Wales at Euro 2016: How Gary Speed’s legacy lives on

Five years ago this November, the former skipper was tragically discovered dead at his home. But Wales fans haven’t forgotten his work – that which laid the groundwork for the side doing them proud in France right now

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While Chris Coleman deserves every accolade for engineering Wales’s ongoing Euros adventure, it should not be forgotten that this is a dream six years in the making.

For it was his predecessor who first laid out the blueprints, a template for change that required guts, a huge amount of trust in the Welsh public, and the hauling of an entire national setup into the modern era.

Though Gary Speed’s appointment before Christmas in 2010 was a popular one, nobody expected the 41-year-old to bring about any meaningful transformation to a nation that had become accustomed to valiant failure. It seemed even more unlikely that Wales’s most capped outfield player and former captain would implant a long-term vision of excellence, based on restored self-belief and attractive, open football.

Cut by the Blades

Though Gary Speed’s appointment before Christmas in 2010 was a popular one, nobody expected the 41-year-old to bring about any meaningful transformation

For one thing, he had just four short months of managerial experience to his name, a steep learning curve at Sheffield United that brought nine defeats in his 18 games in charge. This was not a man who’d navigated the choppy waters of the coaching channels, but rather a retired pro given a quick dunk in an ice bath.

More pertinently, Wales were in the doldrums and their fans had grown jaded. Their previous two qualifying campaigns for major tournaments under an increasingly beleaguered John Toshack had seen them finish third from bottom on both occasions, with all but one of their victories coming against the traditional whipping boys that languished below them.

So the surprise promotion of Speed to the role was met with relief over optimism, and that was largely due to Toshack’s unpopularity at the time. Even so, the former Leeds and Newcastle midfielder said all the right things as he was unveiled to the media at the Vale of Glamorgan hotel.

Gary Speed unveiled as Wales manager

Speed is unveiled as Wales manager in December 2010

“I think we need to consistently compete on a world stage and not just come close to qualifying every now and again,” he told the attending press. “The group of players we’ve got are of an age where they can be together for a long time, and improve and grow for a long time.”

Always in transition

In hindsight Speed’s comments have an impressive prescience to them, but truthfully Welsh supporters had heard all this before. They were seemingly always in transition and always determined to finally end a qualifying drought that stretched back to the days of John Charles and wireless radios.

The group of players we’ve got are of an age where they can be together for a long time, and improve and grow for a long time

- Gary Speed, 2010

There was no denying, however, that breaking through were a crop of terrifically talented youngsters – 12 months earlier Toshack had fielded the nation’s youngest-ever side in a friendly against Estonia, with an average age of just 21. Most notable among those prospects was a midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Ledley, with Swansea’s Joe Allen making a debut appearance on 80 minutes. Tottenham’s 20-year-old sensation-in-the-making Gareth Bale was a relative veteran that evening, having made his international introduction at the tender age of 16.

The future, then, looked exceedingly bright for this proud country that, in living memory, had produced the world’s best goalkeeper, winger and goal-poacher supreme in Neville Southall, Ryan Giggs and Ian Rush yet forever seemed incapable of fulfilling their promise.

More encouraging still, the renaissance was not solely reserved for the pitch. In the newly published book Together Stronger, author and journalist Chris Wathan describes Wales’s head coach as “the poster boy with the smile to beam off the back pages, the leader who could bridge an age gap and galvanise a team, and the forward-thinking individual who had bought into the added extras that professionals needed to gain those small margins”.

Gary Speed

Speed brought a newfound sense of belief to Wales

The last point is particularly salient. Speed was a modern footballer with a modern take on things, who arguably symbolised the Premier League more than any player other than Giggs. One of his first acts on taking charge was to dramatically ramp up the sports science inside the camp, bringing in Jeff Roden as Head of Performance and recruiting ‘Dutch Ray’ Verheijen as fitness coach.

Working alongside Osian Roberts, he set about the root-and-branch reform of a setup that had become stale and institutionalised. The fusty FAW had finally embraced the 21st century.

