Cwsg yn dawel Dai Davies, 1948 – 2021

In memory of former Wales goalkeeper, Dai Davies, who passed away on 10 February 2021.

By Tommie Collins

This week a gentleman who I got to know on a personal level sadly passed away. On numerous occasions I met Dai Davies, the former Wales international goalkeeper, who played his club football for Everton, Swansea, Wrexham and Bangor City – and yes, there are many stories to tell.

I first saw Wales play back in 1973. It was at the Racecourse ground against Scotland, where Gary Sprake was in goal. Dai made his debut away against Hungary in April 1975 before going on to achieve 20 clean sheets in 52 appearances. Dai would only miss six out of the next 57 Wales matches.

By the time of the World Cup qualifier against the USSR at the Racecourse in 1980, I was old enough to attend the match by myself having also been to some friendlies against Northern Ireland and West Germany the previous year. Dai played in the USSR match, whilst another game I attended in which he played was the ill-fated floodlight failure match against Iceland at the Vetch in October 81. We drew 2-2 after being two-up before the floodlights went out. Dai retired from international football in 1982.

I can’t remember the exact year, but I was still in school and attended a football competition at Eirias Park, Colwyn Bay. Dai was in attendance doing some coaching. If you weren’t trying or interested he’d tell you in no uncertain terms. Later on I read his book called ‘Never Say Dai’, it was a great book; honest and funny and you came to the conclusion that he was a very determined character.

Despite his excellent displays at international level, he was sometimes criticised at club level unfairly in some quarters by dropping some crosses and was called Dai the drop but he always overcame the sceptical ones.

I then met Dai in a hotel in Villa Real, Portugal after the Wales friendly in Chaves. All the players and media were present and I was steaming to say the least. I introduced Dai to my friend as Dai the drop and to put it mildly he went ballistic. I made a hasty retreat.

Our paths crossed again when I was called to be a studio guest on the S4C football show ‘Sgorio’ alongside – yes, you’ve guessed it – Dai Davies.

He was already in the make-up room when I had to sit next to him to get my make-up done. He offered his big hand out to say hello and he said “have we met before?”. I said yes but I don’t want to tell you where, he smiled and said “oh, go on” – I preceded to say “nah, forget it”, he said “go on, I won’t bite you..”

I was thinking to myself “do I tell him?”, the whole night could then be a disaster, he could go ballistic, I then plucked up some courage and said “I called you Dai the drop in Portugal.”

It’s at this point he stopped the make-up woman, got up and gave me a big smile, laughed and shook my hand, “at least you told me to my face” he laughed.

Image from that episode of Sgorio.

Before, during and after the show he was the ultimate gentleman by guiding me through the night and telling me anytime you want some help or advice to just ask. That night summed him up – gwr bonheddig, a true gentleman.

We met on numerous occasions after that at Welsh Premier League games and he was an FAW guest at Cefn Druids when they started touring the country to meet fans; he was an excellent guest and had many a story to tell.

Sadly, the last time I saw him was a chance meeting in Llangollen. I’d stopped on a cycle ride in a shop and brought my bike inside the store. Dai was inside shopping and we greeted each other, but things took a turn for the worse when a shop assistant got angry about my bike being in the shop.

He came to my defence told me take my bike out and he duly paid for my goods, we then had a sit down outside putting the world to right. He asked if I wanted anything as I was far from home.. That is the final time I saw him and as usual he was a true gentleman.

They don’t make people like Dai anymore.

Featured image sourced off the FAW website.
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Football without fans: Pass me the remote

As football continues to be played behind closed doors, Tommie Collins looks into whether the special connection between us football fans, our teams and the beloved game is slowly being lost, or was it in fact already lost some time ago..

By Tommie Collins

Do you remember the very first time you attended a football match in the flesh? Was it a relative who took you or were you old enough to go on your own?

In the early seventies, I remember my uncle taking me down the Traeth to see Porthmadog in pre-season friendlies against Tranmere Rovers and Stoke City. He also took to my first ever Wales game at the Racecourse circa ’73, then to see Chelsea for the first time at Hereford circa ‘76.

These are all good memories since replicated with my kids. Taking my daughter aged two to Villa Park for the last game of the season which Chelsea drew, I remember holding her hand walking up the steps through the tunnel. When witnessing the vast stadium, she stopped and kneeled down seemingly in awe at the stadium. I then took my two boys to their first games at Torquay and Blackburn Rovers respectively. Another highlight for me was taking my eldest lad, then age six, to Marseille circa ’99. That I tell you was an experience and a half.

He also came with me aged 10 to the Parc des Princes to see PSG V Chelsea. These games made my kids the fans of today, going to Wales away matches and the occasional Chelsea match.

PSG v Chelsea, Parc de Princes 2004.

Yet why the ‘occasional’ match I hear you ask. Well, time has since seen the experience change with the abundance of live televised games. The odd live game here and there was all well and good. Then with the creation of the Premier League in 1992 came higher ticket prices which prompted the loyal travelling fan to question whether he could afford going, especially with the way it has since developed with silly kick-off times on any day of the week.

Many fans soon realised that they weren’t worthy pundits no more and that the game was in fact being turned into a TV event for the armchair fan, where pubs would be packed to the rafters.

Then with social media since coming into play it really has gone global. We all remember your club having a supporter’s branch in Wales, Ireland, Australia and the USA. Now any person in any country is blessed with a platform to give their own wonderful insight worldwide. Everyone has something to say and an opportunity to be heard which leads to outrage on social media sites. 

The old school supporter who got priced out of the game still supports their club and will still go when finances and transport allow. However, the global fan who might be based on the other side of the globe will do nothing but decry the old fan. They spout they are as much of a fan due to getting up at a god forsaken time to complain or lament a manager who possibly won the league the previous May, or who might be a club legend (i.e. Frank Lampard) but according to them he is already burnt toast.

Looking ahead to this upcoming summer’s Euro 2020/21 Championships, currently planned to take place across 12 different countries, this despite being in the midst of a global pandemic.

On 5 March, an announcement will be made on how many fans can attend or whether they will be held behind closed doors – actually, let’s just call it football without fans. Only last week UEFA offered to refund supporters if they didn’t/couldn’t attend this year, but why now? Why not wait until after 5 March to see what that announcement brings, or leave it until April even, where the vaccine situation could have changed things dramatically.

The pandemic has led to enough games being played in empty stadiums worldwide. Being at a live game allows you to criticise loudly, support and go ballistic when your team scores. One of my most recent games before the pandemic was Tottenham away at the their excellent new stadium. Chelsea came out on top and, even at my age, it meant something to be present.

