When you ask people about the 1958 World Cup, most will mention the emergence of Pele or the first, and to date only, non-European team winning in Europe. Some will talk about it being the first appearance of the Soviet Union, or perhaps that it is the only World Cup where Italy failed to qualify. Yet, maybe the most interesting aspect about it was that all four countries in the UK qualified for the same tournament for the first time. It hasn’t happened since. Could it be about to happen again? The combination of extra slots available at Euro 2016 and an improvement in quality/belief of British sides has opened the door once more for that scenario.
Wales haven’t graced a major tournament since 1958. The problem for Wales has never been in producing players, it’s been putting them together as a team. In their history they’ve boasted the likes of Southall, Giggs, Speed, Rush and Mark Hughes to name a few. Between 1991 and 1996 all 5 I mentioned there played in the same team but still couldn’t qualify for a tournament. For the 2004 edition of the European Championships, they reached a play-off but weren’t able to find a way past Russia.
Gary Speed was appointed manager in 2010 and he began a revolution, which has led to Wales being genuinely feared in qualifying competitions. While Allen, Ashley Williams, Ben Davies and Chester are all established premier league stars, they don’t exactly match the heights of previous teams. Where this one stands apart is the midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, easily the best British footballers of this generation. The big plus point for Chris Coleman, now the manager, is that all of his players are hitting their peaks at the same time. Speed’s young exciting side is now Coleman’s efficient outfit.
There are two problems for Wales. Firstly, they lack strength in depth, especially in attack. If they suffer a few injuries, the replacements are mediocre at best. Secondly, their lack of appearances on the world stage means they have a low FIFA ranking and hence keep getting hard groups. This time they have to deal with Belgium and Bosnia, both who were at this summer’s World Cup. That being said, a side containing their quality will challenge both sides, indeed they’ve already held Bosnia to a draw in Cardiff. Will they qualify? They just might, second place in their group will be between them and Bosnia so the 10th October next year should be the decider. If they lose that, a third place finish will at least give them the chance of sneaking in through the play-offs.
Airing the thought that all of the Home Nations could feature at the same tournament usually brings ridicule and the accepted premise that Northern Ireland will never qualify. That stems from the lack of quality in the squad and the deserved low ranking. But again, Northern Ireland are a team on the rise. A lot of their players have played in the Premier League, and they have started UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying as good as anyone with 3 wins from 3 matches. The group contains Romania, Greece, Finland, Hungary and the Faroe Islands so qualification is very possible.
Will it happen? Well, I wouldn’t put any money on it. Despite the good start, including an incredibly impressive win in Greece, Romania and Finland are much better sides on paper than the Ulstermen are. But that isn’t to say it won’t happen. Strange things happen in football and we could see Northern Ireland appearing at their first European Championship and fourth major tournament (following World Cups in 1958, 82 and 86).
Strangely enough, the only negative press surrounding the home nations has been with regard to English performances despite a 100% record. Roy Hodgson must hate weeks like the one he has just had. Club v Country debates, pointless matches and arguments over tiredness means it has been a loss-loss scenario for Hodgson and England. The most successful home nation have already passed the supposed biggest test of their group and the likes of Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and San Marino will cause no problems going forward. Nothing is guaranteed in sport, however it would take something biblical to stop England crossing the channel and taking part at Euro 2016.
Now it’s time for me to eat some humble pie. In March 2013 I wrote an article slamming Scottish football. I said they offered nothing to the world of football, the Scottish system was failing and its continuation was reckless. While I stand by my comments about the SPL, it is inconsequential; they are no longer a mess on the international stage. What changed then? Well, Gordon Strachan seems to have installed a level of belief in them, not only that they can win but they can do it while playing good football.
When the draw was made, Scottish fans must have taken a sharp intake of breath. Germany, Poland and Republic of Ireland lay in wait in easily the toughest of all the draws for the home nations. But, so far, the Scots are making a good fist of it. A narrow defeat in Germany has been followed up by a victory over Georgia and a respectable draw in Poland. They lie fourth in their group, level on points with the World Champions and 3 behind the front-runners Poland and Ireland. These four teams could perceivably be locked in a four-way battle for three spaces throughout this qualifying format and it has to be said that Scotland would be favourites to finish fourth.
Barring England, Scotland have been at more European Championships than any of the other home nations. Admittedly this isn’t hard when Wales and Northern Ireland have never qualified! Can they do it again? Like with Northern Ireland’s group, I fancy the quality of the other teams to shine through and it’ll be up to Scotland to match that. Poland have started really well, capped off with a victory over Germany, but do they have the stamina to keep that up? Playing Scotland and Ireland in the final week rounds off their campaign. Assuming Germany have won the group by then the battle for the final spots will go right down to the wire.
In Euro 2016 there will be 24 teams for the first time in history. Part of the reason for the increase was to allow middle-ranked sides to qualify and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all in a position to take advantage. For me, it would be a real shame if England are the sole home nation representative. Wales should at least make the play-offs, Northern Ireland have put themselves in a great position to qualify and Scotland will have a chance right up until their final game. All four qualifying would be a massive boost to British football, and make the tournament extra special for us living in the UK. There is even a chance that Ireland could make it 5 teams from the British Isles.
However, we shouldn’t get too wrapped up in rekindling the spirit of 1958. Northern Ireland have a lot of work to do with a relatively weak squad, Scotland have a talented, hard-working side but have been placed in an incredibly difficult group while Wales have a tendency to mess things up. For all this hope and warranted optimism, there is still a real possibility that England, and possibly Ireland, are the only sides we will be supporting come France 2016.