International bright young things
Wales' supporters leaving the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday night were debating whether their international glass is half empty or half full. Given their side's history, both distant and recent, it's not always easy to be positive about a football nation that hasn't qualified for a major tournament since 1958.
The 3-1 victory over Cyprus went some way to restoring the pride in the Dragon's shirt following the humiliating loss to Slovakia last weekend - the country's heaviest home defeat since 1908. But with only 3 points in 3 games, Wales look to be out of contention for Euro 2008 qualification and attendances are on the decline. The 20,456 turnout for the Cyprus game was the smallest crowd for a competitive game in the principality for 5 years and stand-in skipper Craig Bellamy admitted this week he feared a return to the 'bad old days of Welsh football' for players and fans alike.
Amid talk in some quarters of a crisis in the national game, manager John Toshack has called for a sense of perspective. The former Real Madrid boss said he'd 'never known such sensationalism in 30 years' reading the criticism following the Slovakia game. He accused some Welsh journalists of 'coming out of the woodwork' and maintains that his side played well in the first half of that game, going down to a 'freak result'. Toshack is keen to discuss the nucleus of young talent emerging through the Welsh ranks and says they are capable of 'forming a squad that will learn to play with each other for years to come'.
Five of the players in Wednesday's starting line-up were aged 23 or under and their display was enough to suggest their manager's optimism is not unfounded. Lewis Price, the 22-year old Ipswich goalkeeper was largely untested, but has the frame, agility and handling skills to be a top stopper. Jason Brown is another young Welsh keeper, pushing Brad Friedel hard for the number one shirt at Blackburn Rovers. Following Paul Jones' calamity performance against Slovakia, it seems the goalkeeping position may be in safer hands in the future.
Lewin Nyatanga of Derby County is another player that has impressed since his first Wales call up against Paraguay earlier this year. Nyatanga came through the same Derby youth system that produced Tom Huddlestone, now of Tottenham Hotspur. Nyatanga's attributes are similar to the England under-21 man, who has become a firm favourite at White Hart Lane with his versatility, strength and passing ability. Nyatanga looked to have a good understanding with fellow centre half Danny Gabbidon on Wednesday night and will now look to push West Ham United's James Collins for a place in Wales' backline. The 21-year old Craig Morgan of the MK Dons also looked confident and assured in Wales' central midfield.
The undoubted stars of Wales' 'new-breed' are the South coast pair of Richard Duffy and Gareth Bale, now established first team players at Portsmouth and Southampton. Duffy set up the first goal on Wednesday for Jason Koumas and produced a typically industrious performance at right back.
Meanwhile on the left side, it's almost unbelievable that Gareth Bale is only 17. The Saints left back is arguably the best young talent outside of the Premiership and if his meteoric rise continues then he will surely be playing at the top level in 2007. He has the rarest of weapons in his armoury, a sweet left foot, which is already the envy of the English national side.
Nearly four years on from Wales' epic victory over Italy, the Dragons nu-skool look capable of resurrecting their country to those dizzy heights. Only if they can be given the hardest commodity of all from their fans – time. Wales supporters will be sick of hearing it, but with hopes of appearing in Switzerland and Austria in 2008 slim, it's already time to think about South Africa in 2010. Hopefully they can do so with a positive outlook knowing the likes of Price, Duffy, Bale, Morgan and Nyatanga are on the scene.
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