“The game was made for supporters to attend, not for a watching TV audience which sadly it has since become.”

The train journey down, socialising pre-match, the buzz entering the ground, jumping like a madman when we scored, even at home watching Wales or Chelsea I could get emotional with a crowd there, but now I like many others sit there unattached, hardly watching the game.

Additionally, for years now there’s been a live game almost every night – it has been saturated to the point where I rarely watch a live game unless it involves Wales or Chelsea. But to the armchair fan, it’s sheer bliss and for UEFA to even contemplate playing the Euros without fans is nothing short of scandalous.

Ah but you might say ‘they’ve already cancelled it once remember therefore needs be’, so what – why won’t they cancel it again until 2022, then move the Qatar World Cup (another thorny issue in my backside) back another year.  The game was made for supporters to attend, not for a watching TV audience which sadly it has since become.

When UEFA’s inevitable ‘behind closed doors’ announcement comes on 5 March, I will then reluctantly watch the televised games at the Euros. However, I already know I just won’t be able to celebrate the same as if I was there.

Is it just me? Is it my age? Is it that I was brought up in the pre-live game era? Whatever it is, it’s currently a dismally soulless experience

… Pass me the remote.

The tale of Wales’ four-goal hero Ian Edwards

As Wales look forward to Euro 2020, Tommie Collins went to interview the only player to score four goals in a match for Wales.

By Tommie Collins

As Wales look forward to Euro 2020, Tommie Collins went to interview the only player to score four goals in a match for Wales.

The Welsh national football team has probably had three world class players; namely John Charles, Ryan Giggs and most recently Gareth Bale. We’ve also had very good striker called Ian Rush, albeit none of the above achieved what a striker who only played four times for his country managed – scoring four goals in a game.

Ian Edwards, born in Rossett near Wrexham, scored 63 goals in 214 games for West Bromwich Albion, Chester, Wrexham and Crystal Palace, before retiring at the age of 28. He then managed Mold Alexandra and Porthmadog. The ex-Wales international that scored four goals in four appearances for his country now runs a hotel in the seaside town of Criccieth.

“It’s funny really, I didn’t play centre forward until I was 16. Our PE teacher knew someone from Rhyl so he took me and a local lad Steve Edwards who played for Wales schoolboys. I played for Rhyl in the Welsh system then the Cheshire league; I used to get paid in that league.”

Fedora

“Lots of clubs were in for me when I was 15, Joe Mercer from Man City came to our house with Malcolm Allison, I don’t know if he had his fedora on as I was still in bed. Man Utd, Burnley and Luton also wanted to sign me as an apprentice, but I decided to stay in school and carried on playing for Rhyl. At the end of sixth form West Bromwich Albion came in for me and I went but, it was a mistake really as I should have gone three years earlier. I was playing catch up; the others had been there three years. Asa Hartford, John Trewick, Len Cantello, Willie Johnstone, Bryan Robson, John Wile and Joe Mayo, who I’m still friends with.”

Ian Edwards was playing before the days of the Bosman ruling came into force in 1995. The Bosman ruling meant that players could move to a new club at the end of their contract without their old club receiving a fee. Players can now agree a pre-contract with another club for a free transfer if the players’ contract with their existing club has six months or less remaining.

“I was on £35 a week when I started, it wasn’t bad but wasn’t life changing, my dad earned the same in his job as a draughtsman. What you don’t realise is that you become their property; I signed a two year contract and started playing in the reserves. I didn’t think I was doing very well, they were now in the 2nd division, when I went to ask for a pay rise they said you signed a two year contract, which had an option of another two which meant they could keep you for that period of time on the same money, after that they kept your registration, a bit like slave labour.

“There were no agents then which meant you had to go in and negotiate with the Chairman and Manager; they would say you’re lucky to have that, even though you were doing well they wouldn’t tell you. I left in November of 1976; they were now in the first division I doubled my money by going to Chester which was ridiculous. I left because I was 21, travelling with the first team, I was only playing once every three weeks, those days if you were sub, which I was a lot, they weren’t keen to put you on in case someone got injured. It’s not like where there are big squads and everyone is well paid, they had you and if you kicked off you’d be back in the reserves or the third team.”

Injury problems

“Soon as I went to Chester I started scoring but within two months I did my knee in at Rotherham. Their keeper, Tom McAlister, came out and caught me as I scored, my knee buckled backwards and I was never right again, it’s still hurting me now.

“But them days they didn’t put them in plaster, they had me playing in about three weeks running up and down stairs to strengthen it. I was 21 when it happened and 28 when I finished. I’d had five different operations on the same knee, today’s technology would certainly have helped me, they just kept giving me cartilage operations. I had three full ones, and there was stuff left from before – basically, I think they were experimenting. Now it’s a keyhole – them days it was a six-inch cut.”

On the treatment table

“Being injured at a football club is terrible, all the time I was at Wrexham I was injured, because I went there with an injury, I’m sure they were hoping it would clear but it never did. They get annoyed, you know you’re a burden when you’re on the treatment table, the physio doesn’t like you as he knows he can’t make you better, the manager doesn’t like you because you’re not playing and you’re not happy, because all you want to do is play. We know it’s a short career and you think you can achieve something.

“So for about three years before finishing I didn’t train much, I just went in and, I was breathing through my ass, I was knackered you need to be fit to play. It was the second division which is now the championship and I was taking pain killers to get me through.”

Chester > Wrexham

There is a fierce cross border rivalry between Chester and Wrexham and not many players get accepted when they make the move, although Gary Bennett is one that was accepted at both clubs probably for his goal scoring prowess.

“If you lived in Mold, where there was a lot of Chester fans, it was no big deal, it’s more so now this nastiness between them, it’s not a good move to go from Chester to Wrexham because the Chester fans don’t like you for going and the Wrexham fans don’t like where you came from and vice versa – it’s up to you to convince them.”

And convince them he did with a stunning goal for Wrexham at Derby which won the Goal of the Month in the September 1980/81 season.

“It should have been the goal of the season. Tony Morley won it for his goal at Everton. Ivan Golac’s goal for Southampton was a cracker as well. I was always good at volleying and the previous midweek I scored a left foot volley at Newtown, it was better than the Derby one. It was instinctive.”

Wales             

It was during his spells with Chester and Wrexham that Edwards made his four Welsh appearances.

I got picked for Wales U21 in Edinburgh against Scotland, along with Peter Sayer as he was a good foil for me. Not being quick, I could win the balls in the air and flick them on to him. I was 22 but still eligible for the U21’s and the Scottish team had some good players in the squad.

