A feature on the different approach taken by England and Wales at intermediate level.
Like the proverbial bus, England have waited over 50-years to celebrate World Cup success, and then two successful tournaments come along at once. Over the course of the last few months, England have lifted the World Cup at Under-17 and Under-20 level in competitions that Wales have failed to qualify for, but while their potential is celebrated, Wales’ fast-track approach has already brought proven success.
A week on Friday, Wales return to the scene of their finest hour, as Chris Coleman’s side head to Paris to take on France in an international friendly. France will forever hold a special place in Welsh hearts after Coleman’s side reached the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2016, but that is in the past, and the focus now is very much on the long-term future following the recent failed qualifying campaign that denied Wales a place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
A few days after facing France, Wales will return to Cardiff to take on Panama in a second friendly, and their opponents surprise qualification for the finals next summer will serve as a reminder of what might have been. Meanwhile, England cruised through World Cup qualifying to confirm their place in a low-key end to their qualification campaign, and it will be interesting to see how many of those intermediate World Cup winners are even mentioned as possible squad members as manager Gareth Southgate plans for Russia.
Chris Coleman has held provisional talks over his future, and the fact that this stage has been reached suggests he has changed his mind about finishing from what he describes as his dream job. He will be in charge for the two friendly fixtures, and while speculation will continue until he decides one way or the other, his squad selection for the two games is likely to include a strong emphasis on youth and the opportunity to give the talented stars of the next generation the opportunity to experience international football at the highest level.
— Wales (@FAWales) October 23, 2017
The likes of Ben Woodburn, Ethan Ampadu and David Brooks are expected to feature heavily, but there is an argument over how this sits in the best interest of our long-term aim. While the senior squad are taking on France and Panama, the Under-21 side will take on Bosnia and Herzegovina and Romania in their latest qualifiers for the 2019 finals. New intermediate team manager Rob Page has enjoyed a steady start since succeeding Geraint Williams, and after an impressive display at the Toulon Tournament during the summer, the side started their qualifying campaign in style with a 3-0 win away to Switzerland.
Defeat to a talented Portuguese side followed, but Page’s youngsters claimed a second win in Liechtenstein and are now looking to build on that with two games that will be played at the newly-named VSM Bangor City FC Stadium. The problem for Page is that the cream of his talented group will be involved with the senior side, and will miss two potentially group defining qualifiers to be involved in two friendlies. Elevation to the senior side is of course the purpose of the intermediate setup, and these problems are not unique to Wales or to Page.
Wales v Panama tickets are now on general public sale!
— Wales (@FAWales) October 30, 2017
However, the side will be disadvantaged, and as a result their chances of enjoying a successful qualifying campaign will naturally be reduced. Wales have never qualified for the finals of an intermediate tournament before, and while the Toulon Tournament would have offered an interesting insight, its falling status means that it lacks the quality and intensity of previous years. By comparison, England have enjoyed plenty of intermediate achievement over the course of the last year, and have enjoyed unparalleled success during this time.
The players involved have gained valuable experience in what tournament football is all about, and their success puts them in good stead should they ever progress into the senior international squad. It is this is the experience that Wales are potentially sacrificing in order to fast-track the players mentioned above, and others. Ultimately, it will be Coleman’s decision, and there are strong suggestions that these friendlies will give an early indication on how he plans to build a team capable of challenging for EURO 2020 qualification.
However, Coleman’s success with the current generation was helped significantly by the decision of his predecessors to fast-track the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen into the senior side ahead of their time. It was the foresight of John Toshack and Brian Flynn that handed Coleman a squad of players experienced in international football ahead of their years. Success came too late for Toshack to reap the rewards of his long-term strategy, but Coleman eventually benefited greatly from it, and he appears set to follow a similar path when his squad for the two friendlies is announced on Wednesday.
Of course, England have a much larger player pool, and they will inevitably have more options at intermediate level. Wales must keep their situation in context, and it is inevitable that consistent success at every level will be far more difficult to achieve. However, it is clear that significant progress is being made, and the recent Victory Shield successes were a defining period in proving the benefits of the revised pathway system. Wales now boast some impressive talent at every age group, and these are exciting times to be a part of such a dynamic and forward-thinking modern setup.
Ultimately, the aim is to strengthen the senior side in the long-term, and without Toshack’s bravery and foresight Wales may not have reached the last four of EURO 2016. Notably, the side lasted longer in the competition than England, and while missing out on Russia will be considered a step backwards, it could be another leap forward in the long term development. The pathway system that exists throughout the Wales intermediate and senior team setup is a carefully considered project with a clear aim to eventually see our young stars celebrate success, but crucially, to celebrate that success at the very highest level.