Wales vs England. England vs Wales. An historical rivalry that has bred centuries of enmity, hatred and banter in one of the United Kingdom’s many internal cultural quirks. With one nation dominating the other in all aspects from Politics and Economics to Sports and Media the rivalry between both is intensified depending on which side of Offa’s Dyke you emanate from. Those from England tend to view the Welsh as irritating serial moaners with a passion for sheep whilst the Welsh view their neighbours with the kind of hatred often seen in such situations where a smaller people are in the shadow of their larger counterpart. Basically outright hatred of all things English.
And so the Anglo-Welsh hostilities begin again this weekend just a mere month after the equally vicious rugby version ceased in the aftermath of the Six Nations opener on February 4th. The Millennium Stadium will play host to the first of two Wales vs England games in Group G of the Euro 2012 Qualifying game and prove to be an invigorating renewal of an ancient duel. On paper England win this tie every single time without exerting too much effort such is their superiority in population and financial terms, the Premier League the juggernaut of talent for which sustains England’s standing towards the upper echelons of the football world. Yet this is a derby regardless of importance from the English point of view and in all derby’s it becomes a more complicated issue rather than just who is technically better. Passion plays a big part be it from within the player’s makeup or via the terraces. A vitriolic atmosphere can even affect even the greatest of players and be a big turning point in any game. One only has to remember how unfancied Northern Ireland defeated England 1-0 at Windsor Park in 2005 with a squad full of lower league journeymen.
So let’s take a look at the game itself. With the first 72,000 sell out at the Millennium Stadium since the last game vs England back in 2005 a lot has changed in the intervening period. Wales is very much a team attempting to rebuild after the ultimately disappointing reign under John Toshack where they fell 50 plus places down the FIFA ratings and have already played and lost 3 games in the current campaign. A little more than a shambles would be polite about the state of Welsh football and fan antipathy has led to dwindling attendances and interest in the national team. England are also somewhat a team under pressure. Their World Cup campaign was a disgrace as is the baffling decisions of Fabio Capello in making controversial decisions such as recently re-installing John Terry as his captain after previously sacking him. Going back to the emphasis of this game being a derby, Wales will certainly feel they have a chance by capitalising on the uncertainty and continuous media barracking of their opposition.
Although strength is lacking, the Welsh first team, when fully fit, is certainly a team that should be punching a lot higher than it currently does and with a new manager in charge in Gary Speed expectations are becoming slightly more optimistic. The headliners in the new forward-looking Wales team are unsurprisingly Gareth Bale and new captain Aaron Ramsey, one of whom is currently considered one of the best players in the world and the other not far from reclaiming his pre-injury status of the most promising youngster in British football. With Bale out injured for this game the focus will be on Caerphilly-born Ramsey and his ability to handle the magnitude of pressure that is going to be placed on his young shoulders as leader is going to be imperative if Wales are to come close to getting anything out of this game. He will be relied on to be pulling the strings and will have ensure he dominates the centre of the park to nullify England. With Bale now out Wales’ attacking options have become limited. Craig Bellamy will be hyped up more than usual for this game and the man with an Owain Glyndwr tattoo on his forearm will be vital to Wales’ goalscoring prowess even if his career appears to be a decline from even 2 years ago. If Bellamy has a good day on the peripheral of the Wales attack then he is capable of anything, his pace no doubt a worry to a lacklustre and at times creaky England defence.
Going through the Welsh team, all players will need to have the game of their career for the Red Dragon’s to come out of this with at least a point. Wayne Hennessey is already a seasoned Premier League keeper at the relatively young age of 24 and is the possessor of 29 caps making him a solid and dependable link in the Wales team. Nottingham Forest’s Chris Gunter is equally another relatively safe and dependable youngster with a large amount of caps for his age but will need to ensure he isn’t dragged out of position as the game wears on as even once will see him punished fatally by a rapid England midfield including Adam Johnson and Aaron Lennon. The same can be said of the full Welsh defence whom ever starts, all dependable and consistent at a lower Premier League or Championship level but all whom will have to raise their game dramatically to keep Rooney and Friends quiet. Ashley Williams will want to prove that he can handle top level attackers with ease as he has consistently managed to do at Championship level with Swansea City and James Collins and Danny Gabbidon will be looking for another infamous addition to their international repatoire to add to victories over Italy and Germany back in 2002.
