It’s shortly after 9pm on 1 July 2016 and Wales are taking on Belgium in a Euro 2016 quarter-final match in Lille, northern France. For many, this is a match-up between a recently established superpower and a battling underdog. The passing clouds overhead are barely noticeable inside the Stade Pierre-Mauroy as the temperature has settled somewhere near a cool 13 degrees celsius.
It’s a nice change from the previous few days’ sweltering conditions. But neither set of fans are concerned too much with the weather – they’re more interested in fixing their sights firmly toward the on-field action where a place in the semi-final is up for grabs.
The scores are locked at 1-1; Radja Nainggolan’s beautifully converted early first-half strike, cancelled out by Ashley Williams’ effort on the half-hour mark have set the game up for a tense 45 minutes following the restart.
Famously, of course, Wales’ histrionics see them go on to win the contest 3-1, sealing their first-ever appearance in the last four of a major tournament thanks to further goals from Sam Vokes and a 56th-minute Aaron Ramsey-assisted Hal Robson-Kanu effort that is perhaps the greatest goal ever scored by a Wales international. A memorable strike not only for its obvious significance, it’s also recalled by neutrals for the stylish manner of its conversion under pressure.
The stocky striker uses his strength to hold off the attempted tackles of Thomas Meunier behind him inside the six-yard box, swivels on the spot with a deft touch after controlling the cross from his left inside the six-yard area to wrongfoot the three defenders surrounding him. Then, he side-foots to the right of Belgian goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, causing the net, and the stadium, to shake.
The goal marks a remarkable shift in power, and despite getting beaten by eventual champions Portugal in the last-four a few days later, Wales are no longer the underdogs.
Welsh football is a difficult conundrum to figure out. For years, the national team failed to experience much joy in major tournaments, left to watch on as other similarly-sized nations appeared more regularly than them in important competitions.
It’s not as if the national side has been totally devoid of talent down through the years, either. In John Charles, Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes, Wales have seen four of the most talented British players ever produced go on to represent them across a number of generations, and yet neither one was able to prove the necessary catalyst in transforming them from a mediocre team into a silverware-capturing one during their playing days.
Today, however, they are one of the best teams around, regularly producing a marriage of the most effective and eye-catching football currently available to watch.
Where once the Dragons were banished into exile due to a lack of investment, few star players who could carry the team to glory and an absence of a much-needed tactical astuteness, nowadays they are parading the skies of European and world football with as much gusto and pomp as one of Daenerys Stormborn’s household pets.
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They’re playing an entertaining brand of football with Joe Allen proving instrumental in the middle of the park, as Aaron Ramsey, Robson-Kanu and the flair of Gareth Bale all work in sync to score opportunities, often transitioning the ball rapidly from defence to attack or, passing the ball around neatly and with fluidity to lull their opponents into a false sense of security before playing the killer final ball.
They have become a team to be feared following their surge to the semi-final stage at Euro 2016 as well as their rise up the FIFA World Rankings from 112th in 2010 to 12th in 2017 – an incredible leap of 100 places in less than a decade.
To put that into context, El Salvador are currently ranked 112th – the summer Wales were trying to conquer Europe, they were being beaten 4-0 by the likes of Armenia. Imagine them completing a similar feat to Wales in a decade’s time, or even 20 years, and all that would be needed to achieve it. That should provide some idea of just how extraordinary this Wales improvement has been since the turn of the decade.
But why has it taken so long for the Welsh to become a genuine force? Can the fans rest assured that their recent rise to prominence is going to last as long as they would like? And do their recent staggering displays in World Cup qualification hint at tough times to come?
Four Group D draws on the trot – against Austria, Georgia, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland – since October of last year have hardly been disastrous by any means for their hopes of reaching the finals in Russia next year, but that’s not to say their struggles haven’t been surprising – plenty expected them to be top of the group by now. Halfway through the campaign, they find themselves in third spot and four points adrift of the group leaders, Ireland and Serbia, which means that their position is certainly recoverable, but it won’t be an easy task.
How the rest of their qualifying group fixtures pan out will tell us a lot about where this current crop are going. If they play to the capacity everyone knows they are capable of, they could go on to achieve something rivalling what they managed in France.
When These Football Times caught up with Wales’ assistant coach Osian Roberts recently to find out what he thinks of his squad’s chances of emulating their past achievements, he was upbeat: “I’m extremely excited about what’s ahead because I believe in this group of players,” he tells me.
