Wales punching above their weight

A resilient, rather than a brilliant Welsh team, with just one refulgent star in Gareth Bale, the former Spurs and now Real Madrid attacker, have done well in the qualifying rounds for EURO 2016.

Gareth Bale has scored most of the goals for Wales in its EURO 2016 qualifiers.   -  AP

Arsenal's Aarom Ramsey is a key member of the current Wales squad.   -  REUTERS

Wales are on the brink of entering the Finals of a major competition on their merit. Beating Cyprus away, none too impressively, held to a draw in Cardiff by a resolute Israeli team, they are sure to go through to the Finals of the European Championships in March.

This is a resilient, rather than a brilliant Welsh team, with just one refulgent star in Gareth Bale, the former Spurs and now Real Madrid attacker, who is among the major talents of the European, indeed international, game. The goal he so powerfully headed in Cyprus was testimony to his powers. Initially a modest full back, covered at Tottenham by Harry Redknapp into a left winger, his pace, control and dynamic left-foot made a star of him in that position. But he has gone on to become, what you might call an all-court player, who can operate, and does, anywhere across the front line.

One says that Wales at least have legitimately qualified for a major tournament Finals because of a team arguably and infinitely more gifted than this one got into the Finals of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden by the back door. They had actually been eliminated in the qualifying groups when the Afro-Asian nations in their group refused to play against Israel. In consequence, FIFA decided that Israel would playoff, home and away, against a team selected by lot.

The first to be drawn out of the urn was Uruguay, who as proud and previous winners of the World Cup in 1930 and 1950 scornfully refused the offer. Wales then emerged from the draw and had no such scruples. The irony being that when they came to the Finals in which for the first and only time all four British teams had qualified they did far better than any of them.

Indeed it is arguable that if only the ‘Gentle Giant’ John Charles had not been kicked out of the competition in a playoff, Wales could even have beaten Brazil in the quarter-final in Gothenburg. I saw that game and I remain convinced. John Charles by then was a major star, beloved by the fans of Turin’s Juventus, a centre forward with tremendous power in the air, pace and good control. As it happened, the early stages of the game saw some excellent crosses come over from the Welsh right, which big John could well have exploited. But his stand-in, little Colin Webster of Manchester United, simply didn’t have the height or spring to profit.

John’s younger brother Mel was a defiant and commanding centre half. There were two excellent wingers in Terry Medwin and the quick and fearless Cliff Jones, an elegant blond inside left in Ivor Allchurch and a lean and tall left back in Tottenham’s Mel Hopkins, who remarkably succeeded in taming the dynamic Garrincha, who would tear the Swedish left flank to shreds in the eventual World Cup final.

In goal there was Jack Kelsey, whose autobiography I was engaged in “ghosting” at the time. His handling that evening was impeccable. When I congratulated him on it afterwards, he replied, “Chewing gum. Always use it. Put some on my hands, rub it in well.”

The only goal of the game, scored by Pele, who called it the most important of his career, was fortuitous, the ball deflecting off the Welsh right back Stuart Williams. The following evening, I had the pleasure of going out for a beer with Kelsey and other members of the group, who called themselves ‘The Big Five’, and I confess that I couldn’t keep up with their imbibing of the powerful Swedish brew. By sharp contrast with the behaviour of the England team, ensconced in the middle of Gothenburg at the Park Avenue hotel, where journalists were largely treated as pariahs, the Welsh squad, under the genial managership of Jimmy Murphy, once himself an international wing half, famed for a dramatic save on the goal-line, playing for West Bromwich Albion in a Wembley Final, were allowed to generally relax. They far surpassed England.

That the present squad, though resourceful and so impressive in their encounters with the group favourites, Belgium, may not have remotely as many stars as it was in that 1958 team may historically not be too relevant. Go back in time to the reign of the inimitable Ted Robbins and you will find Welsh teams remarkable for the way they constantly rose to the occasion, whatever the status of the men, who pulled on the red jersey, which seemed to inspire them.

It was said that Third Division players would become heroes for an afternoon.

Robbins himself was a remarkable, inspirational figure, a great team manager in days long before team managers were invented. Secretary of the Welsh Football Association, he had been in office since before the First World War and stayed there for several decades. “Get your feet under the table!” he would tell newcomers to the team. “I’ll be your daddy!” and so he productively was.

Small miracles were not beyond him. Once between the Wars, he had to take a team to play powerful Scotland in the old British Championship. In those undemocratic times the English League clubs didn’t have to release their players to any team but England; even, as in this instance, when the game was in midweek. So Robbins found himself desperately looking around to raise a team. In the end he just managed it, picking players from the English Third Division and even one who was an amateur. Wales duly and deservedly took the lead against the Scots, who were glad to snatch an equaliser perilously late in the game.

The current manager of Wales, Chris Coleman, who used to be their centre half, is hardly a Ted Robbins, but he has forged a team, which has given a robust account of itself. Bale apart, the only other major figure in the team is Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, a midfielder of exceptional talent, fine technique and the ability to score important goals. A player I’ve admired since I saw him come on at 17 years old for Cardiff City in a Wembley FA Cup final, showing remarkable self-confidence and style.

Ashley Williams, the Swansea centre half, is a dominant and resourceful figure in defence, though actually born in Stockport rather than Wales. But so much will depend on Bale who has scored a majority of the Welsh goals so far. And at least this time Wales are there on merit.