“It didn’t start well as during the train journey up to Scotland I got in a conversation in the buffet bar with a guy who was going clam diving off a boat. We chatted for ages, the train had stopped for a while in the middle of nowhere, next thing the train pulls into Glasgow Central, I said goodbye to my new friend and realised there was something wrong – I thought what’s happened here? I was told in the middle of nowhere the train splits in half, with one going to Edinburgh and the other Glasgow, so when I came off the train I was arrested as I had no ticket, anyway I explained the situation and the police all took the piss out of me. They took me in a Black Maria across Glasgow to the station that goes to Edinburgh; I arrived four hours after everyone else.

“The manger at the time Mike Smith wasn’t impressed, he eventually started to laugh and I told him well really someone should have told me the train splits in half. Anyway, we played the game and soon after I got called up for the Malta game. Robbie James made his debut; he was a quality player, and he played up front with me – he could hold the ball up well. John Toshack was coming to the end of his career; he’d had injuries, so really it was open for me. If I had been fit enough, it was there for me, on the weekend of that game when I scored four I scored for Chester against Reading and two the week after. In the space of ten days I scored more than I did in some seasons. I scored nine goals then and after the two goals against Hull I had another knee operation on the Sunday. I didn’t think I needed another operation but just probably a rest.

“I was out again, all these breaks were affecting me, you need two or three games to come back from injury, I can see it with players now they’re off the pace, I wasn’t blessed with pace thus I couldn’t come on and make an impact. I could hold the ball, head the ball and score goals, but I wasn’t going to come on and do a David Fairclough.

Kuwait

“Kuwait away, it was very hot, Graham Williams came to pick me up, and I knew him from my West Brom days. He was captain of the WBA team who won the FA Cup in 1968 and he was managing a team out there. Kuwait isn’t a country – in reality, it’s a city. We stayed in beach side apartments in 100 degrees heat, I came on as sub, a good experience, a funny place, smashed up sports cars were left on the side of the road. Maseratis and all – more money than sense.

“I‘d already played schoolboy, youth and U21 level so I was used to representing my country. If you do well, you’re going to play for your country aren’t you? You’ve got to be honest as a footballer, it’s a selfish existence and you do it for yourself, you’re not doing it for Wales. Like now, I’ve got no interest in some of the teams I played for. They paid my wages, I look at their results. They’re not interested in me neither.

As the Red Wall are planning their trips to the Euros this summer, only fans of a certain age will remember Edwards’ feat.

 “In my only full cap I scored four. I had a good goal disallowed, they said I pushed the defender but I was stronger than him, I kept the match ball got it signed and then I gave it to the kids to play football with. When I came to Criccieth, I found some shirts; one had been in a suitcase since 1989. My lad Rhys has the shirt from the Malta game and he’s going to frame it.

“We played Germany at home and Toshack came on and replaced me, I had a knee in my back the previous weekend; I was in pain and had a cortisone injection. They (Germany) were miles better than us at the time, they had some team, they were also ahead of us with the fouling game, they were holding on to me throughout the game, I’ve never been fouled so much in a game. The centre-half was a man marker, just held on to me, I should have battered him early on – but you’re frightened of being sent off. When you’re playing against a team that’s better than you they have the possession, you’re chasing and I wasn’t the quickest to be doing that. I needed us to have possession to be playing further up field. It was such a big gap, they had players like Karl Heinz Rummenigge, Uli Stielike, Klaus Fischer, Manfred Kaltz – he was brilliant.

Byron Stevenson was controversially sent off in Turkey in 1979 after he allegedly fractured opponent Buyak Mustafa’s cheekbone. He was given a four-and-a-half year European ban, effectively ending his international career.

“I played against Turkey where we lost 1-0 in Izmir. It was a holiday resort, the road was full of potholes, and you could lose a bus in them – also a very hostile place. One of our players, Byron Stevenson who died in 2007, broke a blokes nose and they went crazy. Mike Smith asked him did you do it he, said ‘no’, but Joey Jones said that he did. It nearly caused a riot and we couldn’t go out after. I went to Iran, in one stand there was only the Shah and machine guns everywhere. I was sub, and it was part of the job.”

End of the footballing road

“I joined Crystal Palace on a free from Wrexham and they were relegated. I could have stayed if I’d taken a pay cut but I had another operation as I’d fractured the orbit of my eye in two places. I had two spells of six weeks on the sidelines, and then I came back for the last two games of the season and scored the goal that kept Palace up. It was the last time I kicked a ball; we won 1-0 so Burnley went down – Alan Mullery was the manager and he was great with me, although the Palace fans weren’t keen because he came from Brighton.

“I came back home to Wrexham. Some clubs wanted me, Twente Enschede asked me to go there, and some other Dutch clubs were interested, but my knee was hurting. I went to Walsall and played a practice game, Kevin Summerfield was there, I’d played with him at WBA, and they asked me to go back. My knee was swollen, I couldn’t go back, you can’t tell people I’ll sign but only play on a Saturday, so I just went downstairs and decided that’s it I’m retiring; it was a relief.

“There was no point in trying to be fit. I never got dropped at Palace, same at Wrexham really, at 28 I wasn’t in a position to go into football, it’s not like today where there is backroom staff, and it was only the manager and his mate.”

Milkman

“I had to do something quickly to earn some money as I had a family to support, I started a milk round in Wrexham and did all right, and I sold it after a few years and bought a hotel in Criccieth. The knees were all right on the round and I played for Mold in the Welsh National League but they got promoted to the League of Wales (now the Welsh Premier League). My knees wouldn’t have coped at that level, I was only going at half pace, I was fit but I wouldn’t have coped full pace, then I went to Porthmadog, but that’s another story…

“I did some work at Llanystumdwy with the kids and would watch my boys play but soon after they came off I’d go home – I’d sooner play golf than watch football these days. Football has changed. You need a sugar daddy these days. Money is the be all and end all, that is why the richest clubs are where they are.

“Even though I said I’d rather play golf than watch football, I like many others thought Wales were brilliant at the Euros and they should have qualified for the World Cup. With players like Joe Allen, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey there shouldn’t have been a hangover. It should have been exuberance, and we should have been thinking we’re top four in Europe.”

The rise of Benjamin Pavard

The former Lille man has achieved what most players never will: winning a World Cup. That’s just one thing crossed off the list on his long journey…

When was the first time you heard the name Benjamin Pavard? Most likely during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Before the tournament, the right-back wasn’t considered a superstar or even a top defender. All this changed in the course of one summer.

At the start of the 2017/18 season, if someone was asked to list a few top right-backs, what would they say? Most would go with Dani Alves, Joshua Kimmich, Dani Carvajal… but rarely anyone would mention Benjamin Pavard.