“Of course, what’s recently happened and recent recognition has been fantastic and thoroughly deserved by the players but we don’t want to wait another 58 years for the next major tournament.”
That’s because the World Cup in Sweden 1958 was the last time they ever qualified for the biggest and most prestigious competition of them all, reaching the quarter-final where they lost against Brazil through a solitary Pelé strike. Then, as now, they had an admirable squad of some very good players assembled, but it was Juventus star John Charles who was the standout name on the team sheet, just as Gareth Bale is now.
For those not familiar with the hierarchy in Welsh football, there are not many guys higher up the ranks than Osian Roberts. He’s sort of like a modern-day Johan Cruyff without the exposure. He has been described as “the most influential man in Welsh football” in the recent past and while he might not be too well known to the everyman for his coaching prowess, it’s clear that he has been incredibly key to the nation’s rise through the FIFA World rankings in recent times.
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Although some raise their eyebrows at that system’s ability to genuinely capture who’s doing well and who isn’t, the consensus seems to be that Wales are deserving of every place they have jumped.
It has taken Roberts, and head coach Chris Coleman, lots of time to implement and expound on their plans for the future with their work on the training ground, getting the tactics right and making sure the starting line-up know what’s expected of them on match-days, as well as how to do it.
Roberts has played football on the country’s home scene so his insight is invaluable, not just because he is at the top but because of how he has gotten there. He knows every level of the game, having played for Bangor City, one of the country’s best-known domestic clubs.
Moreover, he moonlights as Technical Director for the FAW Trust, an organisation whose primary aim is to make the nation more successful at both grassroots and international levels, and it is here where he has had arguably the biggest impact. Because while their achievements at Euro 2016 were eye-catching, Roberts’ achievements don’t stop there, and if things go well for him and the rest of the Trust’s strategic aim, the work being done now will have a massive impact in the future as well.
Simply put, the assistant coach hasn’t been spending the past year flicking through photo albums of their past good work; he has been ploughing ahead with some excellent work. “Normally when your job is first-team affairs you focus on results, the here and now, due to the nature of the industry,” Roberts informs me.
“But both Chris as national team manager and myself as FAW Trust’s Technical Director have always had a longer-term approach. It’s our intent that we are competitive regularly in qualifying competitions, we don’t only come close once a decade, and that we only qualify every 58 years. As staff, we have spent a great deal of time affecting the environment and the culture.”
Roberts cites “hard work and avoiding complacency” as the two key traits to aim for in ensuring Wales’ current success doesn’t disappear too quickly, but it’s clear that while their rise has appeared rapid, it has actually come about as a result of long-term planning and pragmatic approaches to laying the groundwork.
“The foresight of the FAW some 20 years ago, to form a Trust arm to the governing body has proven to be a masterstroke,” Roberts tells me when I ask which developments he has been most proud of. “Many National Associations look across with envy and some are looking to emulate. Our aim is to see more players playing the game with better facilities and better coaches. Allied to a robust Player Development Pathway [PDP], we are confident we can deliver in developing the game in the future.”
It’s no wonder others are jealous of the Welsh FA’s progress. Whether it has been the development of Beatball (a unique mixture of football, dance and music) to get more young girls of all ages interested and involved in the game, the PDP, which places the needs of the player first, the introduction of several 3G pitches to improve the surfaces that players are training and competing on, or the introduction of voluntary coaching courses to fast-track the progress of hundreds of qualified coaches every year, there is plenty being done to improve football at every level and in all areas of the country. The association has been very proactive in their efforts because they love the game, but also because the improvements made have been fundamental.
Beatball combines two of the most accessible elements available to kids and young adults so it is important on a number of levels. It’s not just a way to foster interest in the younger generation of would-be footballers, but it’s also a space-conscious one which means a great deal.
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It can be played anywhere – on a school playground, in your own back garden, in a local community centre and even on the beach, which allows more girls to get involved and ensures less of them miss out on that first exposure to a modified version of the beautiful game. Plus, the gateway activity is an inexpensive one. Kids can participate from as little as £1, and with organised sessions happening every week, it’s regular enough to avoid becoming a simple fad.
The PDP is important in tandem with it because it offers the handpicked young footballers deemed good enough to invest coaching time and expertise in a possible route towards either the men’s or women’s national teams. By pooling the resources of the Welsh Football Schools Association, the WPL academies and some of the professional clubs who all work together, the chances are increased in ensuring fewer starlets get neglected or slip through the cracks. Generally, from under-16 level up to the senior international squads, there is a strong connection in place which allows for the most promising players to be streamlined fluidly through.
