There can be little doubt that the two big stories during the build up to this weekend’s European Championship qualifier between Wales and England have been related to the captaincy of the two teams. How important the captaincy actually is may be a question for another time – and it’s something that we will be returning to a little later on this evening – but there can be little question that the more interesting of the two captaincy shuffles this week has been by the Welsh coach, Gary Speed because, while his English counterpart Fabio Capello has been ruffling the feathers of some in the English press by replacing Rio Ferdinand with John Terry, Speed seems to be looking to the future with his decision.
It is a decision that has been forced upon him by the decision of Craig Bellamy to effectively retire from the captaincy of the team on account of a persistent knee injury which means that he will be unlikely to be able to play regularly for his national team again. There were, Speed has stated, several candidates for the captaincy role (most notably Aston Villa’s James Collins) but he has settled on Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey as the man for the job. There is, of course, an element of risk to any managerial decision of this nature. In this case, Ramsey’s youth (he is still but twenty years old) and inexperience (Saturday’s match will be only his twelfth cap for Wales) may make this a somewhat surprising addition, particularly when we consider that he has not played for his country for sixteen months after suffering a a bad injury in a Premier League match against Stoke City last year.
Ramsey returned from injury earlier this season, but his season thus far has had the feel of an exercise in easing him back into the routine of playing football regularly. Having been out for nine months he went out on loan to Nottingham Forest, where he played five matches on loan before returning to Arsenal to spend a couple of matches warming the bench at The Emirates Stadium. The best key indicators that he was getting back to normal came during his second loan spell, this time with Cardiff City, to the extent that Arsenal turned down a request from Cardiff to extend his loan spell until the end of the season. He finally made his return for the club against Manchester United in the FA Cup as a substitute and started against West Bromwich Albion last weekend.
We can, of course, only speculate over the reasoning behind Gary Speed’s decision. He may be thinking of the long term. By appointing Ramsey as the captain of the team now, he would be giving him several years to grow into the position before reaching what we may normally assume to be the peak of his career in his mid-to-late twenties. We can only presume that Speed has already seen something in his demeanour and temperament that singles him out as being an appropriate player for the role. If we attach a degree of importance to the job above and beyond shaking hands before the start of the match, it could prove to be a wise long-term investment for Wales to give him this opportunity now. If he turns out to be ill-equipped for the responsibility of it, there is plenty of time for him to mature into it. If it doesn’t really matter at all, then it doesn’t matter who is the captain of Wales.
Perhaps the greater pressure on Ramsey comes with the injury to Gareth Bale that seems likely to keep Bale out of the team on Saturday. Bale’s pedigree as a player is obvious and he will be greatly missed by his team-mates and the team’s supporters alike. Ramsey is a talented player, of course, but with arguably his team’s most feared player ruled out of the team now more eyes will be looking at him to pick the lock that is England’s experienced but ageing central defence. As for the pressure upon him, well, Ramsey has played in the Premier League and Champions League for Arsenal, and it’s probably fair to say that young players, on the whole, hardly suffer from a lack of self-belief these days. We’ll know by Saturday evening whether the gamble – to the extent to which it can be described thus – has paid off.
Wales certainly seem to be overdue turning a corner, in terms of their form, at least. They have won just once – a 5-1 win in a friendly match against Luxembourg last August – since beating Scotland by three goals to nil in November 2009, and their opening performances in their European Championship qualifying group have been surprisingly dismal, with three straight defeats so far, against Montenegro, Bulgaria and Switzerland. Moreover, for all the talk of the enterprising attacking players that they have at their disposal, many of their most recent problems – their last two results have seen them ship seven goals against Switzerland and Ireland – seem to have been of a defensive nature.
It may already be too late for Wales to salvage their chances of making it to next year’s finals – a win on Saturday would still leave them four points behind second-placed England with only four qualifying matches left to play – but it’s not a done deed until it’s mathematically beyond their reach and a combination of sporting and local rivalry give them every incentive to bloody the nose of their noisy neighbour. Against an England team as psychologically frail as any in world football and with a large, partisan crowd behind them, there is every possibility that the shortcomings that they have displayed in recent months could wash away with the opening words of “Land Of My Fathers” on Saturday afternoon. We will know by the evening whether Gary Speed’s bold decision over the captaincy has paid off, unless, of course, it matters not a jot who the captain is. And that’s a subject that we will be returning to later this evening.
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