First in the series of famous Welsh away games, starting with Wales’ opening Euro 2004 qualifying game against Finland out in Helsinki.
5th June 1999: Wales have just been hammered by one of world’s elite footballing countries; Italy have won 4-0 against the Welsh with goals from Vieri, Inzaghi, Maldini and Chiesa. This result would prove to be the end of the line for Bobby Gould, as he resigned following the result out in Bologna. Following Gould’s unpopular reign as Wales manager, the FAW installed two legends as caretaker managers, Neville Southall and Mark Hughes. The pair took charge of the team for Wales’ fixture against Denmark four days after the Italy thrashing; Wales were defeated 2-0 at Anfield (Wales were forced to play at Anfield following a complaint by the Danes that they would not be able to bring their 4,000 fan away support to Ninian Park). Hughes would go on to take the position, Southall-less, full time and see through Wales’s qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea in which Wales were drawn in a group with no real European footballing superpower. However, Wales only managed to pick up 1 win in the qualifiers: a 1-0 victory of lowly Belarus in the Millennium Stadium, courtesy of a John Hartson goal. There were very few highlights of this qualifying campaign with the high point probably being a well-earned draw against a Shevchenko-inspired Ukraine.
On paper, the win against Belarus at home would have been a customary win for a Welsh team that contained quality players such as Hartson, Speed, Savage plus young prospects Craig Bellamy and Simon Davies. This win would prove to be an important victory for the side; it became the catalyst for an excellent run of form before their Euro 2004 qualifying campaign; this run of form would trigger what would prove to be one of the most important away victories in the 21st century for the Welsh national team.
A couple of weeks ago (when writing about David Vaughan and how Wales defeated a Basque XI out in San Sebastian) it occurred to me that we have had very few monumental away victories since the turn of the millennium, but on the 7th September 2002, Wales defeated a very capable Finland team in Helsinki, which would go on to generate the most exciting period in Welsh football since that night against Romania in 1993.
Although the trip to Finland was always going to prove to be a tricky fixture to open a qualifying campaign, there was a sense of optimism around the Welsh camp after an impressive run of results, which began with that 1-0 victory against Belarus in Cardiff. This fixture was followed by two impressive draws at the Millennium Stadium: a 1-1 draw against an impressive Argentina side, captained by Juan Sebastian Veron and featured legendary players such as Zanetti, Riquelme and Claudio Caniggia and a 0-0 draw against a highly-regarded Czech Republic side. Wales also earned a draw out in Split against Croatia, where Wales really should have won, but were let down by a late Paul Jones gaffe. The performances against these three excellent international teams were impressive, but the best result would come against the mighty Germans in Cardiff, as Robert Earnshaw (a player who could not stop scoring for Wales at the time, despite not even being first choice) ensured a 1-0 victory after slotting home past the iconic Oliver Kahn. It must also be added that Wales were still languishing in the 100s of the FIFA rankings – not that the rankings have ever been considered a true representation of the qualities of a team. It must also be noted that before these fixtures Wales had just undergone the worst run of form in their history – a 12 game winless streak – with many fans and pundits alike questioning Hughes’ credentials and inexperience in the management game.
Wales went into their qualifying group with Finland, Azerbaijan, Serbia & Montenegro and Italy with confidence; the performances had been encouraging and heartening leading up to the first qualifier, but Wales now needed to turn these performances into points when it really mattered.
Finland entered the game in Helsinki with a formidable record of not losing at home in 10 games. Finland also had a impressive cast of experienced players and quality Premiership players; Anti Niemi was excelling at Southampton, Hyypia at Liverpool and Jari Litmanen was still an exceptional talent now playing for Ajax; there was also Shefki Kuqi…..enough said.
Before the game, Hughes had made a call for Wales to avoid defeat at all costs, citing the game against Italy in Cardiff a month later as the tougher game. Hughes rightly felt that two opening defeats in their qualifying group would be a devastating blow to Wales’ chances of qualification. This was perhaps reflected by Hughes choice to leave Craig Bellamy on the bench and instead start with the much more defensive-minded Andy Johnson of WBA.
