LIAM MACKEY: Bullish John Hartson reiterates belief in Welsh superiority

Almost exactly a year ago to the day, John Hartson was in Dublin and gleefully blaring Welsh supremacy over the Irish.

And with Ireland trailing Scotland in fourth place in Euro qualifying and the Welsh with one foot already in France at the time, it was, in truth, hard to pick too many holes in his booming declaration that this Welsh team would beat this Irish team “all day long — you know it and I know it.”

And now, 12 months on, the former Welsh international is back in town again and still singing much the same song ahead of the meeting in World Cup qualifying and after a summer in France which if, it was rewarding for Irish football, was positively exhilarating for the Welsh.

“The answer to your question is nothing’s changed,” he says.

“I think Ireland did okay in the Euros. But you won one game in four — that’s what you achieved. You performed admirably and, against France in the last 16, that was a brave performance against potential winners.

“But you haven’t improved dramatically. I’d be lying if I said that.”

He was, however, much taken with the individual contributions of some of the Irish players at the Euros, among them rising talents like Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady.

“And I like Wes Hoolahan, he’s a top player. No disrespect to Norwich, one of the clubs I played for, but I thought someone would have come in for him.

“So, yes, the Republic have certainly got better but, in the World Cup campaign, you’ll be coming up against a team in Wales that are coming off the semi-finals of the European Championships, a team that won four games out of six at the finals, a team that topped their group and beat Belgium, the number two side in the world — a team that hammered Ireland.

“And I think we were really unfortunate to lose that continuity in the semi-final, having to play without Aaron Ramsey who’s the link, the player who goes and gets it off the back four, and then gets it forward or wide.

“My point is that I think Martin has taken the Republic forward, of course he has. I think he’s a genius. The Germany result. The Italy result. How does he do it? Because he did it five or six times a season at Celtic too. He’s just got that thing as a manager where players go to the very, very end for him.”

The different problem for Chris Coleman, Hartson suggests, is that because the Welsh manager has already taken his team so much further than anyone reasonably expected, now anything less than automatic qualification for Russia will feel like a crushing blow.

“Even though Chris Coleman and all of Wales were delighted with the Euros I don’t think they’ll want to go into the World Cup with the favourites’ tag because it only adds pressure,” he observes. “I think he’ll be trying to deflect that from the lads. On the back of what he’s done at the Euros, expectation levels go through the roof. Serbia will be tough and the Republic will be a very hard game. The players know each other well and it’s definitely one for the fans.”

Working for the BBC in France during the Euros, Hartson could appreciate first hand what the experience of their teams playing at the finals meant to the supporters, Irish as well as Welsh.

“I was in a pub with Neil Lennon, Dean Saunders and Danny Murphy watching the Italy game,” he relates, “and the place just erupted when Robbie Brady scored — us as well.”

But, of course, it was the stunning progress through the competition of his native Wales, and the way their achievements captured the imagination of the people back home, which left memories which will never fade for Hartson.

“Some of the stories you heard coming out of Wales,” he smiles, “like the 75-year-old man who’d supported Wales all his life and had all these disappointments, and now he was dipping into his life savings that he was meant to be leaving his grandchildren, for the trip to France.

“Rugby is the number one sport — you’d fill the Millennium Stadium seven nights a week for rugby — but now football is back on the big stage for Wales.”

And on this weekend when the heavy spin will seek to convince us that it doesn’t get better in football than the Premier League — or not, at least, until the Champions League takes centre stage — it’s refreshing to hear Hartson offer eloquent and emotional support for the nowadays often frequently derided idea that the greatest awards in football are still to be found in the international arena.

This is one from the heart.

“I played 51 times for Wales,” he says. “I’m a proud Welsh speaker, very patriotic about where I come from, my heritage. My father, my grandfather, my children — we all speak the language.

“I used to look forward to the anthem nearly more than the game. I did. Because the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up when I looked up into the crowd and saw my children and my mother and father. All the work that I’d put in as a youngster, and now my mum and dad were having the pleasure of seeing me line up for Wales in front of all those flags and 75,000 people at the Millennium.

“You can win individual honours in football. I’ve played in the Champions League. I’ve scored against Rangers countless times. I’ve scored hat-tricks for Arsenal, for West Ham. I’ve played in some of the biggest stadiums in the world — but representing my country at senior level was undoubtedly my biggest achievement.

“And I think more people should think that way about playing for their country. It’s in your blood. It’s what you’re all about. You’re representing your country and all the people who came before you. And I was also following all those great players who wore the No. 9 for Wales — the great John Charles, Rush, Hughes, Saunders. I had pictures of these guys on my bedroom wall growing up in Swansea. I used to think I was Ian Rush, my hero, when I was seven years of age in the park.

“And now I was wearing the shirt. His shirt was left for me.

“It doesn’t get better than that.”


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