Mad, bad Novi Sad – Serbia 6 Wales 1

Seven years ago I gave up drink. Last night I came close to starting again.

It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever felt at one of our games but it was one of the worst defeats in our history. The manner of it was excrutiating and it came at the worst possible time. The last year must have seemed like a constant crisis-management exercise for the FAW and it’s hard not to feel sympathy for officials.photo (1)

Now the crisis is on the pitch. Last Friday it seemed the players wanted to play – last night nobody seemed to want the ball once we fell behind. Good players had really really bad games. All this against I team I read had scored only twice in ten games. Local Serbs after the match were as stunned as we were. Father Christmas had flown in from Cardiff to deliver a wonderful present.

The mad

The dream opening to this piece that I had in store would have been a tale of divine retribution for Wales after our 2003 trip to Novi Sad to see the under-21s play. That night our keeper Jason Brown, now of Aberdeen, was racially abused and players James Collins and David Pipe were elbowed, according to our then coach Jimmy Shoulder. It was sickening. In fact, the evident  racism in the country, not just in the match, was a shock.

Before the game, a friend reporting seeing balaclava-clad Serbian ultra-nationalists parade through the town, about 40 of them.

Keep smiling
Keep smiling

Add to that that the volcanic Sinisa Mihajlovic, who called Patrick Vieira a ‘fucking black monkey’ back in 2000, is now Serbia manager and I had hopes that Ashley Williams could score a last-minute winner to somehow make amends. Sometimes it’s a bad thing to over-romanticise football.

The bad 

Well this would apply to the entirety of the match from the moment we kicked off in a grey kit that I can only describe as horrible. Reminded me of my old school uniform. Each to their own, my mate Tim then informed me he had bought it.

We knew our coins would be confiscated but I never figured a souvenir Serbia pen would be snatched off me too. I couldn’t be bother to argue. It set the tone.photo

No point in going into a blow-by-blow account of what went wrong. Pretty much everything of course.

Sometimes that’s easier to bear because we have such a good time on the terrace that the on-field disappointments are water off a duck’s back. Eindhoven 1996 comes to mind.

A worse defeat (7-1) but the last 20 minutes was a roaring crescendo of Welsh defiance, by us not the players, and the locals clapped us out of the stadium, so impressed were they. And at least Vinnie Jones didn’t play much for Wales after that fiasco.

But I have to say that the seven minutes between Serbia’s second goal and Bale’s free-kick rank among the blackest spells of watching Wales in more than 100 games.

Many fans failed to contain their boiling anger at the players – something I’ve rarely witnessed – and the nature of the Serb second goal probably had something to do with it. It was like a comedy dribbler was being helped out by freakish ricochets and mistimed attempts at tackles. If the guy had been wearing a clown costume and two-foot long shoes it couldn’t have looked more stupid.

Bale’s goal took the edge off the anger. Serbia’s third goal didn’t spark the same outrage – you sort of knew the game was up with the second goal, the third was greeted as absolute proof. The remaining three goals hardly registered.

Couldn’t bring myself to join the boos at the end of the nor the ‘What a load of rubbish’ chant, though that was true. We even chanted ‘Ser-bee-ya’ as a mark of respect to our hosts. That’s how bad we felt.

Liked the dry comment in the second half: “What a waste of four quid!” (the price of the match ticket).

Chris Coleman

I was disappointed to hear ‘Coleman out’ chants just five games into a reign that began in circumstances that no one would wish on any manager. One of those games, you could argue, was Costa Rica which was more of a memorial service than a match.

Seems to me he has acted with genuine humility and real respect for the position. It needs to be repeated that he has taken on the post in the most appalling situation and needs to be given credit and time for that.

Surely it’s a man management nightmare. If he’s dealt with Diana conspiracy theorist Mohammed Al-Fayed on a regular basis while at Fulham, then he should have the credentials for the job.

But it’s also fair to wonder about a few decisions – as Ralph from Brno insists – why did he start Church wide left for two games? To no obvious effect. Will he persist with Morison up front.

Football fans’ increasing lust for what I call ‘lynchmobbery’, heads on plates after bad runs and easy target victims (why not blame the players ahead of Coleman?) has got progressively worse.

And the early knives out for Coleman are the last thing we need. If we are in crisis now – and arguably we are – then surely his departure would make it worse. Any new manager might think he’s only got 4/5 games to get results. The FAW would be revealed as a poor employer. Any good manager would surely not risk his reputation or even want the job.

Positives

1 If you were banking on watching Wales in Brazil, well looks like you’re five grand better off already.

2 Given we are effectively out of the running already – unless five wins come out of the next six games – there’s a great opportunity to skip the Belgium trip and save even more money. This is a personal view on the attractiveness of Brussels, having been threatened by police there in 1992.

Five at the back?

Is a four-man defence the future for Wales? Will Coleman consider five? We did it a few years back under a certain Mr Toshack – and we created far more chances back then than we have done recently. And missed pretty much all of them.

Legacy

I am still in Serbia at the time of writing, so know nothing of the reaction back home. But it seems to me this result is knocking the stuffing out of football in Wales.

We’ve already returned to the days of: “What are you watching Wales for?”, asked in a tone of eyebrow-raised astonishment. I had the chat with an Aussie friend last week and he did wasn’t persuaded by the answer.

What’s worse is that there now seems to be a disconnect between our players and the public. The FAW have got a lot of things right over the last 10-12 years but the most interesting chat I had this week was with well-known Cardiff fan Corky.photo (3)

It was a surprise to hear from him that, running Trelewis kids’ football, he is struggling to get support from outside to promote soccer for about 20 kids.

Meanwhile the WRU machine rolls relentlessly on in his nieghbourhood, bankrolled by an admirably efficient, well-oiled set-up. So Corky can’t compete with many clubs taking an interest in y0ung children.

Recently the FAW has ramped up its marketing. ‘Time to Believe’ and all that. The Uefa Supercup coming to Cardiff. A glossy mag dished out with the Western Mail. I applaud that but it seems superficial to me. To a certain extent it has to be done, of course. But I am then left wondering if more support at grassroots might be the next priority in the more deprived areas of Wales.

So, say, instead of a game in November – surely the last thing we need – there needs to be a team-bonding and a ‘connectedness’. Take ’em to Trelewis, Mr Coleman.

This might bridge the other issue I think is a factor in recent Wales’ up and down performances and that’s the ‘disconnect’ between the players and the fans. Nothing new here in this argument. But, having returned to Wales after 20 years in England, it seems to me  that parts of the valleys are Second World in infrastructure and quality of life. Blaenau Gwent has one in six unemployed.

Contrast that with the lesser lights in this Wales team being capable of settling seven thousand pound bar bills on holiday I hear.

The FAW charge a fiver for kids’ tickets, they would say. Which is good, not knocking it. I’m not qualified to judge but I have noticed a lot of glossy marketing which is being fatally undermined by the poor results.

What now?

After the match, it was time for a drink (non-alcoholic – I didn’t succumb to temptation).

Next to the Novi Sad stadium is a fine bar called Camelot. Sitting there, it was hard not to conclude that after a night of such high disappointment at a game I genuinely thought we would win, we need an Excalibur-wielding King Arthur and his knights of the Round Ball to emerge to turn this around.

Because that’s what we need.

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