The demand for a place and time to play football is very high in Wales, at all levels. A recent study carried out by the Trust in late 2016 found that over 250,000 people, both adults and children, want to play more football, making it the most in-demand sport in the country. So the move to install 3G pitches, making weather a limited factor, has been a welcome addition and a smart move on their part.
Many of the WPL teams, including the league champions, play their fixtures on 3G pitches. Arguably the most significant single development since the league was formed 25 years ago, these artificial grass pitches might not be the natural option loved by football romantics, but they require minimum maintenance, are cost-effective over time and due to their all-weather nature, they allow for more attractive, tactically astute football to be played, which can only be a positive for the evolution of the domestic game over time.
However, it’s also quite clear that the Trust can’t do everything independently because they haven’t often had enough funds, and will need all the assistance they can avail of if they are to accommodate as many interested athletes as possible. Missing out on the next big star – a future Gareth Bale for example – is something they will certainly want to avoid, but it’s also a distinct possibility considering the funded grants offered by local authority Sport Wales is limited to just £1,500 per successful applicant.
While it’s true that the Welsh FA accumulated over £11 million in prize money from the Euro 2016 success, they spent the £6.4 million participation fee before a ball had even been kicked. Plus there are so many areas of Welsh football which need to be addressed.
It’s difficult to say how long the remaining cash will last, but what is certain is that there will be so many costs accruing over the next few months and years. These include the demand for increased coverage of the women’s game, potential senior players’ bonuses, management wages, transportation costs and the biggest expense of them all – planning and logistical preparation for the active 2018 World Cup campaign.
After all, although the national side’s success was well deserved and unforgettable for the fans, there can be no doubt about the fact that the senior game is an expensive necessity – the Welsh FA made a post-tax profit of only £20,000 in 2015. That’s a tiny sum in today’s market and works out at around 17 percent of Gareth Bale’s weekly club wage with Real Madrid.
In Cardiff alone, at the last check in November 2016, there were almost 500 teams sharing 100 grass pitches. Not only does this mean that the demand is not being met, but it also means the conditions are often cramped, the quality of football is detracted from, and the development of young footballers is stunted as a result.
There are no guarantees the right amount will be directed into grassroots football and the clubs at the bottom will have virtually no say in the matter. Qualification for the World Cup in Russia, and the accompanying financial winnings, are equally without assurances. But that is what makes the FAW Trust’s work all the more important.
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Speaking to Carl Darlington, who is head of coach education with FA Wales, about the curriculum being rolled out for volunteers, I’m interested to discover how it has been working out so far and what good it’s doing in the face of so many downsides. “I’m really pleased with our work over the past 18 months, as we have changed our course structure for our voluntary coaches,” Darlington informs me.
“These coaches are critical to grassroots football and do such a fantastic job in giving up their free time to allow youngsters the opportunity to fall in love with football. We want to give our coaches more information but in less time to fit around their busy lives.
“In order to do this, we have reduced the course contact time by half and produced flexible, online learning modules. We have produced five modules that are totally interactive and support the coaches with prior learning before attending the course. These modules can be accessed anywhere for our volunteers to fit around their busy lives.”
Starting from the bottom up, the plan is a well thought out one, with a clear framework being developed which they are hoping to build on. The aim is clear: educate more coaches, give them hands-on experience and watch the impact of progress develop over time – whether that’s for the kids being trained with their local club or for the senior national side. It’s a simple objective, but one that makes sense and should go some way to ensuring that the legacy being teased can come to life as fully and wholly as possible in the future.
“Every year we are producing around 48 UEFA A licence – youth and senior – coaches who are making a difference to the domestic game in Wales,” Darlington continues. “This is rapidly developing our domestic game at all levels and with the investment of 3G pitches, it’s enhancing the development of our youth that will filter into the first team within time.
“The academy system in Wales is getting stronger every year and in time we will see the impact within the first-team game. Take The New Saints as an example: Scott Quigley and Ryan Price played in the Champions League this season having come through the academy system.
“It will take time but with the investment in coaches and facilities, Welsh football is going in the right direction.”
Right now, Wales doesn’t have a particularly strong national league. In fact, some would even go so far as to label it weak, underdeveloped and underutilised as a resource – but that mindset is in the process of being changed.
It might have gone unnoticed before the end of last year, but despite how faint the visibility of the league is in a wider context, it hasn’t stopped some veritable progress of late. The steps strode forward haven’t taken them as far as they might want to go, but certain signs should breed confidence that the league is at least moving in the right direction.
