Why Chris Gunter is Wales’ man of 2017

Players Wales National Team

A blog on the international contribution of defender Chris Gunter.

The most-capped player in the current Wales squad, Chris Gunter is something of a veteran having made 85 appearances for his country since making his debut in May 2007. Still only 28, Gunter is now set to match the efforts of Jess Fishlock and with it become the first male centurion in the history of the Welsh national team. Traditionally a unsung hero of the side, Gunter’s contribution came to prominence in 2017 when he claimed the coveted Football Association Player of the Year award at the annual dinner back in October. A reward of deserved recognition, Gunter has been an integral and versatile part of the Wales defence for the last decade, but his popularity has never been higher amongst the Welsh football players, press and public following the latest qualifying campaign.

The failure of Chris Coleman’s side to reach the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals in Russia next summer has been a topic of great debate since the campaign came to an end against the Republic of Ireland in October. The aftermath of the defeat has seen Coleman move on to a whole new challenge at Sunderland, and a new international era is set to start for Wales as a number of talented young teenage stars begin to emerge from the Intermediate teams. However, the main cause of the failure to qualify rests with the number of key players that were either injured or suspended during the course of the ten qualifying games, and Wales simply lacked the strength in depth required to compete without the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen in crucial fixtures.

But there was one man who was ever-present throughout the campaign, and once again he did not let his country down. Unlike some of the star names mentioned, Chris Gunter does not play his football in the Premier League, and has recently committed himself to Reading for another three years having joined the club back in 2012. Reliable and consistent, Gunter is a dream player for any manager, and his popularity in the dressing room for both club and country is as valuable as his contribution on the field. Humble in what he has achieved in terms of his appearances for Wales, there is no doubt that Chris Gunter will be remembered by Wales fans for many years to come, even though he rarely makes the headlines.

And it is that justified appreciation of what he brings to the side that adds to his popularity. Immediately following the defeat against England at UEFA EURO 2016, captain Ashley Williams assembled the squad into a huddle and gave a key speech that would set the tone for the decisive match against Russia a few days later. However, it was Chris Gunter that would lift the thousands of dejected Welsh fans that had just witnessed England’s injury-time winner, as he turned to the Red Wall to give a ‘chin-up’ gesture and with it create an iconic image of the tournament. Williams ensured the players remained focus, Gunter ensured the fans remained optimistic, and the incredible victory over Russia in the final group match became possible.

It was during that match against Russia that Gunter turned to Coleman on the touchline and told the manager just to enjoy it. It was a complete performance from Wales in Toulouse, and once Bale had added the third and final goal there was no way back for the Russian side. Gunter then put in the cross for Sam Vokes to score the third goal against Belgium in the quarter-final and with it confirm one of the most famous results in the history of the national team. His cross would later take its place in Welsh football folklore as the film of Wales’ campaign revealed Coleman famously shouted at his trusted defender not to cross the ball at that stage of the game just prior to Vokes scoring one of the most memorable of Welsh goals.

But while Gunter had his moments in 2016, it was 2017 that showed his maturity and importance to the side. It is when things don’t go to plan that you see the real side of people, the real value in people, and Gunter took responsibility as a senior player in the squad for a failing qualification campaign. In the knowledge that failure to qualify would likely spell the end for Coleman and Wales, Gunter shelved the media spotlight on his own appearance records and focused solely on the task ahead. His leadership had never been more apparent as key players became unavailable, and he can take more pride from his personal contribution to the last campaign than what he achieved in France the summer before. The young players coming through have much to learn about the international game, but learning from Chris Gunter will certainly put them, and Wales, in a strong position for the future.