When Wales manager Gary Speed took over the reins as national coach from John Toshack just over eight months ago, he knew he had a massive rebuilding job on his hands. Inheriting a squad completely devoid of confidence and with morale at an all-time low, he admitted changes would not happen overnight.
His initial games in charge produced disappointing results, but, behind the scenes, wheels were in motion to implement a new system which, if successful, would reignite the passion in Welsh football.
With assistant coach Raymond Verheijen by his side, Speed hoped to instil a new methodology both on and off the pitch, which he firmly believes will reap dividends in the long-term and while last month’s friendly defeat to Australia showed there was still plenty of work to do on the pitch, what was evident was a squad of players eager to play and achieve alongside their young manager.
Ahead of Friday’s European Qualifying game against Montenegro, it was a similar story. Almost a full squad of players reported for duty, a far cry from the days of Toshack and his predecessors where withdrawals worryingly became the norm. Speed and Verheijen spoke positively pre-match about their preparations, with Speed citing the need for a more confident, arrogant Wales. Cultivating a winning mentality was seen as key.
Wales started the game nervously against a team ranked by Fifa as 98 places above them, but as the first half progressed, it became apparent that Speed’s philosophy of a more fluid, passing game might actually be coming to fruition.
Against Australia, Wales passed the ball confidently, but worryingly without any real penetration or attacking threat and left Craig Bellamy and Gareth Bale woefully underused on the flanks. Speed said post-match there were lessons to be learned and he certainly set about rectifying his mistakes.
This was a more assertive, more forceful Wales, confident in the belief that attack is the best form of defence. Bellamy and Bale terrorised the Montenegro back line, pressing forward at every opportunity and were supported magnificently by their midfield counterparts in David Vaughan, Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey. Steve Morison provided a more effective target man in the lone striker mould than Robert Earnshaw and it was only a matter of time before they made the breakthrough. Excellent persistence from Vaughan saw him breach the Montenegro defence, before unleashing a prefect cross which proved too awkward for the keeper to hold, allowing Morison to sneak in and slot home his first goal for his country.
It was exactly the confidence boost Wales needed and provided the catalyst for a dazzling end to the first half. Playing with a new-found freedom, they dominated possession and were unlucky not to further enhance their lead. Bale, who was in scintillating form throughout, produced the game’s best effort after half an hour, unleashing a fierce shot from over 25 yards out, which was just tipped over the bar by the keeper.
In fact, the only blight on the first half was the bookings for Bellamy and Vaughan, with Bellamy’s the softest of the night, meaning the pair will miss Tuesday’s game against England at Wembley.
Five minutes after the restart, Wales doubled their lead, with Bale once again running rings around the Montenegro defence before delivering a perfect cross, enabling Ramsey to slot home with a cool finish. There was a discernible increase in confidence, with perhaps the most telling sign the beaming smiles on every face as the team returned to the pitch after the break. This was a squad galvanised, with a belief in a system that in the long-term will reap rewards.
As the second half wore on, some tiredness crept in and after Ramsey’s withdrawal after 64 minutes, the team were guilty of sitting too deep and inviting pressure from the opposition. Sure enough, with 71 minutes on the clock, Montenegro took advantage of some tired legs in the Welsh defence and pulled a goal back through Stevan Jovetic.
It resulted in a nervy few moments for Wales fans, who wondered if all the earlier good work would be undone in the final moments of the match, but this is where Speed’s revolution has really started to pay dividends. Rather than capitulate, Wales’ response to conceding the goal was to come out fighting once again.
Within this squad, what is immediately apparent is a desire to achieve collectively. There are no egos, despite the obvious talent at Speed’s disposal. This is a squad who genuinely believes in the manager and each other. On the pitch, this was evident in the last-ditch tackles from Andrew Crofts and Darcy Blake, throwing their bodies in the way of shots; in Swansea City club team mates Ashley Williams and Neil Taylor, who had an exceptional game at left back, covering each other in defence when needed, and in Craig Bellamy, frequently seen tracking back and making vital interceptions at every opportunity.
Speed has ensured the feel-good factor has returned to Wales. There is still plenty of work to be done but the future at last looks positive. There will be peaks and troughs along the way but fans can feel confident that finally, the team appears to be on the right track.
In some ways, the result against England at Wembley on Tuesday night is irrelevant. Of course, a win would be sensational, but at this point, it’s the performance and progression as a squad that is key.
Speed certainly appears to be moving things in the right direction.