The excellent Gary Andrews opens the “Guest Article” spot on Not Bad On Paper, with his very knowledgeable thoughts on the position of Wales national team manager.
John Toshack’s departure as Wales manager was done in a particularly Welsh way. There was no coup, just sad resignation among Welsh football fans as the former Swansea and Real Madrid boss took nearly a week to confirm what everybody knew was inevitable from the day after the defeat to Montenegro.
Toshack had cut a dejected figure during Wales’ first qualifier for Euro 2012, and for much of the latter part of the doomed World Cup campaign. As a manager, he had always insisted that he was judged on his results. Yet the results weren’t good enough, and the Montenegro defeat meant Wales were facing a struggle to qualify for 2012 after just one game.
When Toshack took over from Hughes in 2004, Wales were ranked 58th in the world, having narrowly lost out on a place in Euro 2004 to Russia, while beating Italy along the way in qualifying.
Today, the Dragons are ranked 84th and haven’t scraped any kind of result from a major footballing power, bar a draw away to Germany, since defeating the Azzurri. Toshack’s competitive record reads W10 D3 L16. It’s hard to conclude Wales have gone anything but backward under his tenure.
Toshack wasn’t helped by the retirements of key players, many of whom were frozen out, clashed with the Swans legend, or had simply had enough. Robbie Savage – who admittedly could start an argument in an empty room – was the first to go, followed by Ryan Giggs, John Hartson, Gary Speed, Mark Pembridge, Mark Delaney, and Simon Davies. This represented the cream of the Welsh crop.
How many of these players would have retired under a different manager is perhaps a moot point. Many were coming to the end of their careers, although the majority of these players still had much to give.
More worryingly, Toshack had a tendency to fall out or publicly question some of the more talented, established names, most recently Craig Bellamy and Robert Earnshaw. This is fine if you have a wide pool of players to draw from, but Welsh talent has always been spread thinly – a few exceptional players sitting alongside lower league journeymen.
The one area where Toshack was praised was his rapid promotion of youngsters such as Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale and Jack Collison to the senior squad (he awarded 43 players their first cap), and worked well with Brian Flynn, the Under 21s coach. But although there is admire in this approach, the players they replaced were simply not up to the task. Bale and co may have been young, but were still streets ahead of the League 1 and 2 seasoned pros.
In fairness to Toshack, he was presented with a difficult situation when he took over. His predecessor, Mark Hughes, was well liked and could do no wrong after taking the Dragons within touching distance of the European Championships. But Hughes also probably knew his ‘golden generation’ was already declining and when he departed for Blackburn Rovers late in 2004, the squad was already showing signs of strain.
Toshack, meanwhile, while revered as a player, adored at Swansea City, and respected for his coaching work around Europe, most notably at Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, was viewed with skepticism. Part of this stemmed from his first spell as Wales manager, when he resigned after 41 days and one game, but also because of his particularly acerbic criticism as a pundit for the Welsh media, which alienated several players before he was appointed.
Yet, in the wake of Hughes’ departure, there was no other Welshman with quite the qualifications for the job. Perhaps the FAW should have looked abroad at this stage for a Trapattoni-like figure to add some European know-how. But once it was clear foreigners were ruled out, then Toshack was the only man for the job, ahead of the popular, if limited, Flynn.
But Toshack’s main probably, apart from his prickly nature, was tactically he was wedded to a flowing European system, often comprising of a 3-man defence. This may have been fine for Spanish football, and was fresh and revolutionary at Swansea in the late 70s and early 80s, but for a team like Wales, it was ill-suited to the players available. What was needed was a battler like Hughes or Tony Pulis who knew how to get the best from a limited team.
Newport-born Pulis, now at Stoke, has already ruled himself out of the running for the job, as has Kenny Jackett, who took Millwall into the Championship last season. But the quality of potential Welsh candidates is certainly higher this time around.
Ryan Giggs, the outstanding Welsh player of his generation, would be the popular choice but the 36-year-old is still very much in Sir Alex Ferguson’s plans at Manchester United. While Hughes was still playing when he took the job, without any coaching experience, this may be a tournament too early for the softly-spoken Giggs, although it would be a surprise if he did not end up coaching his country one day.
Flynn is again being talked up, in a potential partnership with Giggs, but would seem best suited to the Under 21s, while Mark Bowen, Hughes’ long-term assistant, would be an interesting, if untested gamble. Meanwhile, Welsh legends Ian Rush and Dean Saunders have failed to impress at Chester and Wrexham respectively.
This probably leaves the former Fulham, Real Sociedad, and Coventry manager Chris Coleman has the most obvious candidate. Coleman knows how to keep a small club battling at a higher level, having performed admirably at Craven Cottage before controversially being dismissed for Lawrie Sanchez.
There is a question mark over his inability to push Coventry on from Championship also-rans, but for the time being – unless a better foreign coach is available – he remains the obvious choice.
Whoever takes over may find that, despite only having played one game, that qualification for Euro 2012 is already beyond Wales, although a third place finish in their group would be a decent start. Yet again, Wales, with a crop of talented youngsters, are already eyeing up the next qualifying campaign and hoping this time it will be our year. It’s a familiar story.