With Mark Hughes on his way out, Steve Bidmead looks at the main contenders competing to succeed the now-Blackburn Rovers boss as manager of the Welsh national team
“If that had happened to me I’d have been slaughtered by the media,” complained Sven-Göran Eriksson on learning that Mark Hughes had taken the Blackburn Rovers job and would be part-time Wales manager for the World Cup qualifiers against England and Poland. But there were vital differences between the two coaches. Not only had Hughes avoided controversy in his private life, he had also carried his team as far as he realistically could, enjoying comparative success. The timing could have been better, but fans understood his departure was on the cards. Beating Italy 2-1 in Cardiff in 2002 is his epitaph, rocketing Wales from non-League to Premiership.
But, inevitably, the inspiration wore off – with the giant spectre of England looming, Hughes realised his “best before” date had passed. Expectations in 2004 are sky-high compared to 1999, but if Wales are ever going to be seeded as anything other than no-hopers, they need a burst of good results quickly. Yet there are few candidates to replace Hughes, especially as the players would prefer their new boss to be Welsh. Fulham’s Chris Coleman, the obvious choice, quickly ruled himself out. Under-21s coach Glyn Hodges is still new to his job and needs time to prove himself with a talented group of players. Ex-Wrexham and Swansea boss Brian Flynn would be out of his depth among international stars such as Craig Bellamy and Ryan Giggs; appointing Flynn would run the risk of the players ruling the roost, a situation that Eriksson might be familiar with. Ian Rush, now learning his trade at Chester and as Wales Under-17s coach, is one for the future. The same goes for Neville Southall and Dean Saunders, neither of whom has managed a League team.
Sir Bobby Robson, although by no stretch of the imagination Welsh, is seen by many as the perfect candidate, even if salary discussions might take a while. The closest Welsh equivalent is John Toshack, who has been just about forgiven for quitting the national team after just one match in charge in 1994. But Welsh football has moved on since Toshack was a force. He’s been out of the country and away from top-level management too long and, while his coaching and motivational skills are unquestionable, it would feel more like appointing a foreign coach than giving the job to Robson. And anyway, Robbie Savage has already warned him off.
Gary Speed, who by the time of the 2006 World Cup will be older than Hughes was when he accepted the job, will probably be a little long in the tooth to be the first name on the team sheet. Currently, he is too important a player to even be considered as manager, unlike Hughes, who saw John Hartson and Bellamy blocking his path to a place in the starting line-up. Whoever takes on the job will face three issues. Doddering Paul Jones needs to be replaced in goal and, as England have found, there is never a good time to ditch a stalwart and bring in someone new.
Secondly, can the team fulfil its great attacking potential without exposing an accident-prone defence? Is Danny Gabbidon too naive to be trusted with the future of that defence? Mark Hughes dealt with his defenders’ frailties by instilling a hungry work ethic, but as confidence subsides so does the team effort.
Finally, how can Wales win games if target-man Hartson is having an off day? Many feel the team is better suited to a shorter game, using the diminutive Bellamy and Robert Earnshaw – as England use Owen, Defoe and Rooney – in order to bring out the passing skills of Speed, Jason Koumas, Mark Pembridge and Giggs.
These are questions that need to be addressed under the careful stewardship of someone who has been in similar situations. It’s too much for Speed, at least for now. In a perfect world, Robson would take Speed under his wing until 2006. Having said that, if Blackburn go down in May, Sparky might yet get a hankering for his old job.
From WSC 213 November 2004. What was happening this month