Arguably the most pertinent example occurred at the turn of the new year when Wales’ most successful team, The New Saints (TNS), completed a record-breaking run when they went on a 27-match win streak that saw them eclipse the previous feat set by the celebrated Ajax side of the 1970s.
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TNS are Wales’ most successful domestic team having won the national league title 11 times, and while most of the matches on their recent historic run came against inferior WPL outfits, they are nevertheless sending out a clear message that quality is starting to emerge on that front, and the players are showing that even though the league has much to improve on, TNS are working hard to be the best version of themselves they can possibly be.
“We didn’t set out to break Guinness World Records as part of our targets but as a consequence of winning 27 consecutive games, resulted in this part of history,” Darlington offers. “It’s very surreal beating a long-standing record of 42 years but proud to be part of this squad and club who managed this.
“I came to TNS in the 2010/11 season and we had the best run any WPL team have ever had in reaching the fourth round of the Europa League. We faced Bohemians in the second round of the Champions League. We were the first WPL side ever to progress past this stage.
“We then faced and got knocked out against Anderlecht in the Champions League third round with Romelu Lukaku scoring twice. This resulted in our opportunity to play CSKA in the fourth round of the Europa League. Unfortunately, we lost the away leg, which resulted in CSKA qualifying for the group stages.
“I personally believe we have progressed every year in the WPL and UEFA Champions League but it’s the luck of the draw that you face.”
Darlington is expertly managing two jobs at once because he is also head of coaching at TNS, so he has first-hand experience of just how the changes out of sight are impacting on the WPL. “In 2010/11 we started to ensure all our Level 4 and 5 [UEFA A and Pro Licence] courses are reality-based, which means coaches working with their players in their own environment.
“We have invested in a mentoring programme and have full-time mentors supporting candidates practically and theoretically within their own club environment. We have seen a dramatic improvement of the coaches’ knowledge that is replicated in their team’s performances,” he informs me.
Far from throwing money at their difficulties, the Welsh FA have pursued sensible approaches to resolving them.
Fans will be happy to hear that developments are being implemented and pursued, but the fact remains that players from the WPL do not represent the national team. It’s a similar situation to that in Ireland where a League of Ireland player hasn’t played a competitive fixture for the senior team in over 30 years, but at least in that example, manager Martin O’Neill has seen fit to call LOI players into the squad for recent friendlies. In fact, Wales are the only team inside the FIFA World Rankings top 24 who have not included a player from their own domestic league in their squad over the past 12 months.
Mark Pitman, a journalist with the Welsh FA, feels that, considering how well things have been faring out, this has not yet become a major concern for the Dragons. “The Premier League is one of the best leagues in the world and we are fortunate enough to have key players playing in it,” he tells me.
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“It’s something that we should embrace and be thankful for. In addition, Gareth Bale is enjoying the relative protection of La Liga with Real Madrid, as the physical demands there are much less than in the Premier League. We need our players to be playing at the highest level, regardless of what country it is in, so it shouldn’t be seen as a negative in any way.”
From a certain perspective, it’s difficult to see the downside of an underrepresented league. So, does Pitman see the need for a change to come in the near future? “In short, no. However, I do believe that we will soon start to see more and more players from the Welsh Premier League involved in the Wales intermediate teams, so this is definitely a step in the right direction.
“The academy systems at Welsh Premier League clubs have improved through investment in recent years, but seeing the fruits of such investment does take time. Tom Bradshaw has a full international cap for Wales and started his career at Aberystwyth Town, and looking back a few years Steve Evans went from playing for The New Saints to playing full international football for Wales within months of moving to Wrexham. He hadn’t become a better player in that short time, he was good enough before. The Welsh Premier League has a lot of work to do before it can produce full international players for Wales and keep them.”
Assistant coach Roberts is of the same opinion about needing time before the next Wales-born legend emerges from the WPL. “Players like Steve Evans and Owain Tudur Jones played 100-plus games in the WPL before becoming Welsh internationals, which shows it’s possible. The coaching in the league has improved without a doubt. We need clubs to really believe they can produce the next young Welsh player to come through and, to do that, sometimes we have to think a bit differently,” Roberts states.
The demands of the modern game are much greater than they were when Wales last qualified for the World Cup, and being reactive to changes is sure to be a key trait for them moving forward.
