New caps in Croatia?
Croatia in Osijek, 23 May 2010
Cymru go into the opening round of qualifiers for Euro 2024 with – at the time of writing – seven uncapped players in the squad to face Croatia and Latvia: Tom King, Nathan Broadhead, Ollie Cooper, Morgan Fox, Liam Cullen, Jordan James and Luke Harris.
Although each of the uncapped players has spent time in previous squads, and a couple even accompanied the squad to Qatar, the more that senior players such as Ben Davies and Wayne Hennessey withdraw, the more transitional the squad begins to look.
Such is the strength of squad that Rob Page is able to pick in comparison to those John Toshack was able to, that even with seven uncapped players and the unavailability of five of the twelve most capped male players in history (yes, Ben Davies is the joint 9th most capped player; Joe Allen is 12th), the squad that departs for Split is arguably still not as callow and inexperienced as that which visited Osijek in 2010 ahead of the 2012 European Championships qualifiers.
Eight years after Cymru’s first game against an independent Croatia, in Osijek, capital of the Slavonia region, Toshack had to endure a total of 15 players withdrawing. To be fair, many were to be expected. Nottingham Forest, Leicester City, Blackpool and Cardiff City, had reached that season’s Championship play-offs involving Robert Earnshaw and Chris Gunter; Andy King; Neal Eardley, David Vaughan and Rob Edwards; and Joe Ledley, Adam Matthews and Darcy Blake respectively. Cardiff and Blackpool’s semi-final victories ensured that Earnshaw and Gunter were available for selection, although King subsequently ruled himself out.
Gareth Bale was an early withdrawal and along with Joe Allen (who had at that time only had 46 minutes of international football under his belt from a pair of substitute appearances) joined long-term absentees Aaron Ramsey – in the early stages of recuperation following his leg-break – and Jack Collison who had just gone under the knife in an attempt to address his persistent knee problems. West Ham announced that Collison would be out for around nine months, but in the end he didn’t return to action for another 12 months, missing 14 months in total. James Collins and Danny Gabbidon were also missing, with the latter retiring from international duty a few months later.
Captain Craig Bellamy was another absentee. His strained relationship with Toshack appeared to once again have hit the skids, with Toshack replying, “Well, we don’t know” when asked about Bellamy’s international future and Bellamy missed the Croatia game in favour of visiting his Foundation in Sierra Leone. Ashley Williams took the armband for only the second time in Bellamy’s absence.
Five days before the match, less than 200 miles away in Parndorf, Austria, Brian Flynn’s under 21 team had their own friendly in what the BBC described as an “experimental” side. One debutant in Parndorf, Hal Robson-Kanu, had finally relented to Flynn’s year-long pursuit of him to join the Wales set up and made his u21 debut in eastern Austria.
Our Leon Barton made the trip to Parndorf from his home in Innsbruck and in his biography of Flynn Little Wonder explains what impressed him so much about Hal:
“I could see he was a player with immense physical strength, with the rare ability hold opponents off and keep the ball with his back to goal”
Hal was immediately summoned to Croatia and join up with the senior squad that was down to its bare bones. With him went Neil Taylor, Mark Bradley, Christian Ribeiro and Sam Vokes.
Croatia were also shorn of players. But whereas it was the Championship play-offs that were occupying some Welsh players, it was the Champions’ League Final between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan that deprived the Kockasti of Ivica Olic and Danijel Pranjic.
The average age of Toshack’s starting XI was 24 and a half, inflated by the inclusion of Robert Earnshaw (29), Sam Ricketts, Brian Stock and debutant Andy Dorman (each 28). St Mirren’s Chester-born, Hawarden-raised Dorman had first been included in a Cymru squad earlier in the season to face Scotland at the Cardiff City Stadium. In Osijek he became the first player to represent Cymru under the five years compulsory schooling rule.
On 67 minutes Dorman was replaced by Neil Taylor who had played an hour in Parndorf and was technically a non-league player with Wrexham since he was still a month away from his transfer to Swansea City. Walsall’s Mark Bradley, who scored against France in the famous 4-2 u21 victory in 2007 and who had played the full game in Parndorf, had by this point already entered the fray as Toshack’s first outfield substitute for Brian Stock (Wayne Hennessey was swapped for Boaz Myhill at half time). Six weeks later, after release by Walsall, Bradley joined League Two Rotherham. This was his only full cap and he was later forced to retire through injury (though he does have a Wiki profile picture to die for).
On 71 minutes an ineffectual Robert Earnshaw was replaced by Robson-Kanu and became the game’s fourth Cymru debutant. He occupied the left flank rather than the centre forward position that fans came to see, and celebrate, in the years that followed. His brief run-out, again, showed glimpses of promise as Cymru created a couple of rare chances, notably a volley from Bradley.
A fifth and final debutant ‘Chris-crossed’ on 81 minutes: Chris(tian) Ribeiro for Chris Gunter. David Moyes had wanted to sign Bristol City’s Ribeiro for Everton before he had even played a senior game for the Robins, and was linked again even after he had recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament on his City debut. Toshack described his senior call up as a “fantastic reward” for his battles with injury and he was assigned the job of marking Luka Modric. Within a minute however Modric played a sumptuous through ball for Drago Gabrić to score a second and complete a deserved victory.
Cymru had a further friendly in Llanelli versus Luxembourg (in which Steve Morison made his international debut) before losing 0-1 in Montenegro in the opening Euro 2024 qualifier. John Toshack fell on his sword and it was left to Brian Flynn, who knew these younger players better than anyone, to pick up the baton in a caretaker capacity.
Flynn awarded Ribeiro a second cap before the year was out, when he came on for debutant Darcy Blake in Basel in the second of Flynn’s matches in charge against Switzerland in Basel. But injuries continued to plague Ribeiro who eventually moved to Scunthorpe, Exeter and Oxford before a knee injury forced him to retire.
We start qualification campaigns much better these days; entering with belief, rather than hope, that qualification is a realistic goal. The pathway to the senior team is much clearer than it was in the late 2000s, so that even when there is a greater-than-usual number of withdrawals players can slot in rather than parachute in. We travel to Split with a belief, spirit, infrastructure and competitiveness that is a far cry from Osijek. However, history might repeat itself with once again a raft of debutants.