Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

We Thought Football Was Not for Us in Wales This Team Has Built New Future; Coverage in Association With

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

We Thought Football Was Not for Us in Wales This Team Has Built New Future; Coverage in Association With

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Jones @dgjones

An autumn evening, not long after 7pm, Cardiff Arms Park. Dean Saunders. Seventeen minutes. When I close my eyes I cannot see the strike but I do remember the celebration. We were behind the goal. Thirty thousand people lurching upwards all at once. Wales had scored first against the netherlands. The netherlands. One-nil: surely they were on their way to France, for a first major tournament since the 1950s.

That was October 1996, now two decades gone. I sat beside my father and we wondered. In England, where we lived, that summer had been giddy, as Euro 96 brought football home, beating the dust from the carpets and promising fresh, hopeful modernity: a sporting pre-tremor to the new Labour landslide that would follow in 1997.

Wales, of course, had not been at Euro 96 but it seemed the rising tide would lift all boats. Bobby Gould had a tasty group of players to pick from: neville Southall, Gary Speed, Mark Hughes, Saunders, Ryan Giggs, Kit Symons, John Hartson, Mark Bowen. Vinnie Jones and Robbie Savage if you wanted ankles breaking. In the first two matches of qualifying for the 1998 World Cup they had scored 11 goals, thumping San Marino 5-0 away and 6-0 at home. Yes, that was only San Marino squared -- but 1-0 against the netherlands was something else. Except, of course, it wasn't. They were but dreaming men. We breathed and they faded. After half-time, the netherlands scored three goals in eight minutes (Pierre van Hooijdonk twice and one from Ronald de Boer). It finished 3-1. A farcical 7-1 defeat in the return leg in Eindhoven told the real story: Wales were Wales. They didn't win another match in that campaign. There was no World Cup 1998, and nothing else, either. After that game I wrote off football as a fundamentally un-Welsh activity. If the nation had any sense it would stick to rugby. At least with an oval ball in their hands Welshmen had glory days to yearn for.

With a round ball by their feet? There was none of what the Welsh call hiraeth there. You'd be better off teaching cats gymnastics. But now look. Twenty years have passed and finally, Wales have made it to France. …

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