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Group B



Group B

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Its a sign of Waless ambition that a draw placing them in a group with England was met with groans. After 58 years watching from the sidelines \(40 if you count the final round of Euro 76 qualifying as a de facto quarter\-final\), in which the team had been brought low by everything from crossbars and floodlights to doping Russians and a cheating Scot, this is their time and England are getting in the way. The pseudo\-derby in tiny Lens is an unwelcome distraction, but it could decide Waless Euro 2016 fate. Fortunately, they revel in being underdogs. In short: bring it on.

Is the team strong enough to support Bale?

The perception outside Wales is that their starting XI consists of Gareth Bale and 10 competition winners. Its nonsense. Their success comes from a stingy defence led by Ashley Williams, while any three of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and Premier League champion Andy King make for a fine midfield. However, theres no forgetting that Bale contributed to 10 of Waless 11 goals in qualifying; nor that theyve won just one of the nine games hes missed in the Chris Coleman era. Tidy but toothless performances have shown how much they need the Real Madrid forward. Could Wales make it out of Group B without Bale? Probably not unless it was with three 0\-0 draws. But they can succeed with him, as supporting actors to the A\-list star. Waless tactics dont revolve around Bale. Theyre strong on the counter, of course, because their best player is tailor\-made for it, but generally play a passing game. At the same time, Coleman knows Bale is most dangerous in a free role and thats why the units organisation and discipline is crucial. Fortunately, keeping things tight at one end with a match\-winner at the other is a perfect setup for tournament football.

What theyve learned

One: love your subs. Coleman has taught his players the tactical flexibility to change formation mid\-match, but even allowing for Waless lack of game\-changers in reserve hell hold off on making a substitution thatd give a labouring team impetus. Two: dont panic. Wales have always had an innate ability to self\-destruct, but theyve learned of late to overcome adversity, either from tragic events off the pitch or simple setbacks on it. Six minutes into the campaign they trailed to Andorra on a shocking pitch, and only narrowly avoided humiliation. But they stuck at it, just as they won with 10 men against Cyprus and stood firm against Belgium home and away.

All about organisation

Well, Bales pretty useful. But Wales as a team are organised with and without the ball. Theyre neat in possession, and adaptable: a fluid 5\-3\-2 with four full\-backs, two pushed high up the pitch, morphs easily into a 3\-4\-2\-1 with Aaron Ramsey more advanced, and the players are also comfortable playing in a 4\-3\-3. The key to qualification was a hardy defence. Captain Williams was an ever\-present rock, and others stepped up: Jazz Richards probably wont even start in France but was sensational in silencing Eden Hazard as Wales beat Belgium last June, and later crossed perfectly for Bales headed winner in Cyprus. Wales let in four goals in 10 matches, playing nine\-and\-a\-half hours of competitive football without conceding, and keeping two clean sheets against a Belgium team that scored 24 goals in their eight other ties. Only Spain, England and Romania managed more shutouts than Waless seven.

Goals win games

A recent tendency to switch off when defending set\-pieces is concerning, and while theres more depth than before, the squads still thin in attack and central defence. However, the main problem is goals or a lack of them. The qualifying campaign brought a meagre haul of 11; nobody at Euro 2016 averaged fewer per game. Wales dont create many chances they posed alarmingly little threat in Bale\-less friendlies against Northern Ireland and Ukraine and theres no real poacher to convert them anyway. Cult hero Hal Robson\-Kanu has improved immeasurably, bringing industry and heart to his adopted No.9 role, but 30 caps have yielded just two goals. Sam Vokes \(six goals in 39 appearances\) hasnt brought his club form to the international scene. Simon Church \(three in 35\) is a nuisance but not a threat. Walsalls Tom Bradshaw was trumpeted for inclusion as the squads wildcard following consecutive 20\-goal domestic seasons, but was duly ruled out of contention before the final squad was announced with a torn ankle ligament.