Only two years ago, the 22-year-old was hanging out with his friends in the public fan zone while watching the Euro 2016. The question is, how did the full-back rise to the top in such a short period of time?

Pavard has something very special in him that many players don’t have. He is an all-around player, he can attack, defend, and do just about anything. Many great full-backs lack this trait, for example, Marcelo. No doubt he is one of the best in the world when it comes to his position, but he tends to attack more than he defends.

This isn’t the only specialty the player has. Most players take years to prove themselves as top-class players, while Pavard did it in arguably the most difficult tournament of them all. He was one of the most important players in the French squad. His highlight of the tournament was his half-volley against Argentina.

His rise started in France, as he was playing for Lille. He grew up playing with the Ligue 1 side, he featured in their youth team, B team, and later on the first team. At professional level, he appeared for his club 25 times over the course of two seasons, but failed to score a goal or provide the team with any assists.

His not too great time at Lille came to an end in 2016, when he moved to Stuttgart for a fee of around €5 million. The German side saw potential in Pavard and decided to invest in the young talent. He started his time in Germany in the second division. He scored a goal and gave two assists in 21 appearances that season, and he went on to win the league. Believe it or not, the Bundesliga 2 title is the only trophy (though it’s not even considered a major title) Pavard has aside from the World Cup. So it can be said that the first and only major title he has is the World Cup trophy.

His first season playing in the Bundesliga saw him get the attention of the French national team. Although his statistics weren’t crazy, if you watch him on the field, you can tell he makes a huge difference.

Head coach of the French National Team, Didier Deschamps, should be recognized for the amazing plan that he had in mind. Before the World Cup started, if you would ask anyone to pick the squad for France, not many would say Pavard. Deschamps was able to pick out a promising talent and he helped him unlock his full potential.

Imagine Pavard wasn’t called up to the World Cup, who would recognize him as a top defender? The French coach guided him perfectly and set him on the right path to glory. The former Lille man has now achieved what most players never will: winning a World Cup. That’s one thing crossed off the list on his long journey.

Where will his next step be? He is currently still playing with Stuttgart, though a bidding war is expected to take place next summer as a move in January seems unlikely. Many reports claimed that Pavard has agreed to join Bayern at the end of the season, though the player himself confirmed that nothing has been agreed yet.

Mundo Deportivo claims that the Frenchman’s agent has offered him to FC Barcelona, and the move would cost the Blaugrana around €35 million. Some would think that Pavard is overrated, these claims are completely false.

The recent World Cup allowed Benjamin Pavard to discover his true potential which will lead him to a bright future. Be sure to remember the name.

Japanese Football Comes of Age

Following a fine run at Russia 2018, Rohan Kaushik looks at the future prospects for Japanese football.

By Rohan Kaushik

It is the 92nd minute in Rostov as Keisuke Honda lines up to take a free kick. The ball is a comfortable 40 yards or so from goal and very few would dare to shoot at goal from that distance. Unknown to the Belgium & Chelsea shot-stopper in goal, Thibaut Courtois, those few individuals include… Keisuke Honda. With a short run-up, Honda strikes at goal. His knuckle-ball free-kick dips wickedly and Courtois scrambles away the ball in the last moment to prevent an embarrassment for Belgium.

Courtois then collects the ball from the ensuing Japanese corner and launches a deadly counter. The counter proves fatal for Japan as most of the blue samurai are caught high up the pitch. After a terrific run and incisive pass by De Bruyne, Thomas Meunier hits a low ball across the goal from the right flank. Romelu Lukaku then cleverly lets the ball run through his legs to super-sub Nacer Chadli in front of a wide-open net. Despite a valiant dive from the Japanese goalkeeper Kawashima, Chadli makes no mistake to put Belgium ahead 3-2 on the night. A few moments later, the referee blows his whistle to call time on arguably the best match of World Cup 2018 and what will surely go down as an all-time world cup classic. None of this matters to the Japanese team who appear shocked and in despair.

Yet, strangely enough, there is a feeling of joy among the fans of the beautiful game, world over. They had just witnessed 90 minutes of end to end attacking football in a world cup knock-out game. This game was a representation of football at its finest; a match played in the true spirit of the game with none of the dull, defensive, bad-blood filled cynical gameplay that has engulfed the game in modern times. Japan for one, may look back at this game as a missed opportunity. At the same time, they can be proud of the fact that they went toe to toe with Belgium’s golden generation; a team that has world class stars in literally every position on the pitch and then some more.

The implications of this match and Japan’s performances in Russia could have far reaching effects on the future of Japanese football…

Japan’s Run in to The World Cup

Not much was expected of Japan going in to this world cup. Japan had gone through a fairly turbulent world cup qualifying campaign with coach Halilhodzic never really sure of his starting eleven. To make matters worse, many of the established Europe-based stars were often dropped, especially the ‘Big 3 of Japanese Football’ (Kagawa, Okazaki and Honda). While it is true that these stars are ageing and not what they used to be, it is safe to assume that they are still a cut above much of the young talent coming through. Halilhodzic certainly had the right intentions with using fresh talent but his approach was far too chaotic and rubbed many the wrong way, not least the Japan Football Association (JFA). Unsurprisingly, Halilhodzic was fired 2 months before the World Cup.

While this certainly created a problem for Japan and might have rendered their world cup preparations moot, it appeared to be the right call. Many of the team’s players had felt alienated and there certainly seemed to be more to the issue then a string of bad results. So, the JFA made a very bold call by appointing Akira Nishino.

Nishino-840x440

With less than two months to go before the World Cup, Nishino’s task appeared a herculean one. However, that said, Nishino is a coach with vast experience in the J-league. The first move he made was to recall all the Europe based stars. His final 23-man squad for the World Cup included very few players from the J-League. His reasoning was that Japan needs players who can perform in the big moments and not freeze up.

Nishino just had three games to get his team ready and firing for the world cup with friendlies lined up against Switzerland, Ghana and Paraguay. Japan’s games against Switzerland and Ghana ended in defeat but their play appeared to be strong and attack-minded. They did eventually manage to beat Paraguay 4-2 in their most encouraging performance in some time.

So, the stage was set for a very interesting world cup that no one had given Japan any chance so far. Japan were in for a stern test against Colombia in their first game.

Japan Surprises All

Jose Pekerman’s Colombia entered this World Cup looking to better their quarter final finish in Brazil 4 years ago. With Radamel Falcao finally back to spearhead the attack, it looked like Colombia were ready to announce their arrival on the big stage in style. Add to that, a star-studded team with the likes of James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado, Carlos Bacca, Yerry Mina and Juan Fernando Quintero, it looked like Colombia might even be a ready for a tilt at the World Cup. In life though, things rarely go according to plan.

