Arsenal's Rambo Leads Wales Revival

They may have lost to England last night but Wales can be confident that the likes of Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey and Spurs Gareth Bale could soon see Gary Speed's side sail past the Faroes in the Fifa rankings.
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They may have lost to England last night but Wales can be confident that the likes of Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey and Spurs Gareth Bale could soon see Gary Speed's side sale past the Faroes in the Fifa rankings.

Don’t you love those few glorious seconds of a morning when you wake up and everything seems right with the world? The sacred moments before the baggage of life sinks in and you remember you hate your job, fell out with your missus last night or forgot to do your homework?

It isn’t hard to imagine that somewhere in South Wales this morning Rob Earnshaw was enjoying every millisecond of those blissful moments before the painful reality dawned on him. The uncomfortable recollection that last night saw his Welsh team-mates present him with a guilt-edged chance for international goal number 17, five yards out and unmarked inside the box, against the old enemy to equalise at Wembley. His manager and the Wales coaching staff were up off their seats and ready to enjoy his trademark summersault infront of the delighted masses behind the goal….

It was the sort of opportunity that Harry would have surely backed Sandra Redknapp to fire home with aplomb.

And the Cardiff striker’s left-footed ‘effort’ on Hart’s goal doesn’t get any better on second viewing. A group of Welsh fans grabbing a much needed sugar rush on their way home at Reading services caught a glimpse of the BBC midnight sports round-up on a monitor. Heads were in hands once again.

But the fact that an Earnie equaliser would have deservedly drawn Wales level with just over ten minutes left says a lot about the standard of performance put in by a side ranked 117th in the world. And I’d imagine waking up on Wednesday 7th September 2011 was far less of a hardship for the majority of Earnshaw’s buoyed team-mates.

It was an evening where pride and encouragement were the post-match buzzwords. (As well as, of course: ‘how did he miss that?!’) It was arguably the coming-of-age performance from a very young side. Huge kudos to Speed for sending an XI out that weren’t short of confidence given the retched barren spell that preceded Friday’s 2-1 win.

It was the sort of opportunity that Harry would have surely backed Sandra Redknapp to fire home with aplomb.

One pundit predicted that the English midfielders would be unable to hold on to the ball in tight spaces and would struggle to string a passing move together. But few could have foreseen just to what extent Aaron Ramsey showed them how it’s done. His inventive top-class performance deservedly saw him handed the man of the match award. The bilingual conductor was guiding his young Welsh choir from the centre of the pitch and Speed’s eyebrow-raising choice of captain seems to get more logical with every match. In the Arsenal midfielder he’s picked a player who typifies the sort of football he wants his side to play. So why not let the 20-year-old lead by example? His performance was certainly light years away from his leaden-footed post-injury display in the last meeting between the sides.

In fact Speed explained after the final whistle that his game plan was to still be in the match when it opened up in the second half - to crucially learn the lessons from the visit of England to the Millennium Stadium in March. Any tactical plans were in tatters after 14 minutes that afternoon and at 2-0 down the atmosphere vanished along with any chance of a shock victory.

But this was a different animal. In the second half in particular, Wales had the tenacity to pass the ball out of tight situations, turn and run at England when the opportunity opened up for them and who’d have thought we’d have been hearing olés from the travelling fans at Wembley?! That wasn’t all we heard from the away end though. Buoyed by a deafening rendition of the anthem, the Welsh atmosphere was just truly sensational throughout. Led by a brass band the songs just kept on coming for 90 minutes, loud and proud.

And the hugely positive reaction from the players and supporters at the final whistle can easily be belittled. After all you get no points for trying. But Wales have plummeted to such an extent in recent years a moral victory (or at least a moral point if such a thing exists) is certainly better than a 5-1 home spanking by Slovakia, a 35 month competitive winless streak and last season’s terrible thumping by Switzerland.

The ominous stat that the starting line-up had scored just 14international goals between them (and that two were on Friday night)” hints at quite how depressing following Wales has been since 2002. Those heady days saw Italy stunned at the then swanky new and full Millennium Stadium. There were also a friendly victory over Germany and a draw with Argentina before Mark Hughes’ side came close to qualifying for Euro 2004, only losing in the Play Offs to Russia.

Probably the only upside in the nine years that have followed is the transformation of the Under 21s. One reason why the young side look so comfortable and confident together is thanks to Brian Flynn’s impact on this age group since being handed the role in 2004. The last time a Welsh side gave their friends from across the Severn Bridge a run for their money was in 2008’s two-legged Play Off for the Under 21 European Championships. Six of the players in Welsh shirts last night were in the squad narrowly beaten 5-4 over the two legs. Arguably man of the match in both? 17-year-old Aaron Ramsey.

And Rambo was just one of the players chucked in at the deep end by John Toshack during his dreadful reign. Another in Bale was in the side at 16 while the trio of Wayne Hennessey, Chris Gunter and Joe Ledley were key members of the side. These youngsters may have been out on the pitch but they were surrounded by journeymen and playing in a side woefully short of morale. Lacking any verse, passion and attacking intent Wales were sent out to play at Toshack’s slow continental tempo with five at the back and a negative outlook from the off.

And that just resulted in a team permanently stalling in first gear and one that looked disinterested in playing for their country. Toshack’s managerial style meant the tally of shock retirements was outnumbering the qualification points gained and almost the number of fans through the gates!

It seemed a never-ending queue of Welshman in their mid-20s couldn’t wait to bid farewell to the former Real Madrid boss. And his brazen and confrontational attitude to the retirements meant his bid to give game time to his youngsters was partly self-inflicted as plenty of senior pros were seemingly keen to get as far away from Toshack’s Wales as possible. And so were the Welsh public. His side played infront of thousands upon thousands of empty seats and not one game in his six year spell captured the public’s imagination.

Those who regularly attend Welsh games (a select group that has been decreasing in numbers at an alarming rate) will tell you that the obvious apathy that built up around Welsh football and the fact the likes of Haiti, Guyana and Antigua and Barbuda are sitting above them in the world rankings has plenty to do with John Toshack but also Jakup Emil Hansen.

The latter is to blame for Wales’ recent fall into the bottom pot for the 2014 European Championship draw. A student from the Faroe Islands, Jakup calculated that his country were actually 0.007 of a point ahead of Wales in the FIFA world rankings. So the nations swapped places and Welsh could add ‘political science student’ to their list of recent tormentors.

Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Scotland and Macedonia join Wales in Group G which is, perhaps vitally, missing a European football superpower. But Belgium are a young side going places, we all know the virtues of Scotland and Croatia, Serbia are no mugs as Northern Ireland found out on Saturday and who is the new boss of Macedonia? Mr John Toshack.

Speed’s chances of putting one over on his predecessor in the coming years would be helped if his side could find that killer combination infront of goal. The service from Craig Bellamy, Bale and Ramsey mean that playing upfront for Wales should be a goal poacher’s dream. Expect to see Speed tinkering with his forward options ahead of the Euro 2014 qualifiers in 12 months. But goalscoring problems aside, the former Newcastle man is  certainly beginning to get the house in order. It is undoubtedly work in progress but the vital signs are there.

"In Wales we've had false dawns before. We can't afford to have another false dawn,” Speed said last night. You can’t help but agree and he’ll certainly promote the belief that Welsh football seems to have finally woken from its slumber in recent days. Although I’m sure one 30-year-old Cardiff forward may want to pull the pillow over his head this morning and go back to bed…

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