6 September ~ Ten years ago, Wales, under the management of Mark Hughes, had the highest average attendance of any national team in Europe. Alongside balmy, balmy nights in Helsinki and Belgrade, we beat Italy at home in a qualifier with an all-Premier League team (excluding John Hartson who was in the SPL) while the Italians haplessly subbed their subs. Wales fans rightly proclaimed their side as "the best team in Britain". In 2011, we struggle to attract 8,000 for home qualifiers, are ranked 117th by FIFA and haven't beaten a team seeded above us in a competitive game since an unexpected 5-2 win in Slovakia in 2007.
(Montenegro on Friday doesn't count, as despite their having sneaked into 19th place on the recent FIFA list, they were actually in pot five at the start of this campaigns draw, while Wales were in four.) Wales hit a new low when Jakup Emil Hansen, a student from the Faroe Islands doing statistical research, noticed the Faroes' point coefficient was out on the FIFA site and that they were 0.007 of a FIFA point above Wales. This sent us down to the lowest seeding level, pot six, for the 2012 World Cup draw.
Despite some good prospects coming through from Brian Flynn's excellent Under-21 team, the appalling man-management of John Toshack in his eight years in charge meant that players were itching to retire from the national side by the age of 27. The team for Wembley selected by Toshack's successor Gary Speed will be cheered on by approximately 1,500 fans, the small following being partly the result of a bizarre and complex away fans membership scheme that the FAW have stuck to rigidly. In addition, Swansea and Cardiff fans have been to the stadium recently, so there is little novelty value in the trip. Most of all it's down to the apathy bred by Toshack's reign, watching Premier League reserves stroll about unwilling to get out of second gear.
Under Speed, things are starting to look up with something that vaguely resembles team spirit. Neil Taylor of Swansea had an excellent game at full-back on Friday, as did Darcy Blake, who is Cardiff's current sixth choice at centre defence. Craig Bellamy is out – for a receiving a yellow card in a bizarre 15 minutes when the ref gave one out every time he blew his whistle – and David Vaughan is missing too, while 20-year-old Aaron Ramsey, as good as he is, is an odd choice as captain.
The three England v Wales games of recent years have been dull affairs and over after half an hour. One of the main talking points was David Beckham's admission he got deliberately booked for a foul on Ben Thatcher, so he didn't have to travel to Baku to play Azerbaijan in 2004. Even if Wales win tonight and somehow go on to draw level with Montenegro at the top of the group, the Montenegrins have the better head-to-head record thanks to their goal in Cardiff last Friday. But I don't think we need worry about that. Huw Thomas