It is in midfield that the Welsh are particularly blessed and providing maximum potential is fulfilled they will have a middle of the park to rival most countries over the next decade. 20-year-old Ramsey has fellow youngsters Andy King and Joe Allen pushing for starts on the back of impressive club form for Leicester and Swansea respectively whilst it is often overlooked that experienced Celtic player Joe Ledley is still only 24. This is made even more impressive when you consider that West Ham’s quality youngster Jack Collison is out injured for this game as well as the aforementioned Gareth Bale. Backing up the kids on saturday will be the rejuvenated David Vaughan who is catching a second wind as part of Blackpool’s fairytale season and will be the player keeping everything ticking along nicely and keeping possesion whilst the flair players around him attempt to unlock the English gate.
Upfront Wales have always had a stellar cast of Championship level strikers but its not since John Hartson retired that they have had a true top level goalscorer. Starting on Saturday will most likely be Londoner Steve Morison who has been impressive for Millwall this season and will be aiming to score against his birth-country. A great finisher but not the quickest, if Morison finds himself through on goal Wales will find themselves with one on the board and his energy and workrate will be vital in finding free space.
Man for man Wales fall short but with a new regime in charge who have worked with the team on matters of Welsh pride and the national anthem, the Dragon’s fans will no doubt be quietly confident of a calamitous upset to be talked about for generations. The English players will have played in a sold out Millennium stadium in the past during club cup finals so it is imperative the fans provide a hostile and partisan welcome to unnerve the opposition. Every little advantage will need to go Wales way as well as 100% from each and every player. Saturday proves to be a wonderful occasion and a rare moment to look forward to in an international calendar that has been lacking outside of championship years.
An upset or a thrashing? The bookies will no doubt be going for a comfortable England victory and common sense would suggest this is the likely outcome but the underdog has come out victorious before. In 7 previous World Cup or European Championship Qualifiers the English have won 6 and the other was a 1-1 draw back in 1973 and despite two infamous victories in the early 1980′s history is also against the men in red. With an emphasis on the lack of passion Welsh footballers apparently have for representing their country I gladly point them to an infamous pre-match pep talk given by Rugby legend Phil Bennett minutes before the England vs Wales clash in 1977.
“Look what these bastards have done to Wales. They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and only live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon”.
Pob Lwc Cymru!
After 6 years in the planning and one rollercoaster month, the 2010 World Cup has come, despite the initial scepticism and negativity surrounding an African hosting, to an exciting and memorable finale.
Possibly one of the most divisive competitions in recent memory, the tournament has seen many contrasting opinions from the fans and media alike. What one may have embraced, one has rejected. Of course we would not expect anything less in the mish-mash of the World’s greatest teams and the unique cultures they bring.
So here is my review of the greatest features of World Sport’s premier event.
Considering the world appeared concerned at the high crime rates and lack of infrastructure, to the relief of FIFA and the organising committee the tournament has been nothing but an unmitigated success amongst the occasional on-field controversy. There were no major reports of public disturbances during the month and the stadiums impressed just as well as any European offering. Throw in the rabid, party atmosphere of the country’s historically-disadvantaged Black population mixing with the White minority and the Rainbow nation has emerged from the competition with its international reputation improved. And to think we have yet to mention Nelson Mandela.
Hated by many yet loved in equal measure, the buzzing plastic instrument crashed into the public’s consciousness and earned the wrath and affection of the worldwide audience. Has any mere item of fan culture ever created such a controversy that it threatened to overshadow the entire tournament? Between liberals bemoaning the audacity of people telling South African’s to bin a staple of their game-going experience to traditionalists complaining about the racket, Vuvuzela’s have become 2010′s most well-known word. My opinion…they’re fantastic!
Following on from the off-field controversy with vuvuzela’s, the on-field controversy equally raged almost as soon as the first game got underway. Adidas’ Jabulani ball was roundly criticised (mainly by Nike-contracted players it must be said) for its unpredictable mid-air flight when walloped. Poor goalkeeping or tactics was never blamed for the errors, it was the Adidas’ boffins fault for apparently ruining the world cup.
Paul the Octopus
The unbelievable and surreal story came out of Germany during the group stages of an Octopus whom predicted, correctly, the outcomes of games. By the end of the tournament the multi-tentacled Paul had predicted 8 games out of 8 and was branded a traitor by Germany, an enemy and potential stew by Argentinians and was given honorary citizenship by Spain. Unbelievable!
Superstar. Greatest Ever. Passion. Comedy. Honesty (well, interview wise anyway). Heart. Mafia Suits. Presence. Enough said. Welcome back El Diego
Underdogs vs Wounded Dogs
Every World Cup ends with big names flopping and small names creating legacies. This tournament was no different. England, Italy and France almost appear finished as dominant forces for the next decade as their “golden generations” dwindle and scupper off into the twilight’s of their career with no sight of replacements. The underdog’s of this year were primarily surprise semi-finalist’s Uruguay and amazingly New Zealand, who although eliminated in the group phase as expected were the only team to finish unbeaten.