Five minutes into their opener against Japan, Yuya Osako raced away on a counter and his shot on goal was blocked by David Ospina. Shinji Kagawa followed up on the rebound and his goal bound shot was blocked by Carlos Sanchez’s outstretched hand. The referee didn’t hesitate to point to the spot and send Sanchez off. Kagawa calmly tucked away the following penalty to give Japan the lead. While Colombia did equalise through Quintero, their man disadvantage rendered their attack toothless. Colombia had shifted into a defensive mindset and it started to tell on their stamina as the game wore on. Japan would eventually get the winner after super-sub Keisuke Honda’s corner was headed in by Osako. It was a lead Japan would never relinquish and claim their (and Asia’s) first ever victory over South American opposition at the World Cup.

Japan’s second game against Senegal would turn out to be another see-saw game with each side periodically trading blows over 90 minutes. The match would finish 2-2 with substitute Honda once again doing the damage with a second half equaliser. With Japan needing just a draw in their final group game against Poland, Japan fielded an experimental line up. Coach Nishino made 6 changes to the team that had played against Senegal. The move however backfired and Japan lost 1-0 to the already eliminated Poland. Yet as fate would have it, Japan would still progress to the round of 16 despite being tied on the same points, goals scored and goal difference with Senegal. In another first, Japan would become the first team to progress to the knock out rounds on the basis of a better disciplinary record.

The dream knock out fixture with Belgium was set as history beckoned for the men from the land of the rising sun.

Japan vs Belgium – A Match for The Ages

Japan vs Belgium

Belgium were widely expected to win this game comfortably after their stellar group stage performances and the fact they were tipped as World Cup contenders. What panned out though had Belgium in shock for a good portion of the game and turned into an absolute roller coaster of a game.

Although Belgium generally looked dominant in the first half, Japan were organized defensively and looked to attack on every opportunity they could get, throwing numbers forward in attack. Additionally, Japan looked very composed in possession when they had the ball. When the whistle blew for half time, it appeared as though it would be a matter of time before Belgium took total control over proceedings. Japan clearly had other ideas.

The blue samurai raced into a two-goal lead within the first ten minutes of the restart through Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui (who was having a stellar World Cup). All of a sudden, it seemed as though Belgium were staring at a shock exit. Credit must however go to Belgium’s gaffer Roberto Martinez for recognising Japan’s age-old issue with physical play. Off went the speed and silky dribbling skills of Carrasco and Mertens and on came the physically imposing Fellaini and Chadli. In an all too familiar turn of events, Belgium started bombarding the penalty area with dangerous crosses. The pressure soon told and Belgium were soon level through a freak header from Vertonghen and a powerful point-blank header from Fellaini. It was here that perhaps Akira Nishino made his only mistake as Japan’s coach in the world cup. There appeared to be a hesitation on his part to bring on fresh legs and perhaps he waited a little too long to bring on Keisuke Honda.

The roller coaster nature of this game still served up enough chances for Japan as well as Belgium to win it. The fatal blow for Japan eventually arrived in the most cruel fashion in the 93rd minute and Chadli made no mistake to put Belgium through to the quarter finals. Many, including Fabio Capello felt that Japan were perhaps a bit too naive after taking a two-goal lead and should have been more cynical. While there is certainly an element of truth to that, the game could so easily have ended differently. Such are the fine margins of sport at this level.

The Positives & The Japanese Way

Russia 2018 was the third time in history that Japan had made it to the Round of 16 at the World Cup and got knocked out, just the same. Something definitely felt markedly different this time around though. When Japan’s golden generation made the cut in 2002, their performances were solid and it was on home soil. Granted, Japan won two games in the group stage but Troussier’s approach to the game was more conservative. The very fact that he dropped future national team legend Shunsuke Nakamura and regularly deployed the defensive minded Myojin and Toda serve to highlight this.

When Japan repeated the feat in 2010 in South Africa, the brand of football was once again defensive. Although Japanese football had progressed significantly enough since 2002, Takeshi Okada’s inability to coax the best out of the team’s talents, led to him reverting to his trademark defensive style. Even though Japan performed well in South Africa, a huge portion of the credit must go to arguably their best ever central defensive pairing of Yuji ‘Bomberhead’ Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Japan’s version of Beckenbauer). This was probably the only time in their history that Japan didn’t look susceptible to crosses.

Fast-forward to 2018 and it appears as though Japan have finally embraced their true identity. For the first time in all their world cups, Japan played with the fast-passing, team work and flair that has come to characterise their play over the years. All too often, Japan have fallen apart on the big stage. Coach Nishino clearly recognised Japan’s short comings from previous World Cups and picked a team that knew how to handle the pressure on the big stage. At no point did Japan appear fazed or mentally rattled. This was particularly highlighted in the game against Senegal when Japan twice came back from behind to level the scores. Throughout Nishino’s coaching career, he has always chosen to go all out when the odds were stacked against him. Gamba Osaka’s 3-5 loss to Manchester United in the FIFA Club World Cup several years is a case in point. So, what then of individual performances?

Individuals Matter

Unsurprisingly, a good chunk of Japan’s best play came from its top-class midfielders. Veteran super stars Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda showed they still had something left in the tank and were decisive in Japan’s most crucial moments. Captain Makoto Hasebe had a fine world cup in central midfield and kept the team’s shape and balance. However, it is fair to say that he was outshone by his central mid-field partner Gaku Shibasaki. Shibasaki has quietly become one of Japan’s best players in the last few years. He first came under the spotlight when his 2-goal performance for Kashima Antlers against Real Madrid nearly pushed the Galacticos to the brink in the FIFA Club World Cup final. He then moved to Tenerife in the Spanish Segunda where his great performances earned him a move to Getafe. Shibasaki had a terrific world cup with his energetic all round displays and ability to dictate the game from deep.

Above all these performances though, the biggest surprise came from wide midfielder cum winger Takashi Inui. He was arguably Japan’s star performer and his pace & ability to cut in from the left flank caused opposition defences no end of problems. He was justly rewarded with 2 terrific goals for his efforts. The most surprising part is that at 30 years of old, Inui is no spring chicken or the latest find. Strangely, in this last decade of ‘Kagawa-Honda-Okazaki’ dominance, Inui has largely been ignored for national team duties. He has quietly made a name for himself in Europe with strong performances in Germany and then with La Liga surprise package Eibar. It is only fitting that high flying Real Betis have signed the tricky winger.

