HOPE turned to despair, and then defiance as Welsh football fans came to terms with their first defeat of the qualifying campaign for next summer's Euro 2004 finals in Portugal.

Requiring only a point against Serbia-Montenegro in Belgrade to qualify as runners-up, many fans were saying a play-off situation in November is more than they could have dared hope for in a difficult Group Nine.

But others claimed a team that has won its first four games, including a historic victory over Italy at the Millennium Stadium last October, has no business playing for a draw.

Welsh fans far too young to remember the last time Wales reached a major tournament in 1958 were in Newport's Walkabout pub, discussing their national team's "golden age" as they waited impatiently for kick-off.

Daniel Lampitt, 20, from Ombersley Road, in Newport, said: "Savage is the player we can't do without, he and Bellamy work so hard. And Giggs is a real hero, always there for the big games."

James McDonnell, also 20, from Eveswell Park Road, in Newport, added: "This game is huge because we could qualify - I'd be content with a point, but the way we've been playing of late, you'd expect us to beat Serbia-Montenegro."

James and Daniel, together with their friends, have been following the Welsh team for ten years or more and are regulars at the Millennium Stadium for home matches.

Daniel Bird, 20, from Tudor Road, Newport, remembers going to Cardiff Arms Park in 1993 with his dad to see Wales play Romania, a match where the result meant Wales missed out on the 1994 World Cup Finals. He said: "I didn't understand the significance of it at the time, but I remember how upset my dad was.

"Now we've got a real chance - it's a great time to be a Welsh fan." The three lads already have plans to get a "Scooby-Doo-type minibus", and travel to Portugal for the tournament.

James said: "Any match we win out there will be like winning the World Cup, and I'm not missing that."

But last night's performance was strangely mute - the Welsh seemed jolted into action only after conceding a 72nd-minute goal by Dragan Mladenovic.

Tension and volume in the pub increased as Mark Hughes' side pressed hard for a late equaliser.

Several chances on goal lifted the crowd momentarily - a 93rd-minute penalty claim by Robbie Savage may not have won him many fans in the Premiership, but the Walkabout broke into cheers as someone compared him favourably with David Beckham, shouting: "The best number seven in Britain."

At half-time Nick had confided to me that he felt the game's importance was as much about gaining a psychological boost over the Italians, Wales' next opponents, as bagging the points.

He said: "If we lose this game, then Italy could smell blood." But at the final whistle, brave faces convinced one another that Wales still had qualification in their grasp.

James said: "We'll still do it. I believe we will. We're all gutted now, but I'll be in Portugal watching Wales next summer."