The A to Z Guide of Wales’s Qualification Spring
Some of the greatest and most revolutionary shifts in the course of history have traditionally been identified as ‘springs’ to reflect the sense that real change was blooming and that the peoples and nations involved were at the dawn of a new, brighter era. Gareth Taylor considers 1848’s Spring of Nations, Guatemala’s Ten Years of Spring, the Prague Spring of 1968 or the Arab Spring of 2011 and equates Welsh qualification for Euro 2016 with some of the most seismic and brutally-played out political earthquakes of the last two centuries.
I can sense the alarm bells ringing already. I confess that I am about to equate these things.
“But isn’t that the kind of crass, borderline-offensive hyperbole one shouldn’t really use to celebrate something so relatively trivial?” Almost certainly. But now that I have at least recognised the obtuseness of the comparison I hope that it can be temporarily indulged.
For as Welsh fans we are currently approaching the height of our ‘Qualification Spring’, albeit in a ‘politically less significant and not so much of a life and death struggle’ sort of a way. We are in historically uncharted territory: a March where we prefix our friendlies with the term “pre-tournament”; an April where we buy a tournament sticker album that has spaces for Simon Church and Jazz Richards; a May where we argue passionately over whether Wes Burns warrants last minute inclusion in Coleman’s final 23 after his goals keep Fleetwood Town in League 1. However, it is those unknowns, those possibilities, those unforeseen twists and turns between now and June that make the Qualification Spring so exciting. We still do not know how the greatest stage of our Welsh footballing revolution will have played out by July. We can only speculate as to who will emerge as the heroes and the villains now we have finally risen up to take our place in Europe’s greatest footballing power-struggle. And during the Qualification Spring, speculate we will.
For the ordinary foot soldiers of the revolution, the drafting of our provisional 23’s and the purchasing of sticker albums are just the tip of the iceberg. During the Qualification Spring we will savour every footstep along this new path, upon which we have waited our whole lives to tread. Every moment of the daily build up to 11th June 2016 will provoke in us ideas, questions, predictions and debates – some old and some new. We will seek out all manner of forums and assemblies to scrutinise our nation’s footballing ideology and psychological readiness for what lies ahead. Even the smallest events will take on weighty significance as we analyse their potential impact on our attempts to unshackle ourselves from the past and re-draw the map of our continent’s footballing power structure. All too often historical ‘springs’ have proved fleeting and transient. The certainty and optimism have fallen away and the might of the old order has reasserted itself. We have many reasons to believe that our golden dawn will not falter. But just in case, let us commit ourselves entirely to the cause over the next seven weeks.
So what does a Welsh football fan do during the Qualification Spring? What are the questions that normally preoccupy your average Spanish, German or English fan at this time every couple of years? I imagine there are some things that are central to all fans’ tournament build-up regardless of nationality. But for those three nations Euro 2016 is just the latest historical volume in an epoch of footballing stability. The experience of this spring must be different for those countries undergoing a revolutionary transition in their sporting history. Furthermore, are there things that will be uniquely part of Wales’s Qualification Spring? That set our journey apart from those of Northern Ireland, Albania and Hungary? I think each Wales fan will have his or her own revolutionary calendar this spring but most will feature at least some of the tenets contained in my handy A-Z guide to Wales fans’ Qualification Spring…..
A is for the Apostle Message Board
Modern revolutionary ‘springs’ have arguably been defined by their use of social media. In the run up to France any self-respecting Wales fan will undoubtedly be busy on Twitter, Facebook and the other platforms which I’m not aware of because I’m in my late 30s. But the real cut and thrust of revolutionary debate and celebration will take place on the Apostle Message Board. No doubt many of the themes of this A-Z will feature heavily over the next couple of months.
B is for Bale
As fans we will endlessly discuss the importance of the greatest hero of the revolution during the Qualification Spring. Should Coleman take a tougher stance with Zinedine Zidane over Bale’s availability? Is there any limit to what our talisman could do in France? What if he gets injured? I don’t tend to see our revolution as one that invokes the Almighty but, PLEASE GOD DON’T LET HIM GET INJURED!
C is for Coleman
Discussion of our great revolutionary leader will also feature heavily in our build up to Euro 16. Inspired by Osian Roberts (the pre-eminent philosopher of our footballing enlightenment), Coleman and his team have brought about the Welsh squad’s greatest leap forward in living memory. But can he take us to the next level? Should a new contract be sorted before the tournament? The debate on that one, in the salons of Wales, is already rigorous.