Other noteworthy performances also came from the likes of Fortuna Dusseldorf winger Genki Haraguchi with his tireless running; and from the evergreen Yuto Nagatomo. The long-time Inter Milan and current Galatasaray left wing back provides such a 2-way presence on the flanks that he can never be ignored. It is hard to imagine Japan getting this far without his lung bursting forays into the attacking third. Hiroki Sakai also ran himself into the ground on the right side of defense.

So where does Japan go from here?

The Future Looks Bright

With Honda, Hasebe and Gotoku Sakai all announcing their retirement after the World Cup, it looks as though Japan is set for an exciting new era. It is expected that the likes of Kagawa, Maya Yoshida and Okazaki will be eased out over the coming years. The time has come for the likes of Shibasaki and the highly promising Gen Shoji to don the mantle and take Japan forward. Players like Takashi Usami, Takuma Asano and Shoya Nakajima could have very important roles to play over the next few years.

Hajime Moriyasu

The announcement of former Sanfrecce Hiroshima and current Japanese Olympic team manager Hajime Moriyasu as the new national team coach is a step in the right direction. It is an indication that Japan has well and truly started embracing their true identity; perhaps a sign that all answers lie within and not externally.

Could the sun finally be rising over the land of cherry blossoms? Exciting times lie ahead…

Mixing with the Mexicans in LA

“I’m not that keen on America. I don’t like their policies and attitude. Anyway we shouldn’t mix politics with sport, should we?”
Tommie Collins talks us through his recent Wales trip to LA.

By Tommie Collins

After a long trip to Nanning in March to see Wales play Uruguay in the China Cup I really didn’t fancy another long trek to Los Angeles to see Wales play a friendly against Mexico but, after negotiating time off work I managed to book a direct flight from Manchester – also the pull of the iconic Rose Bowl stadium was too much.

I’d visited America in 2003 for the friendly in San José where we lost 2-0 with Mathew Jones getting sent off. I’d missed the Mexico match in New York in 2012 due to putting club before country for a change – that’s another story.

Politics

I’m not that keen on America. I don’t like their policies and attitude – but hey ho I went to Israel for the qualifier. Anyway we shouldn’t mix politics with sport, should we?

Due to visiting San Francisco in 2003 I’d chosen to make a short four-night trip this time. I didn’t bother going to Hollywood, I mean why should I want to see some celebrities gate or house. I went to Venice beach which was a very dodgy place, Santa Monica was a nice place with a lovely beach and very clean. Downtown LA was ok; bars with live bands and a tad cheaper than Santa Monica and Pasadena.

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Venice Beach. Image: WiLPrZ, Flickr

The day of the game started with an early trek to Pasadena where the Rose Bowl is situated, a good decision I understand as the organised buses that were due to take Wales supporters to the match were late in arriving, with many fans missing kick off – they weren’t happy.

We drank in a couple of pubs owned by the chain called Lucky Baldwin’s, again very expensive – I honestly didn’t realise that it was so expensive, on average we were paying anything from $6 – $10 a pint, well less actually – it’s called a 16, a 22 was dearer. In one place in Santa Monica they charged $10 for a small can of Heineken, they wanted $18 for a pint, the exit door was found quickly: I despaired.

There were nearly 500 Welsh fans there and a few who lived over there were looking for tickets, most made a holiday of it combining Las Vegas or San Francisco. It was good to see kids out there, hopefully they’ve had the bug, and they are the future, also a few had managed to get some groundhopping in by seeing LA Galaxy and LAFC.

Mexicans

After negotiating the crazy traffic on the way to the game we finally arrived at the Rose Bowl. It was a sea of green with the Mexicans having taken up swathes of land with barbecues and music blaring out and beer everywhere. What a friendly bunch they are, wanting to take photos with us, amazed we’d travel all the way. Although they did have a brawl with each other during the game – club rivalry, perhaps?

There were security checks to go in but nothing too severe and beer was on sale inside the ground albeit at a ghastly price of $16, thanks but no thanks – I have my limits!

 

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The Rose Bowl. Image: Tommie Collins

The stadium was impressive, a massive bowl, with great views, obviously quite far from the pitch but at least there were no obstructions. To be honest the atmosphere wasn’t great, the Mexicans were persistent with their now famous wave but the Welsh contingent wouldn’t play ball. Again the Mexicans were friendly, but I wonder how the yanks felt with 80,000 in their stadium. For a 0-0 draw it was a decent match, we had chances and considering we had Bale, Allen, Chester and Ampadu missing we did well and the youngsters who came on did ok.

To see Wales play in the Rose Bowl was another tick off the list but I wish it had been in the Azteca, Mexico City. FAW can you arrange? Next stop Aarhus.

For info – I’ve seen Wales play in 43 different countries and that was my 97th away game. Three more this year possibly to hit the magic 100?

Japan’s Road to Footballing Glory

With the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia only weeks away, Rohan Kaushik takes an in-depth look at Japan. Might the Samurai Blue push further than the last 16 this time around?

By Rohan Kaushik

Japan is a country known for its aesthetic, disciplined, organised and methodical approach towards most things in life. In short, order and beauty are at the core of its culture. To be sure, football in Japan is no different and is symbolic of the Japanese way. Six consecutive FIFA World Cup appearances is a testament to this. Their short passing game has sometimes been dubbed in the media as ‘Oriental Style Tiki-Taka’. Over the years, this style of play within a well-structured team set-up has made them a dominant force in Asia. They have also shown on quite a few occasions that they can go toe to toe with the world’s best.

Yet for all of the technical mastery and organisation, there is still a very strong sense that Japan are a cut below football’s truly elite. The evidence is there for everyone to see with their best World Cup finish being the round of 16, which they achieved on home soil in 2002 and again in South Africa 2010. So what is holding Japan back?

Blast from the Past

Japan’s rise to the top in Asia in the 90s was nothing short of meteoric. Prior to the 90s the national team’s only major achievement in world football was a bronze medal finish in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. A large portion of the credit for this finish must be attributed to the legendary German coach Dettmar Cramer who laid the foundation for a strong national team in the early 60s. Post the 60s, Japanese football once again faded from the world football scene until the formation of the J-League in the 90s.

It didn’t take long for the league’s formation to have a strong effect on the national team. Japan only narrowly missed out on qualification for the World Cup in ’94 due to conceding a last minute equaliser against Iraq. The benefits of the league’s commercialisation, professional approach and grassroots programs would go on to inspire a whole generation of footballers in Japan. The first indication of this came about in the Olympics in 1996.

