JOE LEDLEY will prepare for the stare when he lines up in the tunnel of the Cardiff City Stadium on Friday. The World Cup qualifier between Ledley’s Wales and Scotland will be both a Celtic confrontation with a hard ‘c’, and Celtic combat with a soft ‘c’.
The 25-year-old midfielder is steeling himself for going head-to-head with his Celtic captain Scott Brown. Fellow Welshman Adam Matthews, meanwhile, could be detailed to stop his club cohort James Forrest, with Charlie Mulgrew the fifth member of Neil Lennon’s side with the possibility of featuring in the Group A game.
It is unquestionably Ledley lining up against his midfield confrere that possesses the greatest potential for pyrotechnics. Brown may have exhibited a new maturity in leading his club to impressive results in Europe. But the beady eyes with which he seeks to psyche out opponents still regularly extend to fix on any adversaries. “It wouldn’t surprise if he did give me the stare,” Ledley says. “But I won’t crumble or anything. We’ve been speaking about it in the dressing room that it could be me against Scott in midfield and Adam against Jamesy on the wing. They will be two good battles if they happen. We know each other very well but that goes out the window if you are fighting for your nation to try to get three points. I think there will be a couple of bets going on.”
Outsiders will bet on the fact that Friday’s big one between the 56th and 57th ranked nations, won’t ultimately have a great bearing on places for next year’s finals in Rio. Yet, if that means Scotland’s 14-year absence from major finals drags on, Ledley would suggest sparing a thought for Wales. It is 54 years since they made their one and only appearance in the World Cup finals and 36 years since they reached the European Championship quarter-finals. Against this backdrop, and the fact Scotland at least have two points to Wales’ zilch, Friday seems more fraught for the home side. Not so, says Ledley.
“I think Scotland are under more pressure,” he says. Unlike in these parts, the constant citing of years since a major finals wasn’t something Ledley grew up with in Cardiff. Scotland have had to live with greater expectations than Wales, although Ledley accepts that may have changed recently.
“I think it’s more of an issue because of the players we have and the kind of football we have been playing. OK, the last two games haven’t been too good but previously we’d brought a lot of hope to the people down in Wales. With the good players we have now we need to start performing as a team. We have fantastic players – Gareth Bale who is arguably one of the best players in the world on his day, we have Craig Bellamy [though not in the current squad] and Joe Allen, who has just moved to Liverpool. This is the generation that needs to step up and go for it.”
A home loss to Belgium and a 6-1 slaughtering by Serbia have utterly drained Welsh hopes, though. As with Scotland’s dispiriting two home draws, previous results in their section will make this week’s meeting in Cardiff a derby duel of desperados.
“Both teams are struggling in the group and both teams will have to raise their game,” admits Ledley. “It’s a must-win game because both teams are under pressure already. I don’t think a draw would be good enough for either team at this stage. I watched our Serbia game on television. A lot of players were missing through injury and you can’t really do anything about the fact the likes of Bellamy weren’t there. But I don’t think we passed the ball or defended as well as we can. We defend well as a unit and that didn’t happen. It’s hard to go to places like Serbia and get a result but we are still a young team and I hope we will learn from what happened over there.”
Scotland will have to learn lessons from recent visits to Wales. George Burley lost his job following a 3-0 friendly defeat in Cardiff three years ago, and Berti Vogts’ credibility took one of its final batterings with a gruesome 4-0 defeat at the Millennium Stadium in 2004. “I remember that 3-0 game at the Cardiff City Stadium,” says Ledley. “That was a fantastic for us. We were well up for it and had good players in the team. It’s always good when we play Scotland. I think we’ll need to defend pretty well because Scotland have good strikers and good players. And we are under pressure too because we don’t have a point yet.”
On Friday, the contest will be all about which of the teams can ensure that they are in a slightly less worse position after three Group A games.