Getting it wrong

Mark Hughes, the Welsh Manager, talking to his key player, Ryan Giggs during a training session. Hughes was criticised for making a mess of his tactics in the match against Serbia-Montenegro. — Pic. PETER FORD/GETTY IMAGES-

WHEN WALES' Mark Hughes made an expensive mess of his tactics in Belgrade against Serbia-Montenegro, it was neither the first nor the last time that a manager, international or otherwise, had so to speak been hoist with his own petard.

WHEN WALES' Mark Hughes made an expensive mess of his tactics in Belgrade against Serbia-Montenegro, it was neither the first nor the last time that a manager, international or otherwise, had so to speak been hoist with his own petard. Shortly before the European Championship qualifier took place, I had spoken to one of the best and brightest of this talented Welsh team, the right sided midfielder, Simon Davies of Spurs, and we had agreed that given the probably fragile state of Serbian morale, the best plan would be to put them under heavy pressure at the outset. Precisely the reverse of what happened.

The Serbs had been trying to put the pieces together after a truly dreadful European result in Baku where they had lost 2-1 to unregarded Azerbaijan; the team which had already held them to a draw at home. So they parted company with their manager, Dejan Savicevic, known when he was playing for Milan as The Genius, managed at least to recall their best known attacker, the unpredictable Matesz Kezman of PSV, and faced a Welsh team which had totted up maximum points in its qualifying group so far.

But the Welsh had a major problem. They'd be without big, blond John Hartson, the centre forward on whom their tactics and so much of their efficacy depended. He was injured. With Hartson available, Wales play with just himself up front to be reinforced from the flanks by the skilled, rapid Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy. The sort of strategy which had notably brought them a 2-1 win against Italy in Cardiff. Hartson has the power and the skill to hold the ball up, the ability in the air to nod it on or back, or to strike for goal when the crosses come in. A host unto himself, you might say.

But without Hartson, whom have Wales got to do the same demanding job? Certainly not the Wolves striker, Nathen Blake, who was unfairly and mistakenly given the one man task. He failed predictably and expensively. Time and again, movements would break down on him as he lost the ball or failed to control it; putting his team on the wrong foot, as the Serbs came away. And thus the initiative went to a Serbian team which inevitably gained confidence as the game wore on.

They so nearly scored a first half goal when Dejan Savicevic of Lazio, given an inordinate amount of time and space by a Welsh defender which inexplicably stood off, struck a 25 yard shot against the top of the left hand post with the keeper Paul Jones, utterly beaten. When, late in the second half, Serbia scored there were some doubts about the goal. Sevicevic took a corner from the left and when the ball reached the far post Sava Milosevic, once an Aston Villa striker, seemed to jump on the shoulders of Mark Delaney to head across for Miadevonic to score what proved to be the winning goal.

Only after 77 minutes did the penny drop, and Hughes vary his tactics. He at last took off the hapless Blake and brought on the ebullient little Cardiff City striker, Robert Earnshaw, who from the first has taken to international football like a duck to water, deploying him on the right and moving Ryan Giggs in the centre.

Things changed at once. Suddenly the Welsh were on the attack and the Serbian defence looked troubled. When Davies neatly sent Earnshaw through he might just have been offside — that cool little fellow skilfully went round the goalkeeper and struck for the empty goal; only to see the ball kept out by a resourceful defender. So Wales went down 1-0 and Hughes came under condign criticism from such as John Toshack, once a formidable striker for Wales, their one game manager — disastrously — and twice manager of Real Madrid. Hughes angrily rejected such criticism, saying that it would have been folly to evince what he called "a gung ho attitude." Well, there must surely have been a happy medium. There was no call, quite the reverse, for him to cling to tactics which had previously worked because he had the men, or man, to do it. Abandoning them for just this game, till Hartson was available again, was arguably just a question of common sense. No need to be reckless; just flexible.

Wales was heavily dependent on its star centre forward John Hartson, who was unfortunately injured. — Pic. ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES-

Turn back in time, and you find the curious case of Alf Ramsey, the man who won the 1966 World Cup with England, with his team of so called Wingless Wonders. Some thought his work-fixated 4-4-2 system had a fearful effect on future English football, but Alf could logically reply that if it won England the World Cup, how could anyone object? But when at long last substitutes were permitted, as they would be in the 1970 World Cup in hot, high Mexico, he never seemed to come to grips with them.

I still maintain that he virtually threw away the 1970 World Cup quarter-final in Leon against West Germany, even if it's probable that England would have won had their fine goalkeeper Gordon Banks not gone down with food poisoning before the game. His replacement, Peter Bonetti, had a wretched match, but England would probably have got away with it had Ramsey not made such cack handed substitutions.

First, in the second half, he took off Bobby Charlton, the fulcrum of midfield, soon after Germany's Franz Beckenbauer had reduced England's lead to 2-1. This was an invitation to Beckenbauer to sweep forward in attack, now that he had no Bobby to bother about. Ramsey brought on the ultra defensive left half Norman Hinter — I was speaking to Norman about it only recently when he sat in the Press Box at Tottenham where his old team Leeds were playing. Had he been properly used in defence, to bolster the now exhausted, overlapping left back, Terry Cooper, it might have been justifiable, but we even saw him taking a corner!

Cooper and the overlapping right back Newton, who'd set up England's two goals, were out on their feet in the appalling heat; and at the great height. Helmut Schoen, the German manager, brought on right winger Jurgen Grabowski, who ran poor Cooper ragged and set up two goals; West Germany won 3-2.

England didn't even qualify for the 1974 World Cup. They lost 2-0 in Chorzow to Poland, where Ramsey stubbornly refused to use the dynamic, Mick Channon, even as a substitute, with England 1-0 down. And in the return match at Wembley, he brought on as sub Kevin Hector, only 90 seconds from the end! Hector promptly hit the bar. Ramsey admitted he had lost track of time.

In the 1974 finals, renowned tactician Enzo Bearzot, then Italy's coach, reported that Argentine left winger Rene Houseman was a mere midfielder. So Italy marked him with Fabio Capello, an inside forward, whom he ridiculed, making a goal for his team. Only then did light dawn; Italy put rugged Benetti on Houseman and drew, 1-1.