By Ben Szwediuk
“It’s a massive night for Welsh football” is a saying that strikes fear into the hearts of the country’s battle-weary fans dreaming of glory because every one of those nights over the last 57 years has ended in failure.
They typically come around once, at most twice, every decade, and the first since 2003 is fast approaching with Wales set to face Belgium in a Euro 2016 top-of-the-table Group B qualifying clash at the Cardiff City Stadium on Friday (9.45pm).
Both sides are level on 11 points from five games, with Belgium leading the group on goal difference.
The pair currently occupy the automatic qualification places for next year’s tournament in France and Wales’ promising start has given the fans real hope that their team could reach a major finals for the first time since the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
But while all of Wales is optimistic that the national side can take one of the 24 slots in the expanded tournament, no-one is taking anything for granted because of so many past heroic failures that have left Wales always so near and yet so far.
There have been many excuses for their almost inevitable failure to reach another finals – poor managerial decisions, bad luck, perceived refereeing incompetence plus injuries and suspensions to key players at the most inopportune moments.
The notion that Wales have bottled it on the nights that mattered took hold when Scotland effectively ended their realistic hopes of qualifying for the 1978 and 1986 World Cups.
The heartache continued as they closed in on qualifying for the 1994 World Cup in the United States when a win over Romania would have booked a place.
Blessed with talented players including Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and a precocious teenager called Ryan Giggs, Wales seemed destined to return to the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.
However, missing striker Hughes through suspension, an uncharacteristic error by goalkeeper Neville Southall and a heartbreaking penalty miss by Paul Bodin saw Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania win 2-1 and advance at Wales’ expense.
Hughes was manager the last time they failed to finish the job when Euro 2004 in Portugal was within reach. Giggs was then at his peak in a team, featuring Craig Bellamy, John Hartson and Simon Davies, who were among the top scorers in the qualifiers.
Wales won their first four games, including a 2-1 win over Italy in Cardiff, before their form deserted them. They failed to win any of their remaining four group matches, before exiting meekly to Russia 1-0 in a two-legged playoff.
For Welsh fans, Friday at last seems a different prospect although, as ever, the squad is affected by withdrawals.
Regular starting defenders Ben Davies of Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United’s James Collins have been ruled out until next season along with youngsters Jonny Williams of Crystal Palace, Wigan Athletic’s Emyr Huws and Fulham’s George Williams.
But the squad remains strong and most of manager Chris Coleman’s players have Premier League pedigree, including the world’s most expensive player Gareth Bale.
The dangerous Bale, despite his troubles at Real Madrid, has been in imperious form for Wales and will earn his 50th cap against their strongest group rivals.
Belgium, who are second in FIFA’s world rankings and beat France 4-3 in a friendly in Paris at the weekend, are rightly among the favourites to lift the title next year.
However, they are not infallible, as Wales, world-ranked 22nd, proved with a 0-0 draw in Brussels last year.
Wales have grown in confidence and stature since then and the absence of Belgium captain Vincent Kompany coupled with the fact that Marc Wilmot’s side conceded three second half goals to France, will give the likes of Bale and Aaron Ramsey cause to believe they can cause the visiting defence real problems.
If Coleman’s side do that then “a massive night for Welsh football” would at last be a triumphant occasion.
Unlike other nights, this is not a do-or-die match for Wales, with four matches to play, but the feeling is that if they win on Friday they can go on to take a place in France.