One of the main challenges facing international teams today is how to maximise player performance when they are coming off the back of tiring club schedules. Moreover, oftentimes it can prove arduous getting one’s fittest squad ready in time for important fixtures. Injuries to key players can crop up at the most inopportune occasions and some club managers can be uncooperative when it comes to releasing players.
So while the case in favour of having as many of the squad’s players playing regular minutes in the best leagues makes sense to a certain extent, it would be in Wales’ best interest if they had a strong domestic league from which to draw upon should they need to. Having a greater spread of suitable players to choose from would not be a bad thing.
Mike Harris, who is chairman of TNS, even went on record a year ago to remark that the WPL has current players who are capable of making the step-up and who deserve Chris Coleman’s attention.
On that famous day when Wales stopped being underdogs on the international stage with a quarter-final victory over Belgium, die-hard supporter Shaun Lawthom was in the stands, cheering his team on.
Having followed all of their qualifiers in the group stages, he rose to something resembling fame when pictures of him, visibly emotional following their victory over Russia, appeared in the sports pages of some of Wales’ most widely-read newspapers as well as becoming a big hit on social media.
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“I think the photo of my tears against Russia was an accumulation of two weeks’ travelling around France, a couple of bottles of wine before the game and the greatest victory – at the time – in Welsh football history. It was truly unforgettable,” Lawthom tells me.
Lawthom was there for all 10 of their European qualifiers and the surge to the final four meant so much to him that he even applied for a credit card to make sure he secured tickets. “I think for fans that have followed Welsh Football through the number of disappointments, the dark times, that journey meant everything, and there are supporters that have been around a lot longer than me, travelled to many more places and witnessed utter garbage, even when players had a lack of quality, showing lack of heart on the pitch is a slap in the face for people who have followed Wales everywhere.”
However, he now feels that Coleman and his staff deserve praise and credit for proving many people wrong and hopes that the good times keep rolling into the future. After all, if the past of Welsh football is a tapestry of unfulfilled potential blending into a scene of recent success, then there is surely plenty of space to build on all of that.
Indeed, there are lots of footballers who have come through the PDP ready and waiting to earn promotion from the intermediate squads. The main name dominating discussion in recent months and years has undoubtedly been Liverpool’s Ben Woodburn.
Football wonderkids don’t always manage to replicate their underage contributions on the professional stage, but Woodburn has done quite enough already to earn his fair share of praise. He became the Reds’ youngest-ever goalscorer at 17 years and 45 days when he netted against Leeds United in the League Cup back in November and is currently the subject of a rather public tug-of-war between England and Wales to secure his services as he is eligible to play for either team until he earns that all-important first cap.
Assistant Manager Roberts knows all too well just how good the teenager is. “The way Ben has developed in the last 12-15 months has been wonderful to see,” he says. “Not a surprise, but so exciting to see. Ben is amongst a promising group of players we have just underneath the first team who are getting close to making the breakthrough.
“I could give you a long list of names of players we have high hopes for, but that would be unfair on others and we prefer to make our progress together as a nation. I would also congratulate both Geraint Williams and David Hughes for their significant work, dedication and passion to Welsh football in developing these future talents. They can be very proud of what they have accomplished.”
Woodburn received a call-up when Wales faced the Republic of Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in late March, but he wasn’t introduced into the fray of such a big occasion. Nevertheless, FAW Trust CEO Neil Ward, like Robers, feels like it’s only a matter of time until he receives that debut, particularly considering how long he has been involved with the Welsh set-up at Schoolboy and youth level.
“Woodburn has been with Wales now for more than five years and has been committed to all the teams all the way through the pathway and we certainly hope that will continue. And there are many other bright talents, male and female, that we will see emerge. That’s why our talent ID programme is so important – so that we can spot these players and their talent early on and then nurture them through the pathway,” Ward says.
Essentially, Woodburn represents a variety of different elements of Welsh football. He epitomises their urge to unearth outstanding talents, players who are not only capable of working as part of a team but who can give outfits that little bit of individual brilliance capable of winning games and making history. More importantly, he embodies the reality of where Welsh football is right now; Woodburn is firmly in the crossover section where home-based coaching can complement the necessary football education their exported players receive in other countries, and that is a result of consequence.
While it would be ideal to see Wales perform all the necessary duties needed to produce and mould raw stars on their own, it’s just not possible right now, but given time that will change as more developments are made, problems across the board are gradually eradicated, and they continue to passionately pursue progress
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90
With thanks to Jane Thomas and Simon Collins for their help in setting up the interviews