D is for Defenders
During the Qualification Spring any fan will inevitably have to take a position on the great questions that will determine the future course of the revolution. Chief amongst such questions, quite obviously, is whether we take 7 or 8 defenders to France. Can Paul Dummett’s limited contribution to the cause thus far be off-set by the security of having an extra defensive option? Could Matthews or Henley offer a better attacking option as marauding wing backs than an extra midfielder could? I am of the opinion that safety first is the best way to consolidate our revolutionary gains thus far so it’s 8 and probably Dummett for me. Although I suspect I am in a minority.
E is for England
I don’t know if you’ve heard but England have also qualified for France and are in our group. I highlight them in this list not to endow the second of our three games with any special importance but in fact to do the opposite. During the Qualification Spring, discussion of what we can achieve should not be viewed through the narrow prism of one game. Our revolution is about grand aims and ambitions – qualification from the group and beyond. As far as I am concerned, ‘as long as we beat the English’ is counter-revolutionary sentiment that needs to be stamped out using all means necessary.
F is for Finalising your 23
Of all the things any Welsh fan will do during the Qualification Spring, drafting a squad of 23 names to get on the plane will surely be the most time-consuming. The names Edwards, Cotterill and Vaughan will be trending like never before. I’m disappointed to see the likes of Iwan Roberts and Chris Wathan commit so soon. I’m currently on draft number sixteen and don’t expect to finalise my list until early May. Currently, in one of those acts of madness that historically sets revolutionary brothers against each other, George Williams is not making the cut.
G is for Game Time
This is one of the most stressful issues to monitor during the Qualification Spring. Every week questions have to be asked and reassurances sought in order for us to convince ourselves that the squad will be ready by June. Match day line-up and goal update pages on the BBC website will need to be poured over for evidence that our players will be able to provide the quality and sharpness we will need in France. There will be highs, when Ramsey and Edwards return early from injury or when Simon Church’s hot streak at Aberdeen continues. There will be lows, when Jazz Richards is not in the match day squad, when Adam Henley is back on the bench at Blackburn or when we count four consecutive Leicester matches where Andy King hasn’t got onto the pitch. There will be something in between when James Chester is made to play left back or when Sam Vokes scores again but we wonder why he can’t reproduce such feats at international level. More than anything there will be Welsh football nerds attempting to analyse the significance of every minute of game time for Welsh qualified players. Some of us will even keep an eye on how Andrew Crofts is getting on. We will claim we are only checking the Gillingham updates to see if George Williams is in the team, but we are only lying to ourselves.
H is for Hope
You know…the thing that kills you. The trouble with many revolutions is that they are so preoccupied with the bright new dawn that is about to be ushered in that they forget all those springs that failed to blossom into summers. But perhaps that is as it should be. The possibility of us finishing second in the group before going on to knock out Iceland on penalties en route to a quarter final showdown with France is so perfect that it feels wrong to encumber such a dream with logic, reason or historical precedent. The Qualification Spring is for dreaming big when you sit down and fill in the predictions on your tournament wall chart.
I is for Intrigue
Several great nations’ tournament campaigns have regularly fallen foul of disharmony and political manoeuvring within the camp. Thanks to impressive levels of squad unity and #togetherstronger we seem to be safe from this. But I bet that’s what your average Dutch person thought in the 90s. I’m not pressing any panic buttons, I just think we need to learn from the experiences of others. So during the Qualification Spring please can no one mention Boaz Myhill or Ryan Shawcross, ok?
J is for Joy
We have had time to get used to the idea of Welsh qualification for France 2016. We have almost certainly by now been involved in discussions about what would constitute “giving a good account of ourselves” and how most definitely, “we’re not just going there to make up the numbers”. But during the Qualification Spring there should be a private moment or two of joy where every fan remembers to bask in what we have already achieved. It might come in a quiet moment flicking through the sticker album, after you watch the news coverage of the squad getting on the plane or when you get to the Wales page in your chosen newspaper’s free supplementary guide to the tournament. That moment when the buzz dies down and you remember that just to qualify is something you have dreamed about for years. To cheer your team on in a major tournament is something you are going to experience, whatever else happens. That is joy. Comrades, let us not lose sight of it.
K is for Karl Ready
During the Qualification Spring we will reflect on the historical significance of our revolutionary journey. We will look back to the bleakest times in our footballing past and remember the old regime that some of us dreamed, even then, could one day be overthrown. Karl Ready is the embodiment of those dark days. I say that mostly because I needed to find something to represent the letter K and in that respect I feel a bit mean. But Karl Ready’s brief spell in the Wales squad encompassed a 0-0 draw at home to the Republic of Ireland in front of 7000 people; defeat against Belgium (hard to imagine such a thing isn’t it?); a home 0-0 draw with Jamaica (although I think he may only have been on the bench that day); and a 4-0 defeat in Tunisia. All whilst rubbing shoulders with the dark lords of those pre-enlightened times – Vinnie Jones and Bobby Gould. I don’t really blame Karl Ready for that bleak 16 month period during which he won his five international caps. There are others far more deserving of being brought in front of the revolutionary tribunal. But Karl’s experiences, nearly twenty years ago, illuminate just how far we’ve come.