Clubbed in a strong group with Nigeria, Brazil and Hungary, Japan’s route to the knockout rounds looked near-impossible. However, they would go on to cause quite a stir by defeating Brazil and only narrowly missing out on a knockout berth due to an inferior goal difference. Nigeria would then go on to win the tournament and Brazil would finish with a Bronze Medal. The man responsible for this impressive showing was Akira Nishino, a former national team player himself (more on this man later).

More success would follow for the national team with highly impressive showings in the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1999, where they would only lose out to Spain in the finals. Japan would also make its first World Cup appearance in France ’98 and despite losing all 3 games, they would put up a respectable showing and even score their first goal in the competition. Four years later on home soil, Japan would go one better with a round of 16 finish only losing out to eventual semi-finalists Turkey.

All of Japan’s impressive showings in the late 90s and early 2000s came courtesy their ‘Golden Generation’. The likes of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto and Shunsuke Nakamura among others were all by products of the J-League and in many ways paved the way for Japanese footballers’ success on the world stage.

The Post-Golden Generation Era

Japan’s golden generation would have one final crack at footballing glory at the 2006 World Cup, but would come spectacularly undone at the showpiece tournament. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against Australia, largely underwhelming performances against Croatia and Brazil would see them eliminated at the group stage. Interestingly enough, their performances prior to the tournament had people tipping them to do great things at the World Cup.

However, things would turn out differently for the Samurai Blue in South Africa 2010. Despite many being sceptical of their chances in South Africa, Japan would once again go on to make the knockout rounds only losing out to Paraguay on penalties. Following this impressive finish, Japan would then go on to its best era since its golden generation. Several of its national team members would go on to ply their trade in Europe with great success. Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda would become mainstays of the national team (and in many ways, still are). That said, in similar fashion to 2006, the national team would once again implode on the big stage in Brazil 2014. This would come in stark contrast to Keisuke Honda’s belief that Japan could reach the semi-finals.

Japan’s Issues

Despite Japan’s generally strong technical performances, their final results on the world stage tell a different story. Japan’s issues on this front are multi-fold. A criticism that has often been levelled at Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side over the last decade is their inability to finish off chances in spite of dominating possession. The same can often be said of Japan; well known for its top class midfielders and wingbacks, but at the end of the day, goals win matches and the island nation has still to produce a truly world class striker or centre forward.

Another problem which is often associated with the national team is its inability to break down tight defences (yes, the park-the-bus kind). This is a trend that is often witnessed even when Japan faces technically inferior teams in Asia. The lack of a player who can produce that X-factor in a game by getting past 2 or 3 players has often hurt their chances. To compound this problem, Japan’s players aren’t always the most imposing physically. While this is a problem that can be masked with the presence of some lighting quick, terrific dribblers, this is rarely the case with Japan.

On the world stage especially, Japan has come unstuck against superior opposition when their physicality or the lack of it has been put to the test. A classic example of this came against the Ivory Coast in Brazil 2014. When leading 1-0, Japan’s coach Alberto Zaccheroni brought on the ageing Yasuhito Endo in a bizarre substitution. With Endo being unable to close down the Ivory Coast wingers quick enough, the Japanese defence started getting bombarded with crosses and the pressure eventually told. Japan conceded 2 goals in as many minutes and then went on to lose the game.

The Mental Block

In a team sport like football, the emphasis on the collective takes precedence over the individual. Yet, perhaps in Japan, this mindset has been taken a bit more seriously than in other places. Strong team ethics and discipline are a part of most things in the Japanese way of life and they have transferred many of these characteristics to football.

Early accounts from the initial days of the J-League tell stories of how superstar foreign players and coaches had more than one role. While adding a sprinkling of star dust to the league, they also had to often get the Japanese players to come out of their shell and express themselves more openly. Brazilian legend Zico played a huge role in this regard during his first stint as a player in Kashima Antlers and later on as the coach of national team. Dunga also became notorious for teaching his colleagues at Jubilo Iwata how to dive and con referees.

Also, Japan’s French coach during the 2002 World Cup, Philippe Troussier once remarked that Japanese people follow rules so strictly that they wouldn’t even jump a traffic light in the wee hours of the morning when there was no traffic. Troussier, aka The White Witch Doctor, also became well known for instilling an aggressive approach into the Japanese national team and infamously left Shunsuke Nakamura out of the World Cup squad in 2002 citing his slight build and lack of aggression.

The general lack of powerful personalities within the squad has time and again resulted in Japan falling short at important moments. Whenever the team has needed that something extra special, the lack of players with the ability to drive through the defence or come with up a moment of magic or show that extra fire has really hurt Japan’s chances.

This was also highlighted by the recently sacked Vahid Halilhodzic, their coach throughout the 2018 World Cup Qualification Campaign. Halilu as he is known in the Japanese press constantly reiterated the need for Japanese players to be very strong in one on one duels. Halilhodzic’s tenure in the Japan hot seat was generally controversial throughout. His decision to drop established stars such as Kagawa, Honda and Okazaki often didn’t sit well with the footballing hierarchy in Japan. While his ruffle-the-feathers direct approach may have been a step in the right direction for Japan, he may have possibly been too extreme in his methods. Hence, the decision to sack him at the eleventh hour may have come as a relief to many players and fans alike; especially with the mixed results and the constantly changing first eleven.

So who do Japan turn to in their hour of need ?

Enter Akira Nishino

At 63 years old, Nishino is no spring chicken in the world of coaching. If anything, the JFA (Japanese Football Federation) couldn’t have gone with a better choice. Nishino started his coaching career in fine fashion when he led the Japanese Olympic Team to a victory over a much fancied Brazil side in the 96’ Olympics. He then went on to further cement his reputation as a rising star by coaching Kashiwa Reysol to its first piece of silverware in Japan. In fact, his tenure at the club, is considered to be one of the club’s finest in its history.

Following his stint at Kashiwa, Nishino became the manager of Gamba Osaka and this is where his name will forever be etched in Japanese domestic football history. He led Gamba to several domestic titles over the course of 9 years. During this time, Gamba Osaka developed a reputation for being one of the J-League’s most lethal attacking sides. While they did have some great defenders in the side as well, Gamba Osaka had one of the leakiest defences for a top team in the league. They would often win by outscoring the opposition. Also, a trait that became synonymous with Nishino during his Gamba years was his all or nothing approach, when the team was trailing the opponent in crunch games. Hence, he would often make bold attacking substitutions when needed. To top it all, his crowning moment as a Gamba manager arrived when he led them to a maiden AFC Champions League title in 2008 in emphatic fashion.

An interesting caveat to his management career at Gamba Osaka is the fact that he led them to just one J-League title in a decade long stint. His high octane attacking style often couldn’t be sustained through a gruelling league season and was far more suited to shorter cup competitions.  In many ways his approach and stint at the club is reminiscent of Carlo Ancelotti’s time at AC Milan which was around the same time. Interestingly enough, for all of Carlo Ancelotti’s success in the UEFA Champions League, he too has had limited success with league titles.

