Only Gareth Bale's quality stands out
22 March ~ A dead rubber at only the halfway point of Group A, the World Cup qualifier between Scotland and Wales owes its appeal to the recuperation of Gareth Bale's ankle and the flapping of Mickey Thomas's mouth. More than manager Gordon Strachan's competitive debut, or a first cap for Dundee United's balletic Gary MacKay-Steven, it's Welsh internationals past and present putting kilts on seats tonight. Bale, the current darling of Britain's Sky generation, is the only player on display that gets the kids in.
For us 40-somethings, Thomas declaring the current Scotland team our "worst ever" has created a frisson long lost to a celtic derby which once promised tournament qualification and was always peppered with the brightest stars.
A wooden-spoon battle, Strachan and opposite number Chris Coleman will still regard this as the easier tie of their respective double-headers. Scotland travel to Serbia on Tuesday, as Wales host high-flying Croatia. Both managers come into this game on the back of narrow friendly victories over modest opponents – Estonia at Aberdeen, Austria in Swansea – which nevertheless stemmed national slides.
Wales' only points so far came in October's Bale-inspired home victory over the Scots. Scotland have an abysmal record in friendlies this century and Strachan would be only our second national manager in 20 years to win his opening competitive game. His predecessor Craig Levein garnered just two points, via gutless home draws, from the first four matches.
Levein may be gone now but the only hope of reaching Brazil 2014 remains the outbreak of another Balkan war – one which includes fourth-place Macedonia. Even then the frighteningly potent Belgians would leave the Scots and Welsh squabbling over a play-off place.
Thomas was merely answering a question put to him by BBC Radio Scotland on Monday. He has half a point and, in this instance, is a pundit well-placed to comment on the comparative states of both nations. Last time Wales played a World Cup qualifier at Hampden, in 1985, Thomas was on a winning team featuring Ian Rush of Liverpool, Mark Hughes of Manchester United and Merseyside legends Neville Southall, Kevin Ratcliffe and Joey Jones. He faced Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen and immortal Aberdeen trio Jim Leighton, Willie Miller and Alex McLeish.
The Hampden pitch dripped with major English and European medals and world class talent, some of which graced La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga. Both countries hammered Spain at home in the same group and for the second time in three campaigns, Scotland squeezed past Wales into the finals. Twenty-eight years later, Bale stars for the nation ranked 71st by FIFA, against number 66.
Sociologically, Hampden's first proper Friday crowd should be wilder than for school night games but calmer than at beer-soaked Saturday kick-offs. Politically, it's about seedings for Euro 2016 – the tournament you daren't miss as it features half of UEFA's members. Historically, at least Ivor Allchurch and John Charles – the other Welsh scorers in Hampden World Cup qualifiers – don't have to witness how far this fixture has fallen. Alex Anderson