Wales’ stratagem of maintaining the Finnish attack became very clear from the opening minutes of the game, as Wales showed very little ambition going forward instead waiting for the Finnish attack to come onto them. A powerful Finland side started the game by trying to play tough with Wales, but Wales had developed battling qualities over the previous 12 months and Finland were met with tough, scrapping performances from Pembridge, Hartson and in particular Savage. The game developed into display of tough tackling and rash challenges with Mark Pembridge and Hannu Tihinen going into ref’s book before the half hour mark. The only display of flair was coming from Nurmela on the right wing who persisted in giving Gary Speed, who had been filling in at an unfamiliar left back position (a position he would retain throughout the qualifiers and beyond), a hard time all afternoon.
Then from nowhere, Hartson scored. On the half hour mark Gary Speed found Ryan Giggs running into the penalty area with a long header; Giggs mis-controlled, but fortunately the ball trickled to an unmarked Hartson who slotted past Anti Niemi. The goal had come completely against the run of play; Wales settled back into their defensive mindset waiting got pounce on the counterattack.
A couple more darts down the wing from Nurmela later and a Ryan Giggs free kick that just floated over with Niemi stranded, and Wales had held onto their lead for half time.
Following the break, Wales put 10 men behind the ball and showed that they planned to hold onto their lead with dear life. Finland with very little pressure in their own half began to exert their authority on the game and dominate possession. However, Wales battled on fiercely and largely left Finland to attempting long range efforts.
Giggs looked the most likely candidate to unleash more damage on Finland, as he expertly picked out Andy Johnson with the outside of his left foot, but as the ball dropped perfectly for Johnson, the Finland defence smothered him out to deny Wales a glorious chance to make it 2-0. However, Giggs left foot would become the architect of Wales securing a famous victory as he played a perfectly timed pass through a couple of Finnish players into Simon Davies, who rifled the ball past Niemi at his near post. 2-0 Wales and the game looked tied up.
Finland threw everything at Wales and the impressive Litmanen went on to hit the post, the 2nd time Finland would hit the woodwork in the 2nd half, but ultimately Wales held onto secure an excellent result against the Finnish.
As alluded to towards the beginning of this piece, this result would be the catalyst for a newfound belief around the Welsh national team amongst the players, staff and fans. Post-match, Hughes lauded the strong character that the Welsh team had demonstrated in the game and over the previous year:
“When I took over they were weak mentally, but not now. They can withstand pressure and look a stronger side. It is a great dressing room to work with. It is full of strong characters, strong men who have suffered bitter disappointments and experiences in the past.”
Fans got caught up in the hysteric mood around the Welsh national team and began to praise the transformation that Hughes had overseen as Welsh manager; this only 12 months after many wanted Hughes to call time on his time in charge. Fans began to flood the BBC’s 606 page with comments of praise.
“A great start to our Euro 2004 qualification. Mark Hughes has turned what was a laughing stock in world football into a team that will give anyone a run for their money.” Iwan, Welsh Exile in USA
“Surely one of the proudest moments in Welsh sport in recent years. At long last there’s now an amazing ‘hwyl’ brewing which is something that’s been almost exclusively reserved for the rugby team over the years.” Alun, England
“Mark is a credit to the Welsh side and he is totally right on letting the younger players get some experience. Qualification seems definite. Good luck boys!!” Gavin John, Wales
Following the win out in Helsinki, Wales played Italy at the Millennium Stadium, achieving a 2-1 win which is heralded as one of the finest results in the team’s history. Ultimately, having amassed a maximum 12 points from their opening 4 games, Wales would miss out on qualification for Euro 2004 after a cruel two-legged playoff encounter with Russia. As disappointing as the end of the qualifying campaign was, it is still the most enjoyable time I have had as a Welsh fan and it all spawned from this 2-0 victory out in Helsinki.