World Cup’s tend to be the tournaments which confirm player’s greatness. The stage where they push onto iconic status whilst the occasional player does well enough to earn that big-money move that was nowhere near the table pre-cup exploits. This tournament was extreme in both circumstances. Messi was decent and dangerous enough yet didn’t perform to the ridiculously high levels of last season’s vintage performances. Ronaldo and Rooney were terrible and Kaka was anonymous. Conversely, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller erupted onto the scene with irresistible displays not expected from rookies whilst disregarded and written-off Premier League “failures” like Robinho and Diego Forlan proved the class that made them big money buys in the first place.
All in all, whilst people may bemoan the tournament for being boring and too innovative in style and substance, its this unusual African ambience which will leave the 2010 FIFA World Cup a pleasant recollection in most memories. Roll on Brazil 2014.
Wonderkids. What is so wonderful about these kids if they are, as we are led to believe, constantly breaking through every year. Are these youngsters whom are putting in eye-catching displays on an occasional basis the real deal or simply the by-product of an over-zealous media and an equally demanding audience to turn any average talent into today’s major story?
Every year we learn of the latest player who will push England, Scotland or whom ever to world domination. Yet of this cluttered bunch, how many possess true genius, that once in a generation gift from God. James Milner has just gate crashed the England World Cup Squad after picking up the Young Player of the Year Award yet he is 23! Wayne Rooney has put in a couple of fantastic season’s at Manchester United that has seen him reach genuine World Class level, yet when he was a teen he was up and down as all teenage talents tend to be. Explosion and raw talent mixed with inexperience and immaturity; Not quite the finished article. Would I have classed these two as wonderkids a couple of years ago, much like Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal and Wales or even John Fleck of Rangers are classed now? No.
But if I’m discarding great youth talents that became future international lynch-pin’s (the Maradona’s, Zidane’s et al) then who would I include in my strict version of this prestigious club of genuine world class wonderkids?
Naturally, Pele would lead the way and would easily fit into the society. A World Cup winner at 17 and scoring 5 goals in the Semi’s and Final, this was an alarming debut on the world stage by a player whom no one believed was so young until he burst into tears at the final whistle.
Although a lack of modern footage exists one would have to take the word of footballing knights like Sirs Bobby Charlton and Robson when discussing tragic Duncan Edwards. Indeed another Sir, Matt Busby, considered him “incomparable” and once stated “if ever there was a player that could be called a one-man team, that man was Duncan Edwards”. Astonishing when one recalls that Edwards died aged 21 in the infamous Munich air disaster in 1958. Superstar and regular for club and country before he was out of his teens, Edwards earned his way into the greatest players in the world by the day he passed away, an incredible achievement.
Many others on my exclusive list of genuine world-class teenagers seem to be forwards. It appears as though it is easier to make an instant impact on the world stage when the main priority is to place the ball into the back of the net. Arguably the greatest finisher in English history, Jimmy Greaves had scored 132 goals in only 169 games by the time he left Chelsea at only 21, an astonishing return that has yet to be replicated at the top level since.
Other explosive strikers blowing their way onto the world stage in dramatic and instant fashion include double European Cup winner Eusebio, whom had conquered the continent by 20, and his fellow young gun-turned-assassin George Best, whom lived up to his prophetic surname with resplendent performances in front of the applauding masses. In the modern English era, the only talent whom achieved consistent world class seasons in succession was Michael Owen, of course punctuated by his dazzling goal against Argentina in the infamous World Cup tie aged only 18 at France ’98. His first full three seasons brought 18 goals each, a phenomenal return in an era where goals are not as easy to come by as past ones, and an achievement that eventually saw him claim the Ballon D’or at 22.
Who was the greatest wonderkid the “beautiful game” has produced however? Undisputed in my opinion it would have to be the man christened Ronaldo Luis Nazario De Lima. His roll of honour during a period of his career where he should have been learning his craft included an astonishing 88 league goals in 97 games across 2 continents and 3 countries; a world cup winning squad member at the age of 17; Two record transfers in successive seasons; World Footballer of the Year at 20 and earning the moniker of “I’ll Fenomino” for his startling 47-goal season for Barca in 1997 where Bobby Robson rated him better than Pele. Ofcourse Ronaldo went onto become the World Cup’s greatest ever scorer and one of the best ever, yet it is still his sudden explosion onto the world scene like a tidal wave which made him an icon. Will we ever see a young man make such an impact again? We’ll be blessed if we do.