On the 27th of May 2011 Wales and Northern Ireland played out the wooden spoon match of the new Carling Nations Cup tournament at the revamped Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The game itself was of little consequence (similar to the tournament itself), with Wales recording a 2-0 win. The most staggering statistic was that it was watched by a mere 579 fans. Whilst the attendance was no doubt affected by a boycott from the Northern Ireland fans protesting about what they seen as draconian travel arrangements, the figure was still shockingly low.
Both Northern Ireland and Wales are sitting at the wrong end of their Euro 2012 qualifying groups, Wales rock bottom with four defeats in four games, and Northern Ireland propped up only by the might of the Faroe Islands. Rewind a generation and Northern Ireland were playing in consecutive World Cup Finals in 1982 and 1986. Wales were a Paul Bodin penalty kick away from qualifying for the World Cup in 1994. However, in recent times both nations, along with Scotland, haven’t come close to qualifying for the World Cup Finals. Under Mark Hughes Wales lost a play-off for Euro 2004 to Russia, and have steadily gone backwards since then. Scotland have twice lost in play-offs for major tournaments, once to England for a spot in Euro 2000, and once over two legs to the Dutch for a place at Euro 2004.
Unlikely as it may seem, one of the major contributing factors in the decline of the trio is the collapse of Communism following the Autumn of Nations in 1989. When Scotland and Northern Ireland qualified for the Mexico World Cup in 1986 they competed in a qualifying campaign that would reward 14 of the 32 competing nations a place at the finals. Some rudimentary maths shows that 1 in 2.2 teams would be on their way to Mexico. Fast forward to the most recent World Cup in South Africa and the number of teams taking part in the UEFA qualifying section had rocketed to 53, an increase of 65%. UEFA were allocated 13 places for the South African tournament, meaning now 1 in 4 teams in the qualifying process made it to the finals.
Between 1990 and 1996 21 nations joined UEFA. The bulk was following the breakup of the U.S.S.R and Yugoslavia, but Israel, San Marino, Andorra and Faroe Islands all joined the ranks during this time. Eight of the new members have since gone on to qualify for major tournaments.
In 1967 Scotland were the self-proclaimed World Champions after their victory over England at Wembley. The Scots qualified for every World Cup between 1974 and 1990, and throughout this period had players featuring regularly at top clubs both in Scotland, England and further afield. Steve Archibald plied his trade at Barcelona for four years, Graeme Souness signed for Sampdoria and Alan McInally turned out for Bayern Munich. In the 90s John Collins played alongside a young Thierry Henry at Monaco and Paul Lambert won a European Cup at Borussia Dortmund. Looking at the recent squads selected by current manager Craig Levein, aside from the players at Rangers and Celtic, only Darren Fletcher could lay claim to being a regular at a big club. Danny Wilson has completed his first season at Liverpool but couldn’t be described as a regular making only 8 appearances.
Northern Ireland famously defeated Spain in the 1982 World Cup with a goal from Gerry Armstrong. Armstrong would go on to be the top scoring player from the home nations at the tournament, outscoring the English and Scottish forwards. The Northern Ireland team featured the great Pat Jennings, Martin O’Neil, Jimmy Nicholl, Sammy McIlroy and the record breaking Norman Whiteside who overtook Pele to become the youngest player to feature at the World Cup. Nowadays the big names in the squad are Johnny Evans, a Manchester United squad player who could well be on his way out of the club, and captain Aaron Hughes, a solid if unspectacular centre-half. The lack of talent available to choose from was highlighted when manager Nigel Worthington handed two international caps to James Lawrie, a young striker plying his trade in the Conference North, the 6th tier of English club football.
Wales have only once qualified for the World Cup in 1958 where they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by a Brazil side featuring a 17 year old Pele who scored the only goal of the game. When Paul Bodin infamously missed that penalty that would have given Wales a 2-1 lead against Romania and took them to the World Cup the Wales line up included Ryan Giggs, Dean Saunders, Neville Southall, Gary Speed and an albeit aging Ian Rush. When Wales took on England in a Euro 2012 qualifier in March 2011 only five of the starting line up were playing top-flight football.
Whilst numerous issues around youth development can be mooted for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that fact is that they are now up against more nations for places in tournament finals. In 1982 when Scotland and Northern Ireland joined England at the World Cup, the minnows were the likes of Malta and Luxembourg, who were streets behind in ability and organisation. Now that they are regularly coming up against the likes of the former U.S.S.R states, the Balkan nations and rapidly improved nations like Turkey and Israel, the chances of future qualification do not bode well. A further spanner in the works in the future will be the rapidly developing football leagues in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Both countries are oil rich and have club owners splashing cash on expensive foreign imports, both managerial and on the playing side. Whilst the intentions of the individuals moving to these leagues may be purely financial, they will over time increase the quality of the leagues and in turn the home players, leading to improvements in the national teams.
Scotland has 5.4m residents, Wales 2.9m and Northern Ireland 1.4m. It may well now be a numbers game that these nations do not have a big enough talent pool to compete against the developing football nations. Of the new UEFA members since 1992, more than two thirds of them have bigger populations than Wales and Northern Ireland. However, the hope is that it is not about numbers, as Slovenia, Croatia and Latvia have all qualified for tournaments in recent times with smaller populations than Scotland.
One thing that is for certain is that for all UEFA counties, it is a lot more difficult to qualify for a World Cup or European Championship with nearly twice as many teams chasing spots as there was a generation ago.