Wales confident they can make it this time
This time 12 months ago Wales were preparing to face Italy with realistic expectations that their long wait for a place in the finals of a major tournament was about to come to an end. But a crushing defeat on a balmy Milan evening shifted the automatic place for Euro 2004 towards their hosts and diverted Mark Hughes' men towards a two-legged play-off with Russia.
Cue more heartache and recrimination as a superb defensive operation in Moscow was followed by a risible 1-0 defeat in Cardiff. Wales were once again reduced to the role of bystanders for a major tournament. Saturday's opening 2006 World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan is the start of the latest attempt to put paid to all the talk about 1958, the last time Wales qualified for a World Cup, and the intervening years of failure. That is motivation enough for Hughes' side but the presence of England in their qualifying group has added a new and exciting dimension to Welsh ambitions.
The last time Wales met England was in 1984 at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham. It was Hughes' first appearance in his country's colours and he scored the only goal. Next month in Manchester, the former Manchester United striker leads his team into another qualifying series with confidence high.
Hughes, who always regretted not being able to stride the big international stages as a player, took the Euro 2004 setback as hard as any of his squad and it was unclear whether he had the stomach to begin another qualifying attempt. He stayed, appetite renewed, and in a series of friendly matches over the last seven months has repaired morale. Scotland were dispatched 4-0 in February with Robert Earnshaw, who last week joined West Bromwich Albion from Cardiff, posting a hat-trick. Other notable victories came in Hungary and away to Latvia last month when both John Hartson and Craig Bellamy were on the scoresheet.
Throw in Ryan Giggs, who is suspended for the first two fixtures and will make his return for the England game at Old Trafford on October 9, and Simon Davies, who is working his way back to full fitness, and it is clear that Wales possess attacking resources to stand comparison with England and the other teams in the group Austria, Poland and Northern Ireland.
The absence through injury of Bellamy and Davies and the fact that Hartson was struggling with a back problem contributed hugely to Wales' failure to qualify for Euro 2004. Until Friday, Hughes's preparations for the Azerbaijan match had not been unduly affected by injury. But he has now lost goalkeepers Danny Coyne and Darren Ward plus defender Rob Edwards, although all should be fit for Wednesday's visit of Northern Ireland.
Hughes is also considering realigning his forces to add to their goal threat possibly believing that goal difference will be an important factor in who wins the group. Such a switch would see Bellamy abandoning his right-sided midfield station for his more familiar club position supporting Hartson.
The defence has been strengthened by the addition of Ben Thatcher, who has recovered from illness, and if goalkeeper Paul Jones and centre-half Andy Melville can continue to hold off Father Time it could just be that Wales' time has arrived.