WALES star Mark Delaney knows all about the haves and the have nots. Six seasons ago, the 25-year-old defender was plying his trade on Saturday afternoons marshalling Carmarthen Town's back line in the League of Wales.

Now the Haverfordwest-born player has become one of the most established defenders in the Premiership with Aston Villa.

The ex-Cardiff City man knows he has another golden chance tonight to cement his international credentials against the Czech Republic.

And, perhaps more importantly, as far as Wales is concerned he recognises that it's possible that small steps can quickly turn into giant strides and the golden path of success.

"Many may not think of tonight as a massive game for us," frowned Delaney, who was recently handed a new four-year contract by Villa boss Graham Taylor.

"After all that good work against Argentina last month (Wales drew 1-1), we don't want to let ourselves down against the Czechs."

The fickle hand of fate rarely deals favourably for Wales when it comes to prospects for qualifying for a major championships.

You have to go back to the black and white TV days of 1958 for the last time Wales stepped on to the big stage at the World Cup in Sweden.

This time is no different with the Euro 2004 qualifying draw throwing up a 'Group of Death' in Italy, Finland, Yugoslavia and Azerbaijan (ok, three or four potential pitfalls). But Delaney believes the dark days of doom are over for the Welsh Dragon as the current crop of experience and youth in the camp are capable of breathing fire into the hopes of a nation.

"We've got a very good chance of qualifying," promised Delaney this week. "I think the public is finally realising that we have got a good side and a good opportunity. Things are looking very strong for us."

Tonight will be just the kind of test needed by Wales and by Delaney himself as the dangerous underdog strides into town.

Strangely always under-rated, the Czechs were runners-up to Germany in Euro '96 and only narrowly missed out on a trip to this summer's World Cup in Japan after being edged off the top of their qualifying group by Denmark and then beaten in the play-offs by Belgium.

Wales have been seriously undermined by the absence of Ryan Giggs, Gary Speed, Craig Bellamy and many more from the squad and some fear they could suffer a fall in front of a half-empty Millennium Stadium.

Liverpool's Vladimir Smicer, Lazio's Karel Poborski, Juventus' Pavel Nedved and giant Borussia Dortmund striker Jan Koller would be enough to put fear in the hearts of most men although Anfield's powerful left-footer, Patrik Berger, is injured and has apparently decided he no longer wants to be considered for international duty.

But Delaney, for one, does not feel intimidated by the looming prospect and wants Wales' current injury crisis to work in manager Mark Hughes' favour. "This is the perfect chance for our younger players to come in and give him a selection headache," he said.

"I'm excited about the future because I now feel very much part of the Premiership and all I want to do is look ahead to playing regularly for my club and be part of a very good international squad which has a lot of good youngsters."

With the likes of Cardiff pair Danny Gabbidon and Robert Earnshaw, Spurs' Simon Davies, West Brom's Jason Koumas, Coventry's Lee Fowler, Tranmere's Gareth Roberts and Crewe's David Vaughan all waiting in the wings, there seems a very good chance he will.