Wales showing the way

Wales' Gareth Bale (left) has proved himself as one of the best wingers in the European game.-AP Wales' Gareth Bale (left) has proved himself as one of the best wingers in the European game.

Wales have a difficult World Cup qualifying group to negotiate, but on recent form, they must have a reasonable chance. Ted Robbins would have been delighted by them, writes Brian Glanville.

Ted Robbins would have been proud of Wales. Ted who? The founder, inspiration and moving spirit of Welsh football, for 34 years as so called Secretary to the Welsh Football Association but in fact infinitely more than that. He was also, in effect, at a time when in Britain international team managers were still unknown, the very quintessence of a successful manager. “Put your feet under the table!” He would tell his new players, often drawn thanks to the sullen resistance of the big English clubs, from the lower depths of the Football League and even Welsh amateur sides, “I'll be your Daddy!”

What pride and joy Robbins, whose career with Wales began before the Great War and ran on beyond the Second, would have had when the Welsh fought their way right through to the quarterfinal of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, only to lose 1-0 to the formidable Brazilians, Pele and all, in the Gothenburg quarterfinal where I was lucky enough to be present. A game they might even have won had their star giant of a centre forward, John Charles, so formidable in the air, not been absent, kicked out of action in the previous playoff by a cynical Hungarian side.

The great irony being that Wales, the most successful of the four British sides which competed in that tournament, shouldn't have been there at all. They had been eliminated in the qualifying tournament but when the Afro-Asian teams refused to play Israel, FIFA needed a substitute and drew lots. Uruguay came out of the draw and, as proud previous double winners of the World Cup, haughtily refused the offer. So it was Wales who went to Sweden under the benign and shrewd managership of Jimmy Murphy, once a Welsh international wing half, by then assistant to Matt Busby at Manchester United, taking the badly injured Busby's place after the horrific Munich air crash in February that year had devastated the United team.

Under Robbins, it was said that when even a third division player pulled on the Welsh jersey he became a hero for an afternoon. There was a classic occasion when, Wales was deprived of key players by the selfish English clubs, unwilling to lose them on a Saturday, when they were themselves, playing League football.

In 1930, Wales were scheduled to play the then powerful Scots team at Rangers' Ibrox Park stadium. Lambs to the slaughter it seemed. For Robbins' Welsh team was a lot of largely obscure players. At least there was the great captain and centre half Fred Keenor. There were three amateurs, two men from non League clubs, and four players from the Third Divisions North and South. Yet in just five minutes Bamford the centre forward, volleyed Wales ahead! The Scottish fans waited for the avalanche of goals which would punish such impertinence, but it was near half-time when Battles equalised. And that was how the score remained till the very end. As Robbins, who would pay players out of his own pocket when funds were low, was known to remark, “Wales are never whacked!”

And this season we have seen a great Welsh revival. A team which had for long been shipping water, after an impressive spell under the aegis of their former centre forward Mark Hughes, tottered from one defeat to another. Suddenly they have in their European qualifying group, though actual qualification was alas out of reach, beaten Switzerland, Montenegro on home soil, Bulgaria, admittedly a demoralised side, whom only six hundred of their disenchanted fans bothered to watch 1-0, in Sofia.

And how close they came to holding England to a draw at Wembley in that same group! Only a shocking point blank miss by little Robert Earnshaw almost at the end let England squeeze, awkwardly, through 1-0. I was especially sad for Earnshaw because I'd actually seen his debut for Wales in Cardiff against a powerful German side whom despite his small size, he turned inside out, eventually scoring the game's only goal.

That Welsh side managed by Hughes relied on the muscular presence up front of big John Hartson, the lone striker adept at holding the ball up and lethal with his head near goal. The new Wales has a glorious winger in Tottenham's Gareth Bale, a shrewdly precocious central midfielder in Aaron Ramsey, blessedly recovered from a shocking injury inflicted on him by the huge Stoke centre back Ryan Shawcross which kept him out for almost a year, plus Craig Bellamy, one of the finest British wingers of his day, unfortunately suspended from the Wembley game, or who knows what might have happened? Managed now by their former left winger Gary Speed, Wales have a difficult World Cup qualifying group to negotiate, but on recent form, they must have a reasonable chance. Ted Robbins would have been delighted by them.