L is for Loanees
Some of our players will attract great warmth and generosity of feeling from Wales fans during the Qualification Spring. This is by virtue of them having gone out on loan in the hope of ensuring their place on the plane. Think about that for a moment – Welsh players whose career decisions have been informed, at least in part, by the desire to earn their place in the international squad. A revolutionary change indeed. And with that warmth and sympathy in mind we will seek all manner of ways to give players the benefit of the doubt when they can only make the bench at Gillingham, when they never seem to last more than an hour for MK Dons or when their inclusion at right back for Bristol City coincides with their new side getting smashed 4-0.
M is for Match of the Day
….. and whatever the piss poor ITV coverage will be called. During the Qualification Spring we will all have our own ideas about the punditry we hope to hear. We will await the announcement of which individuals will be taking their places on the sofas in the studios with trepidation. There will probably be the good (Symons, Hartson, Gabbidon), the bad (Saunders, Ratcliffe, Blake) and the, well, Robbie Savage.
N is for Northern Ireland
It’s all very well scrutinising the minutiae of what Welsh players are doing at club level but how are fans really to know which players can cut the mustard when they pull on that Welsh shirt and mix it with the great footballing powers? Obvious isn’t it? You see what happens when they go toe-to-toe with Oliver Norwood, Connor Washington and Paddy McNair of course. And from the evidence of this glorified B international you extrapolate all kinds of concrete conclusions about how wrong you’ve been about Simon Church being crap, how wrong you’ve also been about Tom Lawrence being good and how Sam Vokes sometimes makes you want to smash your head repeatedly against the wall in frustration. Well you do if you’re a true child of the revolution anyway.
O is for Opponents
It is no good buying into the propaganda of our heroic manifest destiny too whole-heartedly. We must know our enemy! During the Qualification Spring we will need to carefully research those opponents who stand between us and glory. So as we head into another club football break, what better way to fill the void than by learning everything there is to know about the footballing manifestos of Slovakia, England and Russia? You think you understand the Slovakian threat because you’ve heard of Hamsik and Skrtel? You expect the Russians to crumble under our might because Ignashevich and Kershakov are past their best? Greater revolutionary movements than ours have faltered on such complacency. What do you mean you’ve never heard of 21 year old Legia Warsaw midfielder Ondrej Duda? Don’t you know he’s scored ten goals from midfield in the Polish top flight this season? Google him, Google him now! And when you’ve done that read up on some lad called Jamie Vardy, he’s the English Tom Bradshaw apparently.
P is for Pessimism
There will surely be those moments of doubt. During the Qualification Spring at least one player will be a victim of that most heart-breaking of headline – “so and so set to miss Euro 2016”. In May, Chris Coleman will leave out someone that you would have taken in your 23. We will revisit the Northern Ireland and Ukraine games and, with the benefit of hindsight, see in them new causes for concern. We will think back on those new dawns, years ago, that melted away to nothing. For fleeting moments we will imagine not getting out of the group. And it will hurt. At those moments remember that we only conceded four goals in the entire qualification campaign and go back up the alphabet to H and J.
Q is for Qualifying from the Group
Probably the most important statistical analysis that fans will need to do during the Qualification Spring is work how many points it will take for a third place team to get out of the group. Historically one win has often not been enough in 24 team tournaments – Scotland and Austria at the World Cup in 1990, Russia at the World Cup in 1994. If there are groups where three teams win two games each and the bottom team doesn’t get a single point the difficulty increases further. A kindred spirit on Apostle worked out that in the last five European Championships the average third place points total has been 3.25 three times, 2.25 once (yay) and 4 once (boo). So more often than not three points is enough then. Hopefully it won’t come down to goals scored.
R is for Running Out of Things to Discuss.
- Who should take our penalties in the event of a shoot-out?
- What should we do if we need a goal against Russia with ten minutes to go?
- Which club will sign Hal Robson-Kanu after he scores the winner against England?
- Jonny Williams’s club career – what’s up with that?
- What do you imagine Ryan Giggs is doing right now?
- Which members of the Wales squad would you turn a blind eye to your wife having an affair with? (Obviously you’d be overjoyed to come home early and find Gareth Bale or Joe Allen hiding naked in your bedroom wardrobe. But where do you draw the line? Sure, you wouldn’t be delighted to discover Simon Church lounging about the house in your dressing gown but are you really going to start divorce proceedings when you’ve got three weeks in France to pay for? I don’t think I’d flip out if the wife was carrying on with Paul Dummett…but I’d feel she could do better.)
