Football reporter Mark Pitman has the visitors’ view ahead of the massive Ireland-Wales World Cup qualifier at the Aviva Stadium.
The euphoria of France has made it difficult to keep things in perspective when it comes to analysing the current qualifying campaign. After four games, Wales are still undefeated, but the resounding opening 4-0 win over Moldova may have giving false hope of what would follow, and three subsequent draws have left us third in the group.
Although a very credible point was gained in Austria, the draw against Georgia in Cardiff, and the manner of the draw against Serbia through conceding a late equaliser, mean that there is an element of frustration attached to the campaign. The game against Ireland comes at a crucial stage and will set the tone for the remaining fixtures.
Of course, Ireland also have to come to Cardiff, and there are difficult games remaining for them also. It’s more important for Wales not to lose in order to keep Ireland in touching distance, and while Chris Coleman is not a man to start a game with a negative plan, he may be looking to his defence more than his forwards to produce on the night.
But these are exciting times for Welsh football, and comparisons with rugby tends to be a good way of gauging the level of popularity and interest, which is primarily based on success. For many years only rugby was taught in schools across Wales and it was considered the national game in the 1970’s and 1980’s particularly. Wales weren’t particularly successful at football then, and the national rugby team enjoyed comprehensive television coverage.
Football evolved in Britain during the 1990’s and the culture changed as players like Ryan Giggs emerged. The rugby generation are now older and there is much less of a younger generation of rugby fan coming through. International rugby is now popular mainly as a social event rather than a sporting event, which is shown in the demise of club rugby.
Football is by far the most popular sport in Wales, and is far more apparent in primary schools now with local clubs sending coaches in for football training sessions etc. In addition, recent concerns over concussion in rugby have deterred parents from encouraging their kids to play rugby, and football is considered a safer option. Basically, rugby is on the decline in Wales, while football continues to progress significantly since the success of the Euros.
As for the actual game, there is a lot of English Premier League experience in the Irish side, and players and fans alike will be familiar with both teams, so it will be an interesting encounter. There is always an extra edge when there is the feel of a derby to any international fixture, and it will be intriguing to see how both sets of players embrace the occasion as much as the game.
Ireland have had a great start to the qualifying campaign, and it has brought back memories of how Wales reached the Euros. The difference is that Wales had the players like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, who rose to the occasion, and almost won some of those qualifiers on their own when the finishing line was in sight with their quality and big game experience. Ireland don’t have that luxury, and I think that’s where their campaign could come undone in the latter stages.
Obviously, Ireland are also aware of the importance of the game, and having only offered a small ticket allocation for away fans, they have also denied the Barry Horns band from creating any sort of atmosphere that might inspire the visitors. But I guess that is part of the gamesmanship that Wales can expect now that the perception of the team has changed after the success that was enjoyed in France. As for a prediction, I can see it finishing 1-1, with a few controversial moments!
Mark Pitman is a freelance football reporter and contributes to a number of publications including the official websites of UEFA and the Football Association of Wales. Visit www.markpitman1.com and follow @markpitman1 and @UEFAcomMPitman for more.