A low country

It was an unhappy captaincy debut for Vinnie Jones as Wales are torn apart by a classy Holland. Chris Hall reports from Eindhoven

10:30: While their supporters shake off some well earned hangovers and prepare to catch up on sleep during the one and a half hour journey south from Amsterdam, the Welsh squad stroll purposefully into PSV Eindhoven’s Herdgang training complex. New captain Vinnie Jones is lost in his own thoughts, coming to terms with his surprise elevation from hod carrier to standard bearer. Had the group included some of its missing stars – Giggs, Hughes, Rush, and er, Horne – it’s unlikely they would have created much more than a ripple of mild curiosity apparent in the faces of the onlookers. One of PSV’s many youth teams were waiting to take the field, hoping to impress the ex-internationals who coach them, and the gallery of parents cooing encouragement from the safe confines of the cosy clubhouse. Bobby Gould looks tense and wary, perhaps still clinging to the belief that those absent talents would have made a difference to tonight’s daunting encounter.

11:45: Back through the uniform streets and houses of Philipsdorp, the area closest to the electrical factories that employ most of Eindhoven’s workers, to the anonymous pedestrianised precincts of the city centre. Tell-tale signs like an overabundance of orange, and a stray coach from South Wales (the wheeled kind- not the type with the meeting eyebrows) marks Eindhoven out as a town gearing up for action.

13:30: Holiday Inn. Home of the Welsh squad in Holland. The hotel bar is out of bounds for the players but not the officials, nor a group of Merthyr Tidfil fans who are comforting themselves that next Saturday’s FA Cup 1st round tie at Leyton Orient will bring some joy to balance the thrashing they fear this evening. Warm in the afterglow of a night in Amsterdam’s red-light district- and a famous Cup victory against ‘local’ rivals Yeovil Town, the most they hope for is some dignity be left intact at the end of 90 minutes. That dream has already been dented in many of their eyes by the appointment of their infamous adopted son as skipper.

The Merthyr lads expect a good turnout – with the exception of Swansea followers, unlikely to attend due to fear of a beating by Cardiff rather than the Dutch.

14:25: In the Eindhoven Arndale, a jazz quartet entertains the regular Stepford shoppers who seem unaware that a crucial World Cup qualifier is now less than six hours away.

A band of beer-weary Welshman weave their way to the next bar, but pose less of a threat than the PSV skinheads, decked in black- you just can’t riot in orange.

Just around the corner from normality, the pre-match party is in full swing. In the O’Sheas ‘traditional’ bar the Stone Island-clad Cardiff boys hold sway as assorted others parade the new away kits; white chest, greensleeves, blood red daggers dripping from the shoulders- but there’s little sense of menace. How can there be when a belting rendition of “Delilah” is countered by the Orange brigade stealing that pink anthem “I will survive”.

18.00: Even the trendier bars of De Vrij Straat are not immune from an advanced drinking class in international relations. Scarves and stories are swapped to a sixties soundtrack that includes a tune recently re-popularised by Wimbledon’s finest. If the barman knows that Vinnie Jones has covered “Wooly Bully”, the Dutch have a more devilish sense of humour than they’re credited with.

19:30: Inside the main entrance, it’s like a hotel; all mirrors, chrome, suits, and people waiting to take your coat. My magic pass leads me up the carpeted stairs past ranks of reception rooms corporate clients and global giants. I scour the press room but with only orange juice and coffee on offer there’s no trace of an English accent.

The match: The Welsh fans are determined to keep their boys’ spirits up, and the opening exchanges do not hint at the chasm in ability that is about to erupt. They can cope with Denis Bergkamp’s opener but two goals in quick succession burst the damn. Southall is getting a hand on everything but holding nothing. De Boer follows up another parry and Jonk waltzes past the Welsh defence within a minute. Winter and Seedorf create acres in midfield but the whole Dutch team play with a clinical purpose that renders graft and guts inadequate. Jones responds with a clumsy rather than malicious tackle that gets him booked.

The band accompany a brave chorus of “Always look on the bright side of life” after Saunders replies, but at 1-4 half the Welsh fans are dreaming of Amsterdam already. The pattern soon reasserts itself in the second half, but it takes something special from Kit Symons to gift Cocu the fifth. The goals that gave Bergkamp his hat-trick weren’t classics, nor did they need to be. Calm persistence and confidence in your colleagues and coach was all it took to break these dragons’ hearts. At least Vinnie is still on the pitch at the end. Some consolation.

10:30: The press grumble about deadlines and quotes as Bobby Gould is slow to show. When he does arrive, his features are small, pinched and red. He is close to tears, struggling to make sense of his situation. Haunted by what he saw at the Herdgang, he curses his unfinished football education and challenges a TV crew to show Britain what it is not teaching youngsters. He tries to explain why Wales cannot be expected to compete with players who enjoy such a headstart, but not for the first time this evening, words fail him. “You weren’t there” he growls; “We were not invited” the press rejoin.

Postscript: A special has taken the Welsh back to the city of their desires but Dutch drunks disguised as belisha beacons still fill Eindhoven’s Central Station. Before long the last train home is rocking to a local drinking song in which the words ‘Nederlandse’, ’Voetball’ and ‘Schule’ are all I can make out.

From WSC 119 January 1997. What was happening this month