S is for Stickers
The sheen and smell of the virgin album pages. The excitement and anticipation of each new pack. The joy of a glimpse of Gareth Bale’s chin after that first cautious tear. The glinting corner that tells you one of the five is a shiny. “Got, got, need, got.” There is a time to be cautious and pragmatic about our revolutionary goals. The release of the Panini Euro 2016 sticker album is not that time. Sometimes you need to let faith in a cause carry you along and put to one side the difficult questions (How much will this cost? What’s with these new thin starting XI stickers? Why isn’t there a space for James Collins?) I WILL complete the album during the Qualification Spring. And it WILL be amazing.
— Podcast Pêl-droed (@PodcastPeldroed) April 16, 2016
T is for Tom Bradshaw
I have deliberately left out one man from other parts of this guide. He gets a letter all of his own. Just as he gets 16 pages of Apostle thread (at time of writing) all of his own. Could anything better represent the dreams and passions of our Qualification Spring than the hope and faith of many in the dark horse? The late-comer to the revolution whose humble League 1 background does not prevent his rise to greatness. Our Napoleon. Our Toto Scillatchi. The player who, given fifteen minutes when we desperately need something against Russia, just might be the unknown quantity that will come from nowhere to write the headlines this June and beyond. Despite being the resident doubter on the podcast, if my kids are asking for their hair to be cut like Tom Bradshaw by July then it will have been a great summer.
U is for Ukraine
Whilst still processing our thoughts on what lessons to learn from the previous Thursday night’s 1-1 draw in Cardiff we were given another 90 minutes preparation to mull over during the Qualification Spring. Is there a name for that point on the sofa where the horizontal cushion meets the vertical cushion, about as far away from the edge of the seat as is possible? That is where I sat during the Ukraine game. Yet there were still lessons, warnings and reassurances to be drawn from the game. We are now able to reflect on our post Northern Ireland judgements about Church, Lawrence and Vokes and determine that in two out of three cases we had been correct. We now finally accept that during our pre-tournament preparations we will need to get really, really good at Plan A because Plan B is basically just to pray. Most profoundly, we now know that man crushes on Joe Allen can only grow stronger no matter how many barber shops he walks past or chicken-rearing magazines he appears in. The guy is just incredible!
W is for Warm-up Friendlies
Well one anyway, in Sweden just six days before the big one, that will bring the Qualification Spring to a close (it’s a literal spring as well as a metaphorical one, see?). Not an “end-of season” friendly. Not a nothing game that 13 of the squad don’t turn up for. Not “a chance to try out a few new faces” before the World Cup qualifiers begin. Not an opportunity for Tyler Roberts and Regan Poole to get the feel of being “part of the set-up”. Not a recall for Sam Ricketts and Lewin Nyatanga. Not one of those occasional caps for Paul Dummett. OK, it might still be that last one. This will be a real friendly, with our real players, before a real tournament, that Gareth Bale will definitely not get injured in. PLEASE GOD DON’T LET HIM GET INJURED!
X is for X-Rays
Picture the scene. Aaron Ramsey limps off towards the end of Arsenal’s penultimate game of the season. How bad is it? It doesn’t look good. He’ll need an x-ray. And then the news breaks – “it’s not as bad as first thought”. It’s just a twinge or a strain. He’ll sit out the last game of the season and be ready to meet up with the Wales squad a few days later. This, or something similar, will happen during the Qualification Spring. The sign that the Gods are on our side after all.
Y is for Youngsters
All great revolutions need a youth movement. The Qualification Spring is the time to indoctrinate the next generation. It is the time to dress them in the uniform of the revolution (available from all good branches of JD Sports). It is the time to tell stories about how their forefathers watched Wales lose 5-1 at home to Slovakia so that they could watch us face down those same opponents with renewed purpose ten years on. More seriously, there has never been an opportunity like this to build interest in, and support for, the Welsh football team during most of our lifetimes. We can research, predict and dream as much as we like this spring but if we want to do something that really matters then encouraging a new generation of fans is it.
Z is for Zooming home to download the latest Podcast Pêl-droed
Sorry, it is late and that was the best I could do.
So there it is – the Spring of the Welsh footballing revolution in handy A-Z format. I consciously omitted the practical details of actually getting there – buying and receiving tickets, booking transport and hotels, packing your Podcast Pêl-droed pin badge etc. But what else did I miss? What will you be thinking, discussing, hoping and dreaming during the next seven weeks? Whatever you do, don’t forget to enjoy it. We’ve waited a long time for the Qualification Spring to bloom.