A blog on the first big decision for the next Wales manager.
Reports in the media suggest that Wales will have a new international team manager by this time next month ahead of the draw for the inaugural UEFA Nations League competition. Ryan Giggs has emerged as the favourite for the role, and while his name divides opinion amongst supporters of the national team, there is no doubt that he is the high-profile marketable figure that ticks a number of boxes for the powers that be at the Football Association of Wales. The new boss will head to China in March for a couple of friendly fixtures to ease himself into the job, but there will be one big decision to make shortly after his appointment.
Ashley Williams was made Wales captain by Chris Coleman back in October 2012. He was the leader in the heart of defence as Wales enjoyed an unprecedented rise through the rankings that culminated in reaching the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2016. One of the defining images of the tournament was Williams battling through the pain barrier in the final few minutes of the victory over Northern Ireland in Paris, screaming at Coleman not to take him off, and how he gave everything to ensure that Wales held on to victory. He then scored the equaliser that inspired the famous comeback against Belgium in the quarter final. Williams has been an important figure for Wales since he made his International debut almost a decade ago in March 2008, but his future is quickly becoming a topic of debate.
Williams is now 33, and while he remains a Premier League regular for Everton since making the switch from Swansea City in the summer of 2016, his performances have been criticised in certain corners, and it will be interesting to see if he remains a regular in the side following the January transfer window. In addition, the primary aim for the new Wales manager will be to work towards EURO 2020 qualification, and there are justifiable doubts that Williams will still even be part of the national team by the time that particular tournament comes around. The new manager will have the remit to build for the future, and with Ethan Ampadu emerging through the youth ranks, the Chelsea teenager already appears to be the natural heir to Williams in the Wales side.
But Williams’ natural departure from the national team means that a new captain will need to be found, and it would make sense for the new manager to make that decision sooner rather than later. There are obvious candidates. Aaron Ramsey was captain before Williams as the late Gary Speed believed that the Arsenal man would be a key part of the side for the next decade, while Gareth Bale is the obvious talisman in the team and leads by example through his commitment and work rate. Joe Allen is a highly-respected figure within the group, while Chris Gunter is a player that the young players look up to within the squad. A lot is made of the captaincy, but it is an important element in the British game, and giving it to the wrong person can have a negative impact on the game of the individual concerned as well as the rest of the dressing room.
This would have been a decision that Chris Coleman would have had to make if he stayed in the job, and it would have been one of a number of difficult decisions that he would have faced before preparing for EURO 2020. Coleman will be remembered for what he achieved at EURO 2016 with a squad of players that have booked their place in Welsh football folklore as a result. For that reason, it would have been much tougher for Coleman to bring to an end the international careers of those that helped him to achieve so much, especially in the case of his captain Ashley Williams. The situation suggests that it was right for Coleman to finish, with his relationship with the players that he created history with unblemished, and to leave a new man take forward the team for this new era.
Much has been made about the young players that the new manager will inherit, and these are exciting times for Wales. However, to bring players like Ampadu, Ben Woodburn and David Brooks into the senior squad means that others miss out, and with the focus firmly-fixed on EURO 2020, there can be no room for sentiment. What is clear is that whoever does wear the captains armband under the new manager, they will have massive shoes to fill, and emulating the era that Ashley Williams guided his country through will not be an easy task.