The last time Wales faced England was in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup and in keeping with folklore, St. George slayed the Dragon. Having won 2-0 at Old Trafford, England claimed a 1-0 win at the Millennium Stadium to wrap up home and away victories on their way to Germany. Meanwhile Wales were left to continue their years in the wilderness.
Whilst the footballing fortunes of these two nations have not been directly comparable in the intervening period, certain parallels emerge ahead of Saturday’s clash. Both sides have changed managers twice since Wales last hosted their neighbours in Cardiff, with the latest incumbents focusing on youth and building for the future. Having inherited a side with no wins in their opening three qualifying matches, Gary Speed – a member of the playing squad for the 2006 campaign – endured a 3-0 defeat to Ireland in his first match in charge and continues to embark upon the laborious rebuild.
The Welsh FA appointed Speed, despite his relative inexperience at managerial level, seemingly in the hope that he can emulate the achievements of Mark Hughes. The latter’s finest moments came as Wales recorded victory over Italy before narrowly losing out to Russia in the Euro 2004 playoffs. By the time that side came to face England in World Cup qualifying, they were already in decline. Arguably the current Welsh crop is at the same level as the side that last faced England, albeit that they are at different stages of the same parabola.
Then, Wales were in decline with their most significant zenith in the modern era behind them. Now, starting at a record low of 116th in the FIFA world rankings, and with such emerging talents as Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, they are on an upward trajectory. Speed’s Wales have a youthful core, exemplified by his selection of Ramsey as captain, yet, with only one competitive fixture under his belt, the clash with England is likely to have come too soon for Speed to make his mark. Seemingly addressing the forthcoming fixture as much as the captaincy, the manager stated: “It
Speed has had precious little contact time to mould his squad to utilise its strengths effectively, and in any case Bale’s withdrawal through injury has severely dented any plans the Principality had to ambush their foes. Even before this disappointing news, Speed moved quickly to limit expectations, focusing instead on ensuring: “When the 2014 qualifiers start in 18 months’ time we’re in a place to compete.” Barring a heavy defeat on Saturday, Speed is in a strong position. Little is expected of Wales who are yet to register in Euro 2012 qualifying and should they pull off a remarkable win, the result could prove the catalyst to resurgence.