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You might make the Welsh subs' bench, Michael.

Byline: James Corrigan

MICHAEL OWEN would not get in the Welsh team. Consider the enormity of that statement if you will.

But before you decide that at last you have found the perfect floor-covering for the budgie cage please read on.

Because you are just about to be let in on an argument that is gaining weight faster than your average Quinnell, an argument that will have you chortling with delight when you picture Michael Owen on the Welsh bench - sat next to Rhys Weston.

To arrive at this fantastical conclusion you first need to trace back three years when Mark Hughes was handed a chalice so poisoned that Dr Jekyll would have skipped rounds.

However painful it will be, you must transport yourself back to the days when the skies were at their darkest in Welsh football, a time when the national side was ranked three places below Togo and only two above Sully Island.

Bobby Gould was still in charge then, the manager who we all called 'Mr Blobby', but perhaps shouldn't have as he rarely displayed our pink friend's tactical acumen.

It was about this time that a young tyro called Owen was knocking in goals for fun for England, an irony that made our plight seem even worse.

For despite living his whole life in Wales, using our schools, our pitches, our footballs and our betting slips to make him what he is today, Owen opted to play for the country of his birth, which just happened to be the nation with one of the biggest potentials in the world for lucrative sponsorships.

Instead, we were left with an ageing Dean Saunders, an out-of-sorts John Hartson and plain old Nathan Blake to miss what few chances came our way.

And when Gould almost lost a few fingers as the FAW frantically grabbed his resignation letter, our front line was weakened still further as Hughes, the new manager, promptly declared that he would never pick himself, no matter how well he was playing for Blackburn.

Boy, what would we have done to have Owen leading the Welsh attack in those days. Why, we were so desperate we would have had him leading the Assembly.

But then Hughes started building, making the odd mistake, admittedly, as he ventured out into his terrifying new career, but quietly discovering just what it was that made Wales tick, or more to the point not tick.

After successive 3-0 defeats to Brazil and Portugal, before an embarrassing 2-1 loss in Belarus, it would not have taken a genius to work out that our defence had more leaks in it than Max Boyce's props cupboard.

So, against all his attacking principles, Hughes made it his mission to plug the holes.

But short of convincing Sami Hyypia that with that amount of vowels he must be Welsh there was little Hughes could do with the personnel in defence and he concentrated instead on putting up blockades in the main thoroughfares of midfield. First he tried a five-man midfield, and then even a six-man, but although this worked up to a point, the resulting three-man defence looked wobblier than ever when a class team did pick their way through the barricades.

Thus Ryan Giggs was forced to track back so often he in effect became a wingback and our most potent attacking force - indeed, our only attacking force - was soon sacrificed.

At least we were now almost as hard to beat as we were to lose against, and in that World Cup 2002 campaign Hughes restored a modicum of pride with just three defeats to go with the six draws.

There was only win, however, a statistic so damning that not even the continued improvement of Simon Davies and Craig Bellamy could make the future look especially rosy.

Hughes had made his bedrock but now needed an outlet from which to throw his stones and locked himself away to come up with a plan.

How could he raise the goal-count at one end without raising it at the other?

The answer he found in the huge frame of Hartson.

It suddenly dawned on Hughes that in the Celtic striker, Wales had that rarest of commodities in modern football; an old-fashioned leader of the line with enough size, strength, skill and savvy to play on his own.

By moving Bellamy out to the wide right to mirror Giggs on the left, and by letting Simon Davies play in the space generated by the engine-room of Robbie Savage and Mark Pembridge, Wales could attack from three different points.

The ball would be worked to Hartson who would hold up the play until Giggs, Davies or Bellamy appeared on the scene.

What's more this would allow Hughes to employ a four-man defence, in which he could implant the steadying influence of Gary Speed at left-back.

Did it work? Did it ever.

The 4-5-1 formation has delivered Welsh football to a point in history never dreamt about four years ago.

Mighty Italy have been defeated, as have Finland and Azerbaijan, making Wales one of only four out of the competing 50 nations with a 100 percent record in Euro 2004 qualifying.

And when Azerbaijan are sent packing once more at a throbbing Millennium Stadium next Saturday we will be within sight of our first major championships since 1958.

It would have been nice to have Mr Owen along for the ride, if only because the English, God bless 'em, might not yet make it.

But it is difficult to see how or where he could have been accommodated in Hughes's magic system.

He would never replace Hartson because he has shown in the past, for both England and Liverpool, that he just isn't up to playing the role of lone-striker.

It is also highly doubtful whether Hughes would consider forsaking a winning formula and revert back to 4-4-2 to let Owen play off Hartson, especially as that would likely mean dropping someone of the quality of Davies or Bellamy. No, at this moment in time and with the Welsh team at full fitness, Owen would be no more than a squad member, someone undeniably useful to bring on when the chips are down but other than that merely the most expensive water-carrier next to the Perrier steamliner.

This is all purely hypothetical, of course, and you may ask what is the point of such musings. Well, if nothing else it does serve to prove just how far Wales have come.

It's also nice to think that the boy wonder is not as wonderful as England told us he was when they stole him from under our noses.

If they attempted such a heist now we would tell them: 'Michael Owen? Have him. You need him more than us.'

If we could ever be so cruel to our lovely neighbours, that is.

Terry Venables

IF he didn't have a Welsh mother, you'd wonder just who it was who ever convinced El Tel that he is so special that he must always land on his feet.

Who else could have taken a Leeds side which reached the European cup semi-final not two years ago to the depths of the Premiership before walking away with a pounds 1m-plus pay-off - and still get portrayed as the victim?

Thank God he never took the Welsh job. We'd all be living in mud huts by now.

John Hartson

i KNOW, I know - the big man was last week's recipient of this grandest of honours.

But anyone of us who saw that Welsh flag being waved in Anfield during Celtic's rousing victory over Liverpool could hardly believe what we seeing and hardly believe just what this mammoth is capable of making happen.

And then that goal. Henrik Larsson? Michael Owen? Emile Heskey?

Sorry, never heard of 'em . . .
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUW
Date:Mar 23, 2003
Words:1301
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