How Brian Flynn Saved Welsh International Football

How Brian Flynn Saved Welsh International Football

An excellent article written by Leon Barton looks at former Clarets midfielder Brian Flynn and how he has saved Welsh International football. From having never qualified for major football tournament in their history, Wales are preparing to play in their second successive European Championships. How did this turnaround happen, obviously there are a number of factors, but perhaps the key man in this story is Brian Flynn. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that the former Burnley and Leeds midfielder saved Welsh International football.

If you go back to 2003, having won their first four Euro 2004 qualifiers, Wales had failed once again in their quest to make it to a major tournament, losing in the play-offs match to a Russia team featuring at least one player pumped full of Bromantan, an anti-fatigue drug developed by the military during the cold war. Questionable opposition tactics aside, this was just the latest in a long line of failure.

In fact until 2015, Wales had never actually qualified outright for a major tournament. The nation only got to the 1958 World Cup Finals after getting drawn out of a hat to face Israel in an eminently winnable play-off tie (Israel’s Arab neighbours had refused to face them and FIFA decided they would have to play off against a European team to try and earn a place at the tournament). Wales weren’t even the first team drawn out of the hat for the play-offs, Belgium were, but they had too much pride to go to in those circumstances.

The team of 1974/75 that Brian Flynn came into is still the only time the Welsh seniors have ever topped a qualifying group (ahead of Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg) but in those days, the Euros were a much smaller affair. Wales reached the last eight but the quarter-finals only acted as a sort of playoff before the semi-finalists convened in one country. Yugoslavia triumphed 3-1 over two legs, making the last four ahead of Wales.

Flynn’s full debut came the year before in a home international match against Scotland in the City of Cardiff. The 19-year-old marked the occasion by netting in remarkable fashion finishing first-time following double one-two on a muddy Ninian Park pitch. It was his first goal as a professional, although the teenager had already made an impact in the top flight with Burnley, their visionary manager Jimmy Adamson considered by many to be the greatest English footballer never to win an international cap, placing much more emphasis on skill and intelligence than raw physicality.

Having said that, while just five-foot-four Flynn could mix it, he was terrier-like, loathe to give midfield opponents time on the ball to pick their passes whilst invariably making the right decisions when in possession himself. Flynn also had a decent eye for goal, famously scoring with a header against Brazil in 1983. Having had a stellar career himself, making 66 International appearances for Wales and with five top ten finishes in the top flight, alongside short-arse contemporaries such as Billy Bremner and Alan Ball meant the commonly-expressed cop-out of ‘you’re too small to make it’ unsurprisingly never left Flynn’s lips in twelve years of managing Wrexham and two years at Swansea City.

‘Ability, Attitude and Intelligence was the mantra and having been thrown in himself at a young age he was rarely afraid to give youngsters a chance. Numerous raw talents were brought through during his time in club management: Chris Armstrong, Karl Connolly and Leon Britton amongst them. This made Brian Flynn the obvious choice for senior team manager, John Toshack’s newly created role of Wales Intermediate Team Manager (coach for the under 21s, 19s and 17s in old money) in late 2004.

The former Liverpool striker was just one in a long list of great Welsh players to never qualify for a major tournament; John & Mel Charles, Ivor Allchurch, Jack Kelsey, Cliff Jones, Mike England, Leighton James, Terry Yorath, Neville Southall, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Kevin Ratcliffe, Gary Speed, Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy … I could go on.

Manager Mike England said in 1981, “There are about 24 players whom I would consider as suitable contenders in the whole of the league. If one of my players gets injured, it’s very hard to replace him.” Whilst Ian Rush discussed the issue of squad depth in 1995 saying, “The eternal problem for a small country like Wales with limited numbers of top-flight professional players, has invariably been in getting the balance right.” Craig Bellamy put it typically bluntly in 2001, “Over the years, Wales have been able to field a strong side when everyone is fit but there’s never been much below the surface. If we get injuries, we’ve had it. It’s not ideal.”

In 2004, things were looking bleak, the absence of injured & suspended players towards the end of the 2002 campaign such as Craig Bellamy, Simon Davies and Mark Pembridge had cost Wales dearly. The U21’s had recently five years (26 matches) between 1997 and 2002 without recording a single victory. This abysmal run had dragged expectations down below sewer level. “Wales played a truly outstanding game,” stated a piece in a match programme in 1999, describing an under-21 qualifier against Italy. A game the Italians had won 6-2. It’s fair to say there wasn’t exactly a ready-made conveyer belt of young talent just waiting to flood the senior team. 

Flynn got to work on deepening the player pool, attacking his new job with gusto from day one. “You need at least 30 good players really,” he told me. “John Toshack always used to say the best players need good sparring partners.” In attending an average of 12 games a week, he was intent on building good relations with club coaches and making sure he was at least aware of as many Welsh qualified players as possible. This diligence paid off in spectacular fashion. 

Look at the three goalscorers on the greatest night in Welsh football history, the quarter final versus Belgium at Euro 2016. Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes. All three were born and raised in England with Welsh grandparents. All three were brought into the Welsh set up by Brian Flynn following chance meetings and scattergun enquiries.

Another gear shift came in Flynn impressing the importance of a winning mentality. To this end, the roots of Wales’ success at Euro 2016 and beyond can be traced back to 2007. In the summer of that year, Flynn’s U21’s beat Sweden 4-3 away in a friendly. Eight of the players who played that day went to France nine years later: David Edwards, Sam Vokes, David Cotterill, Simon Church, Neil Taylor, Owain Fon Williams and two young debutants in the midfield, Joe Allen (17) and Aaron Ramsey (16). It was Allen who volleyed home the winning goal that day. 

Three months later came the 4-2 victory over France at Ninian Park. Only 700 spectators were in the stadium, but having heard promising things about some of the teenagers in the squad, I went to my local pub in Cambridge (where I was living) and asked them to put the game on. I was the only one watching. The match was a revelation, with Ramsey and Allen particularly impressive. Welsh kids with the same level of technical ability as the best young footballers in France? Wow. Something’s happening here.

Wales ended up topping the group, but that only led to a playoff against England, one of Europe’s top nations at youth level. The matches were epic and evenly contested, but with the extra English experience of established Premier League stars such as James Milner and Mark Noble eventually proving decisive.

The following campaign included a hugely impressive and richly deserved victory over Italy. 2-1 but it could, indeed should, have been more. This would eventually prove costly, despite gaining the same number of points, having a better goal difference, scoring more goals and having a 2-2 aggregate record, it was the Azzurrini who went through on the head-to-head away goals rule. The one scored at the Liberty Stadium ironically by Alberto Paloschi, who had a spell with Swansea City in 2016 ultimately sent them through.

These near-misses would be painful for most managers but Flynn is remarkably sanguine about it all. There’s no bitterness, for his eyes were always on the much bigger prize of helping the senior team get to tournaments. As with Toshack, he was wise enough and experienced enough to know that very often the seeds you sow are more important than the flowers you can see. Whilst looking back on that era, Brian Flynn told former Wales International Owain Tudur Jones, “Those eight years will be good enough for the next fifteen years for Wales International Football.”

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