the promised land of a World Cup in three years time. Which will be a sentence I cannot wait to write up as fact.
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