Wales again

RECENTLY I flew to Helsinki to report Wales' impressive 2-0 win over Finland in their opening European Championship Group 9 qualifying game. The compact and ultimately incisive Welsh team kept up the momentum from a couple of impressive late fixtures last season at their Millennium Stadium in Cardiff; an honourable draw with an admittedly not full Argentine side, a merited 1-0 win against Germany, destined some weeks later to be the World Cup finalists.

As Mark Hughes, the relatively new manager of Wales and for years their indomitable centre-forward, observed before the game, those were mere friendlies. But though in his earlier matches Mark sometimes seemed to make some mistaken tactical choices during matches, and appeared short of valuable experience, he seems now to have bedded down well. Above all he has the loyalty and admiration of his players and as he says, morale has been dramatically improved since he took over from Bobby Gould, who bowed out as Welsh manager unregretted after a dire 4-0 defeat by Italy in Bologna, another game I reported.

Things had then truly fallen apart. Demoralised was hardly the word. Bobby, an Englishman, though not the first to manage Wales, seemed all over the place. The formations he had chosen for training games before the match were so hopelessly unworkable that the players had revolted and had them changed. By the time Hughes took over, things looked bleak indeed. I remember attending a fiasco of a last European qualifier ineptly lost at home to Switzerland in Wrexham with only a scattering of fans on the terraces.

Things certainly improved when it came to the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup, even though they began with a surely avoidable defeat by Belarus in Minsk. The villain of the piece, not for the first and only time, was Wales' ever unpredictable goalkeeper, Paul Jones. By turns brilliant and erratic he has cost alarming goals both to club, Southampton, and country. In Minsk he culpably missed a high cross from the left which should comfortably have been his ball. Belarus scored, had the initiative, and went on to win, 2-1. Though the Welsh rallied strongly after that, they could never make up the deficit.

In Croatia just before the English season began, Jones' sloppy, booted clearance cost Wales an equaliser in a game they seemed to have well won. When he made a similar early mistake in Helsinki but got away with it, the omens seemed grim.

In the event Jones settled down to play one of his finest games for Wales, making several excellent saves. Then back he went to Southampton to give away yet another expensive winner in the Premiership. You just never know.

Finland had just recently lost 3-0 at home in a friendly to an under strength Ireland, but Hughes said he wasn't taking that very seriously. I must say I thought it significant. Only the highly-talented attacker Jari Litmanen, just released - and mistakenly I am sure - by Liverpool to rejoin his old club Ajax, had really played upto form for Finland as he would again versus Wales.

But the Welsh were well worth their win, even if Mark Hughes gave them a blast at half-time in the dressing room, being dissatisfied with the way they were playing. He was much happier with them in the second-half when the counter-attacks he wanted were going in. A second goal arrived hard on the heels of a very narrow escape from a shot by Litmanen, but down the field Wales duly went and from the right rather than the usual left Ryan Giggs sent up Simon Davies to make it safe at 2-0. Later Craig Bellamy found Davies from a similar position and only a fine save by Niemi averted a third Welsh goal.

Significantly, Hughes had doubly had his way over Bellamy, The young Newcastle forward had barely returned to action after many months out following an operation. But he excelled as a Newcastle substitute at Liverpool then looked sharp soon afterwards in a reserve game. Hughes wanted him badly. Bobby Robson the Newcastle manager somewhat as a dog in the manger at first refused to release him. Hughes nattered on till Robson conceded. Then Hughes persuaded the Welsh F.A. to fork out 8000 for a private jet to fly Bellamy to Helsinki. He came on for the last 20 minutes and flourished.

So did Davies himself, praised to the skies by Hughes and a shining success on the right wing this season for Spurs and Wales. In the first-half in Helsinki, it was almost a tribute to his pace and skill that the big, experienced Liverpool centre-half Sami Hyypia could stop him in the edge of the box only with a crude foul, for which he was lucky not to get himself sent off. When Wales scored in that half on the half hour it was admittedly after showing little of value in attack. But a long kick by Paul Davies was headed into the middle by Gary Speed, overlapping left-back, flicked by Ryan Giggs, converted by big, blond John Hartson, used by Hughes as a striker.

Little Robert Earnshaow didn't get off the bench yet, the Zambia born Cardiff City striker had a remarkable debut against Germany, scoring the only goal of the game, and will surely have much more to contribute. His team-mate from Cardiff, the centre-back, Daniel Gabridon, has given the badly needed pace to the central defence and stuck well to his task in Helsinki.

When Italy come to Cardiff on October 26 they know it is essential that they must at least avoid defeat just as Wales know they must win. "We'll beat Italy," said a confident Robbie Savage, that busily abrasive midfielder, to me on the plane back to London. Belief has always been central to Welsh's success. Between the wars it was instilled in them by the legendary Welsh FA Secretary and virtual team manager, Ted Robbins, under whose aegis it was said that 3rd Division players became international stars for an afternoon. And when the big English clubs refused him players even for a midweek international, he even put in the odd amateur. And once with a patched up team went up to Scotland drew 1-1 and so nearly shocked the Scots on their own ground.

Meanwhile, I'll never forget the superb show Wales put up against Brazil in Gothenburg in the 1958 World Cup quarter-final. A freakish goal by Pele condemned them to 1-0 defeat, but they surpassed themselves that night.