Bale has, at 26, already done more for Welsh football than perhaps any other player in its history. Helping his nation into at least the last eight in France not to mention the World Cup finals in Russia would only confirm that. Yet hes not under pressure to do so, thanks to a convivial dressing room full of established squad members whove played alongside him for years. Compare that relaxed atmosphere to the one surrounding \(or created by\) Bales Real Madrid club\-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, who said of Portugal before the 2014 World Cup: If we had two or three Cristiano Ronaldos in the team, Id feel more comfortable but we dont. Bales a creator and a finisher, a leader and a follower, but most importantly to Wales, he isnt a one\-dimensional threat. While his ability to develop something out of nothing terrifies defenders, he also scores towering headers, slots home through balls and nets sumptuous free\-kicks handy, as Wales have several tricky dribblers who are good at winning them. In fact, four of Bales 19 international goals have been direct free\-kicks, with another three also coming from outside the box. On form, he isnt easy to stop.

chris coleman

Four years ago Coleman arrived from the Greek second division and lost five of his first six games. It seems hard to believe now, with a new contract \(finally\) signed, that he was once clinging to his job. The jacket he wears for every game isnt just a talisman hes superstitiously worn it whatever the heat since watching Waless 6\-1 defeat to Serbia in his shirtsleeves but a reminder of those dark times. Thats all changed. Player standoffs have been replaced by phenomenal team spirit, bluster by composed confidence. Coleman is also helped enormously by assistants Osian Roberts, Welsh footballs true driving force, and Paul Trollope, Cardiffs new manager.

Watching the transformation

Speed’s first competitive game in March 2011, however, proved to be a disappointment. Wales lost 2-0 to England, of all teams, and were second-best throughout, with the result realistically ending hopes of qualification for Euro 2012 only four games in.

Speed was a modern footballer with a modern take on things, who arguably symbolised the Premier League more than any player other than Ryan Giggs

The defeats largely kept on coming too; to Scotland, England again, and Australia in a friendly. Yet the overriding theme from the fans and media alike throughout this period was one of encouragement – excitement even – because the metamorphosis that was taking place was clear to see.

The prodigiously gifted but raw Ramsey was installed as captain. Not a fist-pumping centre-back with decades of experience but a 20-year-old who prized possession of the ball and epitomised the values this young side were striving for. Defenders were instructed to play out from the back while elsewhere, control and expression were the mandates.

Implementing such a dramatic shift in philosophy all took time of course – for Speed and his squad, things weren't built in a day – but it also placed a great deal of trust and patience in the Welsh support as they essentially wrote off a qualifying campaign with a view to long-term improvement.

With no shred of arrogance, Speed knew he had that. In 85 caps he had not short-changed his country once, and that wasn’t solely down to patriotic diligence but also through possessing a rare high regard for the intelligence of the paying fans.

Not that any great footballing insight was required to appreciate what was taking place – it was happening before everyone’s very eyes. In their last two qualifiers, against Switzerland and Bulgaria away respectively, Wales won out by playing with a confidence and fluidity that exhilarated before Norway headed to Cardiff for a friendly that November. It was a fixture that has become laden with significance, both good and tragic.

Gary Speed Wales player

Speed won 85 caps for his country – 21 more than Giggs

Tragic turn

The Scandinavians may have been a fading force, but they still had enough nous to pose a serious threat to the principled project that was beginning to promise much. Instead they found themselves played off the park in a 4-1 thrashing that fully revealed all that had previously been heavily hinted at.

The football on display that afternoon – on a weekend that announced Wales as the 45th-ranked side in the world, the biggest jump by any nation that year – was scintillating, brilliant and composed. It had the hallmarks of the architect behind it; tiki-taka from the valleys. From here anything seemed possible.

Two weeks later, the architect was found in the garage of his home in Huntington, Chester, and a stunned nation mourned. It remains shocking to write and read of it today.

But Gary Speed’s legacy lives on now in every Ramsey through-ball and every moment of Bale wonderment. And it lives on in France.

Throughout his long and distinguished international playing career, he made his country proud of him – but more extraordinary still, he then made his country proud of itself.

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