When it comes to knowing what kind of condition the other nations will be in come September, there are way too many variables. By then, Germany could be the best team on the planet or reeling from letting their country down at home. Similarly, the Czech Republic will definitely be coming to terms with a new manager but may also have been buoyed by a positive World Cup showing.
What we know for certain is Slovakia will be tricky, and Wales and Cyprus have a recent history worth revisiting. In November, John Toshack took the Welsh to Limassol for a friendly. Twelve months into his second stint in charge of his native country, Toshack and his team were looking for their third straight international win and a further boost to growing confidence. Even after seven regulars withdrew from the squad and didn’t travel, the manager told reporters before the game he was happy because there were far more options available in every position than ever before. For Wales, it seemed the future was looking good.
By the evening’s end, the Welsh journalists present were talking in catastrophic terms of how the country’s fortunes had sunk to an all-time low. A Chrysis Michael penalty just before the interval secured the win for the home side in front of a measly crowd of 1,000.
More significantly, the Welsh performance was even worse than the result. If it hadn’t been for some heroics from debutant keeper Craig Lewis, the Cypriots could have won by three or four. At the other end, 85 minutes elapsed before the Welsh managed to get their first shot on goal. They were outplayed and outfought and afterwards, Toshack didn’t spare the rod.
“That was the worst international performance I have seen and, to be honest, I feel a bit embarrassed. It was way, way below the level I am looking for and we’re going to have to do a lot better than that. In the first half we didn’t play well — but it got even worse in the second half. We were sloppy, we gave the ball away too often, we lacked creativity and you can’t play like that in international football. There’s no point trying to put a gloss on it. I can’t be pleased with some of the decisions I made. When you see things are not going as well as you want, you’ve got to try and make things better and I didn’t do that.”
From an Irish point of view, the Welsh debacle offered two lessons. It provided further evidence Cyprus may be as tough a nut to crack this time around as they were for Brian Kerr’s team last September and demonstrated that Toshack’s side are at a pretty low ebb.
Perhaps nothing summed up the current Welsh morale than the fact Toshack’s announcement at the draw he felt the country could qualify from Group D was ridiculed by elements of his own national media. Whether the nature of that coverage had an effect or not, he has been speaking in more moderate and practical terms this past week.
“We really need to have a good crack at this tournament,” said Toshack, “and we all need to do it together, players are going to get injured, suspended, and there is no doubt that we get hit harder than most and feel it more. With so many back-to-back games, players are going to get switched around for one reason or another and I want to be prepared for that and I want my players prepared for that. We will have to have alternative plans and I and the players need to be aware of that fact and this is what this week is all about, I want every possible body available.”
In a move that Steve Staunton might do well to emulate, Toshack last week sent letters to 36 Welsh footballers informing them of the dates in May that he will require them to be available for a 10-day training trip to Spain. With every chance of losing at least half a dozen of his squad to the league play-offs at that time, he wanted to make sure three months in advance that no individual eligible for the country could claim they hadn’t been given enough notice.
“What I have done is sent out 36 letters explaining that not all of them will be involved. It’s more to do with letting them know how excited we are about the forthcoming campaign, stating the dates, and who we are playing against. It’s also saying that it’s up to you — they know the dates and that the most important thing in all of this is the players. All it is saying is if you want to be part of this and the possibility of trying to do something that never has been achieved before, don’t let yourselves down, don’t let your team-mates down, and don’t let us down.”
Every Irish manager of recent vintage has suffered the ignominy of players having pre-booked holidays or simply refusing to travel on end of season jaunts. Toshack at least is getting his retaliation in first. This impressive planning-ahead and these kind of robust, passionate statements are the sort many Irish fans wish were coming from Staunton right now.
They would be a lot more heartening than his ridiculous guff about strengthening the squad by recruiting players under the granny rule. It would be much more in his line to be informing the internationals we have about when and where they will be needed by their country.
Of course, maybe he’s doing that quietly in the background and the recent declaration of allegiance by a second-rater like Birmingham City’s Alex Bruce’s is simply a smokescreen to keep us distracted. We can only hope.