Wales' highs and lows of playing Slovakia

John Toshack
John Toshack described his Wales side's 5-1 loss to Slovakia as the worst international performance he had seen
Euro 2020 qualifiers: Wales v Slovakia
Venue: Cardiff City Stadium Date: Sunday, 24 March Kick-off: 14:00 GMT
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Wales & Radio Cymru; live text updates on the BBC Sport website, watch highlights on BBC One Wales, 22.30 GMT

Ask any Welsh football fan about Slovakia and you are likely to see their eyes light up as they reminisce about their opening match at Euro 2016, catharsis in the Bordeaux sunshine for a nation absent from major tournaments for 58 years.

In a golden summer for Wales, it was an afternoon to cherish, with memories to last a lifetime - the anthem, Gareth Bale's free-kick, Hal Robson-Kanu's scuffed winner.

But the last time Wales faced Slovakia in Cardiff, the difference was stark.

It was October 2006 and a young Wales side in transition under John Toshack had started their Euro 2008 qualifying campaign in reasonably encouraging fashion in the Czech Republic, playing well but succumbing to a late goal in a 2-1 defeat.

There was precious little success during Toshack's reign but he was determined to usher in a new generation of players, willing to absorb some initial pain in the hope that the experience would benefit these fledgling players in the long run.

"He blooded a lot of young players so it did become a transitional period. Some good things were done in that period but, with regards to results, they almost became secondary," says Danny Gabbidon, Wales' centre-back at the time.

So while there was scepticism, there was also optimism for Wales' first home match of the campaign, the crowd at a sunny Millennium Stadium looking forward to watching Southampton's 17-year-old wing-back Gareth Bale win his third cap.

Paul James with 50 shaved in his hair
Paul Jones' 50th cap against Slovakia was to be his last for Wales

Jones' bad hair day

This was also a 50th appearance for Wales goalkeeper Paul Jones, who marked the occasion by shaving the number 50 on the side of his head and a dragon on the back.

"It was just to have a laugh really, a spur of the moment thing," Jones recalls.

A little out of character for the Southampton man, this outlandish new hairstyle was met with a few sniggers but a general sense of humour among Wales fans paying tribute to a stalwart of their side.

That goodwill did not last long.

After Dusan Svento put Slovakia in front, Jones inexplicably struck the ball straight to Marek Mintal, who fired into an empty net to put the visitors 2-0 up after half an hour.

Bale gave Wales a lifeline with a superb curling free-kick to become Wales' youngest goalscorer, but that hope was swiftly crushed by Mintal's second.

Things got even worse for Jones and Wales in the second half, the keeper flailing as Miroslav Karhan's curling effort looped into the net, before Robert Vittek scored Slovakia's fifth.

With a final score of 5-1, Jones' commemorative haircut suddenly didn't seem such a good idea.

"I nearly got it right as well with 50, 51 would have been right with 5-1," he says, able to laugh almost 13 years after the event.

"Unfortunately for everyone, it was one of those situations where we had a poor day and got beaten well and truly. It's sad it was my 50th cap, which was disappointing.

"I'm not too worried about it now. It was just one of those things. We can move on and I can have a laugh about it now."

Wales have certainly moved on since then, their win over Slovakia at Euro 2016 paving the way for a stirring run to a first major semi-final in their history.

But at the time, this was a thoroughly demoralising and damaging result.

Toshack described it as the worst international performance he had seen, saying at the time: "We will all be having to take some punches on the jaw over the next few days and we will do. I have already delivered one or two uppercuts."

Even now, those who played that day still shudder at the thought of the game.

"I tried to banish it from my memory," Gabbidon says.

"It was a result in an indifferent period for us under John Toshack. Yes, we had a lot of young players but to get beaten that heavily at home, you'd never envisage that happening.

"It was certainly one of the lowest points of my international career."

Gareth Bale celebrating
Gareth Bale became Wales' record goal scorer during their 6-0 win over China in March 2018

Bale's ray of hope

Looking for a positive from this match was like scrabbling around the rubble of a demolished house in search of a family jewel.

But among the wreckage, Bale's goal shone through.

The teenager had already scored similar goals for Southampton - precise, curling free-kicks struck with the inside of his left foot.

"The free-kick was no surprise because I'd seen him do it on the training ground and for Southampton," says Gabbidon.

"It was great to get his first goal at such a young age, it probably helped make him feel more comfortable in the squad and helped him progress into the player he's become now.

"It was an awful, awful result as a team but, when you're looking for positives to come from it, it does give you a little boost."

Now a four-time Champions League winner and playing as a forward for Real Madrid, Bale's free-kick technique has morphed into one which generates swerve, dip and power using his instep.

The set-pieces are just as deadly, as Slovakia's Matus Kozacik discovered when he was deceived by Bale's vicious free-kick which set Wales on their way to victory in that opening Euro 2016 fixture.

Wales will be hoping for more of the same when they welcome Slovakia to Cardiff City Stadium for their first Euro 2020 qualifier on Sunday.

"As soon as he came into the squad, you could see he had that something about him," says Jones, who was coming to the end of a seven-year spell at Southampton as Bale was progressing through the youth ranks.

"His record since - scoring over 100 goals for Real Madrid - is tremendous and not a surprise to me at all.

"After the last Euros and reaching the semi-finals, Wales want to be qualifying for all major competitions now. They've got a taste for it."