As a Welsh football fan, attending school in England meant things were never too much fun. While my classmates would hardly see the likes of Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney set the world alight for the Three Lions, at least they could take refuge in the fact their team, and country, got there – on the world stage at major tournaments. On the other hand, I was faced with a nadir of ridicule inspired through a series of failed qualification attempts and Robert Earnshaw replica kits.
The closest Wales came in my formative years to any marginal amount of success was in 2004 where, after finishing as runners-up to Italy, they lost a narrowly-contested match in a European Championship playoff to Russia. Historically, bar a few exceptions, the players on offer to represent Wales have never been the calibre of those on offer to our English counterparts – and quite a few opted to represent the Three Lions over the Dragons.
Over the years, the Welsh contingent assembled to represent on the international stage largely originated from unspectacular Premier League or Championship sides. As a result, like many in Wales, I just became used to the underwhelming results.
Such a recurring low level of expectation must be factored in consideration when looking at anything having to do with the European Championship in 2016. Entering the tournament, most Welsh fans would consider themselves happy enough to see their country be included in the spectacle. Drawn in a group with Russia, Slovakia and, of course, old enemies England, the hope was that we might progress – but that was where expectations ended.
An opening victory against Slovakia courtesy of Gareth Bale’s free-kick and a late Hal Robson-Kanu goal perpetuated optimism. Despite an injury-time loss to England, winning 3-0 against Russia in Toulouse saw Wales finish as group winners with England only managing a goalless draw against Slovakia in their final match. In the round of 16, Wales were lucky to squeeze past a tough Northern Ireland side. Naturally, with a clash against a surging Belgium looming, the lowered-expectation factor began to creep forth again.
For Belgium, the weight of expectation was the opposite of what Wales contended with, entering the match as tournament favourites. This was seen as the time for Belgium’s golden generation to finally make their mark at a major international competition. Boasting world-class talent in every position, a stacked team included Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. Belgium were strong candidates and wholly expected to brush aside the Welsh circus.
The Rode Duivels heaped early waves of pressure on Wales with Thomas Meunier and Hazard both having shots cleared off the line. Understandably, doubt crept into the minds of most Welsh fans – and that doubt was further validated when, after little more than 13 minutes had passed, Radja Nainggolan scored a wonderful effort from 30 yards out. For all the dreams and wonderful stories this fortnight had brought Wales, it appeared it was to reach a logical conclusion. The hope now was to save pride.
This pride, however, was something that was the very essence of what was, on paper – Bale and Aaron Ramsey aside – an ordinary group of individual players. A corner from the Arsenal midfielder was met by Ashley Williams, who headed a thunderous effort past Courtois. The ensuing celebrations, with the captain running to the bench as the entire squad and coaching staff celebrated as one, showed the character of this side.
From that moment on, Wales appeared to have half a chance – even if fueled solely on spirit, fight and grit – and the Dragons grew into the game with a series of Bale half chances and corners. One must bear in mind that this was a Belgian side missing both Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany at the back, one that Wales had already beaten and drawn against in qualifying for the tournament. As the game progressed at 1-1, hope started to grow. All the match needed was another goal.
Lukaku had missed a glorious chance to head the Belgians back into the lead early in the second half, and Hazard narrowly curled wide of Wayne Hennessey’s left-hand post. Under mounting pressure, it was over to a man without an employer to make the dreams of those in the crowd and score a goal that would become etched into Welsh football folklore.
Ramsey received a pass on the right side of the Belgian box, controlling brilliantly under pressure from Alderweireld. He cutely clipped the ball into the feet of Hal Robson-Kanu, who brought the ball down under close attention from Meunier. Having recently been released by Championship side Reading, the Welsh number nine cushioned the delivery and, with two touches of his left foot, changes the course of Welsh football history.
The first touch is a Cruyff turn, which fools his marker and the incoming Marouane Fellaini. By wrong-footing Jason Denayer, Robson-Kanu is now presented with a one-on-one with Courtois. Without hesitation, he smashed it past the goalkeeper into the left corner and put Wales into a lead that few dared thought possible.
Fellaini almost atoned for an inability to close down the Welsh striker with his usual battering ram role later in the second half, heading narrowly wide and creating a few problems in the box with flicked headers for teammates. Nainggolan should also have been awarded a penalty after Williams stood on his foot in the area, and substitute Michy Batshuayi wanted a spot-kick of his own after Ben Davies was adjudged to have handled the ball in the box. It would have been harsh on the left-back, but Wales were living dangerously.
In desperate search of a third goal, James Chester played a long, raking pass down the flank for Chris Gunter. Taking a few touches, the right wing-back floated a cross to the front post where Denayer missed the ball and Sam Vokes beat Alderweireld to power a header past Courtois. The Burnley striker sent an entire nation into delirium.
My father, watching the game at home in utter euphoria, collapsed to his knees. He, like so many in Wales, exclaimed a series of prolonged cheers and jubilant shouts to the heavens – each one visibly expelling half a century of bottled-up international football trauma. It is a truly special moment from a special evening and during a historic European Championship campaign that has no doubt set a new course for Welsh football.
By James Kelly @jkell403