From never qualifying for a tournament in their history, Wales are about to play in successive European Championships. How did this turnaround happen? Obviously there are a number of factors, but perhaps the key man in this story is Brian Flynn. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that the former Burnley and Leeds midfielder saved Welsh international football. I realise that’s grand statement, but I genuinely do believe it, and here’s why.
Let’s go back to 2003. Having won their first four Euro 2004 qualifiers, Wales had failed once again in their quest to make it to a major tournament, losing in the playoffs to a Russia team featuring at least one player pumped full of Bromantan, an anti-fatigue drug developed by the military during the cold war.
Questionable opposition tactics aside, this was just the latest in a long line of failure. Indeed, until 2015, Wales had never actually qualified outright for a tournament. The nation only got to the 1958 World Cup after getting drawn out of a hat to face Israel in an eminently winnable playoff tie (Israel’s Arab neighbours had refused to face them, and FIFA decided they would have to play off against a European team to try and earn their place at the tournament).
Wales weren’t even the first team drawn – Belgium were – but they had too much pride to go to a World Cup in those circumstances and the Welsh didn’t.
The team of 1974/75 that Brian Flynn came into is still the only time the Welsh seniors have ever topped a qualifying group (ahead of Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg) but in those days, the Euros were a much smaller affair. Wales reached the last eight but the quarter-finals only acted as a sort of playoff before the semi-finalists convened in one country. Yugoslavia triumphed 3-1 over two legs in 1976, making the last four ahead of Wales.
Flynn’s full debut had come the year before in a Cardiff home international versus Scotland. The 19-year-old marked the occasion by netting in remarkable fashion, finishing first-time following double one-two on a muddy Ninian Park pitch. It was his first goal as a professional, although the teenager had already made an impact at top-flight Burnley, with their visionary manager Jimmy Adamson – considered by many the greatest English footballer never to win an international cap – placing much more emphasis on skill and intelligence than raw physicality.
Having said that, while just five-foot-four, Flynn could mix it. He was terrier-like, loathe to give midfield opponents time on the ball to pick their passes whilst invariably making the right decisions when in possession himself. Flynn also had a decent eye for goal, famously scoring with a header against Brazil in 1983.
Having had a stellar career himself – 66 Wales caps and five top-ten finishes in the top flight, alongside short-arse contemporaries like Billy Bremner and Alan Ball – meant the commonly-expressed cop-out of ‘you’re too small to make it’ unsurprisingly never left Flynn’s lips in 12 years managing Wrexham and two at Swansea.
‘Ability, attitude, intelligence’ was the mantra, and having been thrown in himself at a young age, he was rarely afraid to give youngsters a chance. Numerous raw talents were brought through during his time in club management: Chris Armstrong, Karl Connolly and Leon Britton amongst them.
This made Flynn the obvious choice for senior team manager John Toshack’s newly created role of Wales Intermediate Team Manager (coach for the under 21s, 19s and 17s in old money) in late 2004.
The former Liverpool striker was just one in a long list of great Welsh players to never qualify for a major tournament; John and Mel Charles, Ivor Allchurch, Jack Kelsey, Cliff Jones, Mike England, Leighton James, Terry Yorath, Neville Southall, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Kevin Ratcliffe, Gary Speed, Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy … I could go on. Why? Here’s what the players themselves say.
Manager Mike England said in 1981, “There are about 24 players whom I would consider as suitable contenders in the whole of the league. If one of my players gets injured, it’s very hard to replace him.” Rush discussed the issue of squad depth in 1995: “The eternal problem for a small country like Wales, with limited numbers of top-flight professional players, has invariably been in getting the balance right.”
Craig Bellamy put it typically bluntly in 2001: “Over the years Wales have been able to field a strong team if everyone is fit but there’s never been much below the surface. If we get injuries, we’ve had it. It’s not ideal.”
In 2004, things were looking bleak. The absence of injured and suspended players towards the end of the 2002/03 campaign (Bellamy and key midfielders Simon Davies and Mark Pembridge for the playoffs) had cost Wales dearly. The under-21s, meanwhile, had recently gone a scarcely believable five years – 26 matches between 1997 and 2002 – without recording a single victory.
This abysmal run had dragged expectations down below sewer level. “Wales played a truly outstanding game,” stated a piece in a match programme in 1999, describing an under-21 qualifier against Italy. A game the Italians had won 6-2. It’s fair to say there wasn’t exactly a ready-made conveyer belt of young talent just waiting to flood the senior team.
Flynn got to work on deepening the player pool, attacking his new job with gusto from day one. “You need at least 30 good players really,” he told me. “John Toshack always used to say the best players need good sparring partners.” In attending an average of 12 games a week, he was intent on building good relations with club coaches and making sure he was at least aware of as many Welsh qualified players as possible. This diligence paid off in spectacular fashion.
Look at the three goalscorers on the greatest night in Welsh football history – the quarter-final versus Belgium at Euro 2016: Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes. All three were born and raised in England with Welsh grandparents. All three were brought into the Welsh set up by Flynn following chance meetings and scattergun enquiries.
Another gear shift came in Flynn impressing the importance of a winning mentality. To this end, the roots of Wales’ success at Euro 2016 and beyond can be traced back to 2007. In the summer of that year, Flynn’s under-21s beat Sweden 4-3 away in a friendly. Eight of the players who played that day went to France nine years later: David Edwards, Sam Vokes, David Cotterill, Simon Church, Neil Taylor, Owain fon Williams and two young debutants in the midfield, Joe Allen (17) and Aaron Ramsey (16). It was Allen who volleyed home the winning goal that day.
Three months later came the 4-2 victory over France at Ninian Park. Only 700 spectators were in the stadium, but having heard promising things about some of the teenagers in the squad, I went to my local pub in Cambridge (where I was living) and asked them to put the game on. I was the only one watching. The match was a revelation, with Ramsey and Allen particularly impressive. Welsh kids with the same level of technical ability as the best young footballers in France? Wow. Something’s happening here.
Wales ended up topping the group, but that only led to a playoff against England, one of Europe’s top nations at youth level. The matches were epic and evenly contested throughout, but with the extra English experience of established Premier League stars such as James Milner and Mark Noble eventually proving decisive.
The following campaign included a hugely impressive and richly deserved victory over Italy. 2-1 but it could, indeed should, have been more. This would eventually prove costly. Despite gaining the same number of points, having a better goal difference, scoring more goals and having a 2-2 aggregate record, it was the Azzurrini who went through on the head-to-head away goals rule. The one scored at the Liberty Stadium – ironically by Alberto Paloschi, who had a spell with Swansea in 2016 – ultimately sent them through.
These near-misses would be painful for most managers but Flynn is remarkably sanguine about it all. There’s no bitterness, for his eyes were always on the much bigger prize of helping the senior team get to tournaments. As with Toshack, he was wise enough and experienced enough to know that very often the seeds you sow are more important than the flowers you can see.
In talking about the era, Flynn told former Wales international Owain Tudur Jones, “Those eight years will be good enough for the next 15 years for Wales.” With all due respect, I disagree with him on that point. The loser mentality has been shed. This sea-change in mindset will see Wales through for much longer than that.
By Leon Barton @leoncbarton