Why does he persevere? Huw Richards reports
You have to wonder about John Toshack. He’s 59 in March, has earned big money all his adult life – and everything we know about him suggests that cash will have been sensibly deployed. He could be putting his feet up in the French Basque country or on the Gower coast, breaking off every so often to broadcast in Spain, where tactical sophistication is a must rather than an optional extra. Instead he continues to wrestle with turning Wales into a half-decent football team. It is, admittedly, not like running a club. Coaching a small nation is like being a senior civil servant or university vice-chancellor who becomes head of an Oxbridge college, a pleasant way of easing towards retirement. The president of St John’s College is not, mind you, required to hold regular press conferences, sit in cold dugouts or submit to regular contact with Craig Bellamy. This, though, is Wales, where the man in the national coconut-shy is the rugby coach.
More than a few observers have noted the contrast between the polite treatment accorded to Toshack by our self-styled national newspaper, the Western Mail – whose effectiveness as an organ of influence may be measured by the fact that its prime mission for most of the last 138 years has been to persuade Welshmen to vote Conservative – and the viciously personalised campaign it ran against his rugby counterpart, Gareth Jenkins. Canned unceremoniously hours after Wales’s World Cup exit against Fiji, Jenkins possibly reflected that he got off lightly. His predecessor, Mike Ruddock, took Wales to their first grand slam in 27 years and was still out within a year.
While preferable, the treatment of Toshack also implies that football does not really matter. Expectations are not great. Good Wales teams reach the verge of qualification for tournaments before succumbing to a dodgy Scottish penalty. We’ve not had one of those in a while.
The Euro 2008 qualifying group was always going to be tough. Two big beasts – Germany and the Czech Republic. Then the Republic of Ireland and a couple more about our own size, Slovakia and Cyprus, plus one comedy act – San Marino. Sixth place, with an outside chance of third or fourth, is disappointing but hardly outright failure. It is not as if Toshack is blessed with prime talent. Ryan Giggs is the sort of player who makes good teams great rather than lifting mediocre ones, and has now gone. Gareth Bale really is exceptional, but still only 18. The rest trade in the mid-to-lower reaches of the Premier League, the Championship or beyond. They are epitomised by Robbie Earnshaw, lethal if allowed that extra split second he is invariably denied in the top flight or by decent international teams.
There is, though, a sense of disappointment about the campaign. Part of that is because it never really got started. A 2-1 opening defeat by the Czechs, Wales’s least favourite opponents on the basis of meetings in seven qualifying competitions over 50 years, was followed by the 5-1 home debacle against Slovakia. In a group where the Czechs and Germans have dropped only seven points apiece in qualifying, it was all over after two matches.
The rest was not that bad, culminating in taking astonishing revenge on the Slovaks with a 5-2 win in Trnava in September. The trouble was that was followed by going down 3-1 in Cyprus. This is not quite the disgrace it might seem – ask the Irish. The Cypriots’ average FIFA ranking over the past 15 years is only five places lower than Wales’s. But they’re still classified in most British minds as a bit of a joke. Then came the struggle to beat San Marino. Between the two came Toshack’s outburst about “pampered” players, blamed by some as the catalyst for the abuse heaped on them by travelling fans in San Marino. There is, of course, a pattern to this. Toshack has a history of public fallings-out with squads, notably at Real Madrid in 1999 and in the early 1980s at Swansea, where he had senior and young players changing in different rooms.
The problem for an international coach is that he cannot, unlike his club counterpart, use the transfer market to dismantle and replace a recalcitrant squad. He is stuck with more or less the same group. Whether the post-Cyprus spat marks the beginning of the end for Toshack may depend on results against Ireland and Germany, and how much he wants to continue. The alternatives hardly inspire and, whatever the difficulties he has periodically faced with senior players, he continues to enjoy a deserved reputation for nurturing promising youth.
From WSC 250 December 2007