It’s a tournament appearance 58 years in the making. Wales’ single previous showing was in the 1958 World Cup – and yet they’ve made it to the last eight of a European Championship before.
In 1976 Wales topped their group before losing to Yugoslavia over two legs, but as in those days the finals comprised only four teams, this de facto quarter-final is considered a qualifying play-off by UEFA.
Welsh fans needn’t care about such injustices any more. Joe Jordan’s handball in ’77; Paul Bodin’s missed penalty in ’93; Russia’s failed drugs test in 2003 – it’s all in the past. Wales are in the European Championship proper, and they’re hungry for more.
Neutrals have crudely branded Chris Coleman’s team as ‘Gareth Bale + 10’, but the team doesn’t revolve around him. Alongside Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams, Joe Ledley and Joe Allen (a player Coleman says he wishes he could pick twice) there are some emerging young talents and Championship stalwarts who look like different players when they pull on a Wales shirt. Reading fans are only now beginning to understand the Hal Robson-Kanu love-in.
The fact that Real Madrid’s Bale will – assuming Leicester City’s loaned-out Tom Lawrence misses out – be the only Wales forward at Euro 2016 contracted to a top-flight club speaks volumes about the variable quality of players available to a small nation. Yet his presence doesn’t leave others in the shade. This group has been playing together for years; the sense of unity is palpable. The team motto ‘Together Stronger’ could not be more appropriate.
Wales have a young squad, and even Bale, Ramsey and Allen are still in their mid-20s, so the future’s bright. That isn’t enough, though. Even if post-qualification friendlies brought disheartening results, if not performances, Wales go into Euro 2016 feeling quietly confident. Nobody’s expecting much, and they thrive as underdogs. Going deep into the tournament won’t be easy, but they’ve nothing to fear.
Lesson from qualifying
Wales are tactically very flexible; Coleman’s claim: “Plan B is working harder at Plan A” was misdirection. However, while he will switch systems mid-game, he is reluctant to change personnel. In the 0-0 home draw with Israel, when a win would have secured qualification, his first sub was a straight swap on 79 minutes. Too little, too late.
Bale, obviously. But Wales’s main strength is a defence that kept seven clean sheets in 10 qualifiers, went nearly 10 hours without conceding and let in only four goals (one of them, embarrassingly, to Andorra six minutes into the campaign). Keeping it tight with a match-winner at the other end is a good setup for tournament football. They are also adaptable, fit, slick in possession and – don’t laugh – have tricky dribblers who win free-kicks for Bale to convert.
Goals, or a lack thereof. Only Albania qualified scoring fewer than their 11, and Wales played more matches. Coleman’s men struggle to break teams down, creating few clear-cut chances and with no natural goalscorers to convert them. Depth is still an issue, especially as many players aren’t club regulars, and Coleman has admitted he’s worried about lapses defending set-pieces in recent friendlies.
Most likely to…
Confuse neutrals. Crash course: Jonny Williams is a young, blond attacking midfielder born in Kent and on loan in Milton Keynes; George Williams is a young, blond attacking midfielder born in Milton Keynes and on loan in Kent; Ashley Williams is captain; Owain Fon Williams is reserve goalkeeper. Then there’s U21 coach Geraint Williams, Liverpool kid Jordan Williams…
Least likely to…
Score from full-back. Neil Taylor, Ben Davies, Chris Gunter, Adam Matthews and Jazz Richards share 134 caps and zero goals.
What they hope will happen
Beat England, top Group B, then who knows?
What will happen
Finishing second would probably bring Austria or Portugal while third would mean Spain or Germany. Last 16 seems likeliest.
Key player - Gareth Bale
Ashley Williams’ organisation of the defence was key to qualification, but it can’t be ignored that Bale contributed to 10 of Wales’ 11 goals. His vital goals and assists came from towering headers, right-footed flicks, left-footed free-kicks – the lot. He’s the complete player. Decent long throw, too.
Manager - Chris Coleman
Since arriving from Greece’s second tier and escaping several last-chance saloons, Coleman has grown in confidence, even standing up to Arsene Wenger over injuries. But this is the big one. Will Cookie crumble?
Q&A - Hal Robson-Kanu
What did it mean to qualify for the Euro 2016 finals?
Getting Wales to a tournament for the first time in over half a century was a fantastic achievement. The hard thing was getting there; now we’re looking to surprise a few people. We’ve got a nucleus who have been together for six or seven years so when you meet up you don’t feel uneasy or uncomfortable – everyone feels like they’re at home. So when you feel like that, you are able to express yourselves fully.
How does it feel to be a cult hero among the Wales fans?
It’s special. When we beat Belgium at home last summer, to have the supporters singing my name for 20-odd minutes really was a great feeling.
Go on, then, tell us how the song goes...
[Laughs] You’ll have to watch that on YouTube! It’s led by the Barry Horns band – they’re very popular in Wales and they will be going to France. Every player has their own song. We all pretty much know each other’s off by heart now!
Why do you think you’ve become so popular?
I think that they see my commitment. I work my socks off, I free space for the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, and I like to use my pace and strength. I think that causes defences a lot of trouble.
One or two Wales supporters have suggested that you might even be becoming more popular than Gareth Bale...
No, he’s my favourite player! He can be the difference when it’s tight. With Gareth in the team, games that are going to finish 0-0 could be 1-0 instead.
You must think that you made a very good decision choosing to play for Wales, no?
Yes. Brian Flynn had wanted me to play for Wales for a long time and I just wanted to focus on my club football and play in the youth ranks with England. But my grandmother, being Welsh, always wanted me to play for Wales. We sat down as a family when I was 20 and I said: ‘I think I want to do it – I want to play for Wales’. I haven’t looked back since.
Fixtures and results
June 11, Slovakia - Bordeaux, Midnight
June 16, England - Lens, 9pm
June 21, Russia - Toulouse, 3am
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Group B runners-up
vs Andorra (A) 2-1
vs Bosnia & Herz’a (H) 0-0
vs Cyprus (H) 2-1
vs Belgium (A) 0-0
vs Israel (A) 3-0
vs Belgium (H) 1-0
vs Cyprus (A) 1-0
vs Israel (H) 0-0
vs Bosnia & Herz’a (A) 0-2
vs Andorra (H) 2-0
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
Words Huw Davies; Interview Chris Flanagan
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