In what has already been a very cold winter in the UK, and with a chill financial wind blowing through the troubled world of the English Premier League’s apparent golden paradise, life has also taken a turn for the worse for local rivals Wales’ perennially under-achieving international side.

After yet another lacklustre World Cup qualifying campaign, in which the Dragons not only came runners-up to the heavyweights of Germany and Russia, but also the unfancied Finns, there was some burgeoning hope for the new decade, with some pundits pointing to the promising production line of young talent emerging and developing. With players such as Gareth Bale, Joe Ledley, Chris Gunter, Wayne Hennessy, Jack Collison and Ched Evans enjoying varying degrees of success with high-profile Championship and Premier League sides, as well as a decent experienced core of James Collins, Simon Davies and Craig Bellamy, rare optimism when talking about the future of Welsh football could be heard, with mutterings of perhaps an outside chance of reaching a first finals for over 50 years.

However, such optimistic predictions were quickly made to look wishful thinking at best, at worst the quixotic ramblings of a one-eyed madman. Firstly, the reminders of Wales’ seemingly innate ability to fluff their lines; there was the narrow and contentious defeat to Russia in the Euro 2004 playoff, Paul Bodin’s missed penalty against Romania that thwarted dreams of USA ’94… the list goes on and on. These were often with better sides than this raw and inexperienced current team, featuring genuine and proven world-class talent such as Neville Southall, Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs, so how would these young pretenders manage to do what none of these legends of the game could not?

In addition to this, there came the draw for the qualifying groups for Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. Wales, already handicapped badly by being placed in the fourth pot of seeds, were bound to face more of the tougher sides than if they had beaten Finland in 2010 qualifying, and the draw was very unkind indeed.

Any top class team would be hugely difficult, and realistically nicking a point off them at home and scrapping for the second-place playoff position was always the goal, but the fact that it’s England, fierce rivals, one of the World Cup favourites and a side marshalled into ruthless qualifiers by Fabio Capello, makes the probable defeats a much more unpalatable scenario than they could have been.

Wales may have got Switzerland, arguably the weakest of the second seeds and a side who, player for player, are not seemingly that much better, but they still have a solid record of qualifying for major tournaments (even if they are routinely awful in them, sent packing by the first decent opposition they come across).

Bulgaria, as third seeds, were one of the sides to avoid from that group, containing the high-profile talents of Stiliyan Petrov, Martin Petrov, Dimitar Berbatov et al, and so the prospect of a three-way fight to be second-best to England is a dreaded scenario.

To top it all off, rather than facing a cannon-fodder side such as Luxembourg or Andorra to get an easy six points, the lowest ranked side in the group is the ominous-looking Montenegro, a new country with a dangerous strike pairing of Roma’s Mirko Vucinic – linked with several top Premier League clubs – and Fiorentina’s Stevan Jovetic, the 19-year-old who embarrassed Liverpool with a brilliant performance in the Champions League group stages.

This group is not quite a doomsday scenario – if it was Serbia or Czech Republic instead of Switzerland, then it would be – but there is a greater probability of Wales finishing bottom than second, a nightmare vision for Welsh international football that is surely giving the under-fire manager John Toshack sleepless nights.

Still, with a bit of luck, some fine form, young players getting good runs in their respective sides, maybe some European football, and surely Wales could make a decent fist of it?

For Welsh fans holding out for such faint glimmers of hope the recent match between Arsenal and Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium will surely have dampened spirits even further. Aaron Ramsey, the dual-footed, multi-faceted young Arsenal playmaker, the brightest of the bright young Welsh things, broke his leg in a horrific double fracture after a challenge from a later distraught Ryan Shawcross (despite the severity of the injury, the tackle itself was not really reckless á la Martin Taylor on Eduardo two years ago, and was more similar to the freakish misfortune of Alan Smith’s major injury for Manchester United against Liverpool before that). Out for at least six months, possibly much longer, with no guarantees that he’ll be the same player as he was before, Ramsay’s injury is another sucker-punch to a Welsh side that has absorbed a series of heavy blows, self-inflicted and unfortunate, over the many barren years since 1958.

Wales may be 20/1 with some bookmakers to win the group (Montenegro are 10/1), but only a lunatic would bet on such odds. If this has been a winter of discontent around football, then Wales may be set to stay out in the cold on the international stage.


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