John Toshack’s reorganisation of Wales’ youth teams under Brian Flynn has paid dividends, as Paul Ashley-Jones explains
It’s typical that when Wales finally escape a qualifying group it leads to a play-off rather than the tournament itself. It’s also typical that, despite finishing top of our group, we draw a side as strong as England in the play-offs. Nonetheless, being so close to the 2009 European Under-21 Championship finals is a huge moment, for players and fans. Participation in such a tournament would help towards changing a losing mentality that Welsh players, at all levels, have had for a very long time.
While the first team have consistently failed in qualifying, the Under-21s’ record has been even poorer, particularly during the reign of previous senior manager Mark Hughes, when the side went a record-breaking number of games without a win. To finish top of a group including France, who were beaten comfortably 4-2, represents major achievement.
Wales are benefiting from a “golden generation” of youngsters, such as Gareth Bale and Chris Gunter of Spurs, Wolves’ Wayne Hennessey and Joe Ledley of Cardiff. But it would be wrong to put this down simply to luck. When John Toshack succeeded Hughes in 2005, he was faced with an ageing squad and the retirement of key players such as Gary Speed. Having criticised the latter performances under Hughes, Toshack was not afraid to step on some toes to make the changes he felt necessary, epitomised by a very public falling-out with Robbie Savage.
However, the most important change was his decision to bring in Brian Flynn in place of the separate part-time managers for the Under‑17s, Under-19s and Under‑21s. The former Wrexham and Swansea manager was given overall responsibility, with the remit to fast-track players through to the first team. The previous system saw separate managers arguing over whose squad a player should be in and there was no consistent approach to player development. What Toshack introduced seems on reflection an obvious decision to make, but it was one his predecessor either chose not, or simply didn’t think, to implement.
Flynn has pushed through players who weren’t even regulars for their clubs, such as Gunter, who made his Wales debut when out of favour for his club, Cardiff City. He played so well, Dave Jones had little choice but to bring him back into the Cardiff first team and his performances resulted in a £2 million transfer to Spurs. Sam Vokes is the latest example, with the confidence he gained from scoring on his competitive Wales debut being reflected in his performances for Wolves since his return from international duty.
Whether Flynn can continue to provide youngsters for the first team at a similar rate only time will tell. The nature of the problem was demonstrated in the World Cup qualifier in Russia in September, when Wales had to field a non-League player, Wrexham’s Steve Evans. Recent U17s and U19s squads involved only one and three players, respectively, who are on the books of Premier League clubs, so there is no inexhaustible supply of talent, and some will fall by the wayside – Richard Duffy, languishing in Portsmouth’s reserves, being a case in point. But the group at Under-21 level does at least suggest that we could produce a national squad of Premier League/Championship regulars in the near future, headed by Arsenal’s Chris Ramsey but also including Rhys Williams (Middlesbrough), Shaun MacDonald (Swansea), Neil Eardley (Oldham) and Christian Ribeiro (Bristol City).
Do Wales have a chance in the play-off games against England, on 10 and 14 October? The recent 2-0 friendly defeat at Wrexham would suggest not, particularly as the most promising players will be playing for the seniors in their World Cup matches against Liechtenstein and Germany. However, the Under-21s lost 1-0 to Romania with most of these players on the pitch and beat them 3‑0 without the “stars”, so perhaps the lesser-known players will prove a point. Perhaps they can develop the winning mentality so badly lacking in the past. That, rather than just the play-off results, could prove really significant in the long term.
From WSC 261 November 2008