The pertinent question, however is, can Nishino lead Japan to their footballing El Dorado or at the very least avoid a footballing disaster at the World Cup? For starters, time certainly isn’t on Nishino’s side with roughly a month to go before the footballing extravaganza kicks off in Russia. Also, has such an assignment come a little too late in his career? His recent domestic spells at Vissel Kobe and Nagoya Grampus have been very underwhelming to say the least. There is a sense that his enthusiasm, drive and passion as a coach have diminished over the years.

Nishino though, sounds very optimistic and is completely up for the challenge. He has publicly stated his desire to take Japan to the knockout rounds and beyond. In addition, he has also acknowledged the importance of Halilhodzic’s emphasis on strong individual play while also stressing the need for Japan to stick close to its roots and play good collective attacking football.

Japan have been placed in a tough group with Senegal, Colombia and Poland and many see Japan as rank outsiders to even make it out of this group. That said, this is a cup competition which has often been Nishino’s greatest strength. If his track record is anything to go by, then Japan is going to need every bit of that high octane, all or nothing approach.

China Cup: A Trip Too Far…

From Porthmadog to South America, with China providing the icing on the cake – or maybe not so much.. Read all about Tommie Collins’ recent venture following his beloved Wales to the China Cup.

By Tommie Collins

After arranging a trip of a lifetime to South America, the Football Association of Wales were invited to play in the China Cup to be held in Nanning. As an avid supporter of my country’s football team I had a decision to make.

I decided not to rearrange my South America venture; thus I would miss the first game in China on the Thursday meaning my latest run of consecutive matches would come to an end. I would fly with my friend from Buenos Aires to Amsterdam overnight and after three hours would fly direct to Hong Kong arriving Saturday morning, thus having two consecutive nights in the air.

So at 08.30 Thursday morning – eleven hours behind China time I would be following the China – Wales match on twitter and receiving updates from family members. My phone was pinging at an alarming rate – six times to be precise as a Gareth Bale hat-trick spurred us on to a relatively easy 6-0 victory. My phone didn’t stop after either as fellow Welsh supporters out in Nanning gleefully asked me have you ever seen Wales win 6-0 away… I despaired.

Hong Kong

After landing in Hong Kong and checking into our hotel we met up with our friends who had chosen HK as their break in-between the two games, some had opted for Thailand, Beijing, Macau and Vietnam. Hong Kong was an eye opener regarding the wealth in the country, all the top designer shops are in town, top of the range cars and beer prices ranging from £7-10 a pint but the happy hours offered after 2pm in virtually all establishments balanced it out by the end of the night, a good night was had.

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One night in Hong Kong.

The following morning we had to endure a journey across the border to Shenzhen via metro and train, this is where I started to realise that for me it was a trip too far. The border crossing was a nightmare with constant passport checks, filling in departure and entry cards and stern looks from the Chinese border police, notwithstanding the vast amount of people trying to push through the baggage security check area. After going through the border we arrived at Shenzhen train station and this is where I realised how big this country is. I’d call myself well travelled and was overwhelmed when I visited the USA for the friendly in San José in 2003 and again this place was massive.

Packed train

We queued for the train to Nanning and soon realised that the train was full, and there wasn’t an available train until the 28th, a group from Pwllheli had been in the same situation earlier and had to book flights, the same fate awaited us. Now, we had no Chinese money but eventually found an ATM after some sign language to numerous Chinese people – yes no one spoke English, the sense of failure was overtaking me, I was distraught, the thought of not attending the match was overwhelming – I would have had to abstain from social media for a long period of time.

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Busy stations.

I switched on my data roaming (another £6) to receive 4G, and then scoured the internet for flights to Nanning, Sunday night or Monday morning and back to either Hong Kong or Shenzhen Tuesday. There were flights but I couldn’t book over the phone, the mood got better, it had been either go home, or go back to HK but we opted for the airport. A 50 minute journey to the airport cost £12 and we were still in Shenzhen the place was massive. We arrived at the airport, once again welcomed by more security and stern looks, yet we eventually found an English speaking girl at a customer service desk.

“We need flights to Nanning tonight or tomorrow please,” I uttered. There was a flight at 22.25 or a cheaper one Monday morning. The thought of finding a hotel put us off. Therefore, we agreed to pay the price, which shall remain private – after going all the way I would have paid any price!

All was well and we duly arrived in our Nanning hotel at 02.10 am, my friend and I mutually agreed to wipe Sunday 25th March from our memories.

Match day

Monday morning I was up bright and early, it was match day. All I wanted was a beer to get rid of the previous day stress.

Nanning was massive, tall tower blocks, wide streets, hotels all manner of shops, but again no one spoke English, navigation was difficult. The thing that tickled me was the amount of scooters in the road, all kinds of people hurtling down the street in tandem, thousands of them, and at traffic light a battle of will between pedestrians, scooters and cars: mayhem.

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Hustle and bustle.

I eventually got hold of Prys from Blaenau Ffestiniog who by the way had a trip of a lifetime, and he told us to meet him in Food Street. This was the China I’d thought of, no road surface, rubbish in the street, dirty, but this was a superb street to have a beer and fun at night I was told. It wasn’t my cup of tea and we moved on to a westernised bar where I enjoyed a nice cold Corona. I was happy and China was good.

We then moved to the bar where coaches would take us to the ground, here I met the young Porthmadog lads who again where having the time of their lives, buckets of Budweiser was bought in and the world was once again ok.

The journey to the match was fine, and when I saw the ground again I was overwhelmed – it is indeed a great stadium. The game itself was decent and we started ok, but Uruguay seemed stronger and ran out deserved 1-0 winners, we are a much better team than say 10 years ago and with the youngsters coming through we could yet again see qualification for another tournament, probably Qatar, but we need a goal scorer – a proven one!

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Guangxi Sports Center.

On the journey back to the bar after the match I felt drowsy and was like a nodding dog, the whole trip had caught up with me so I headed for bed, no post-match beer – a rare event.

We were up bright and early for the 08.15 flight back to Shenzhen, and the idea of going through the border again was haunting me, luck was with us, there was a bus £15 from the airport to HK airport, it was seamless, no bag checks just a showing of passports, when we arrived in HK, I felt better, China was behind me.

To summarise, personally I’m glad I went to China, another country ticked off and another Wales away game in the bag – an experience I’ll never forget. If it was a standalone trip I most likely would have enjoyed, but, give me a friendly in South America any day.

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