A feature on Joe Allen’s contribution to a famous night for Wales.
Gareth Bale opened the scoring with a trademark set-piece, Hal Robson-Kanu made headlines with the late winning goal, and the travelling Welsh fans put their nation firmly on the footballing map by creating an atmosphere that may not be topped throughout the entire UEFA EURO 2016 tournament. However, such elements merely sat on the periphery to Joe Allen, the midfield catalyst who was the engine that powered the eventual 2-1 victory over Slovakia in Bordeaux on Saturday evening. On a night that will live long in the memories of those that witnessed this moment of Welsh football history, Allen’s efforts were recognised as the picked up the man of the match award at the end of the game, but immediately paid tribute to the team collective that had made the success possible.
“Never mind my performance, the team’s was brilliant,” Allen expectedly said after the game, when quizzed on his individual award. “For a spell we were against the ropes a little bit but we dug deep like we always do and that’s what this team’s all about, digging and grinding. I think we wanted the same approach as we’ve had in the qualifying campaign. Understanding that we’ve got to work hard off the ball. Everyone’s got to put a shift in and we’re a massive threat, We know that when they come on we can hurt teams going the other way so this is the type of performance I think our fans have come to expect from us. We’ve got to make sure we go into the next two games with the same mindset.”
There is a natural order of profile in the Wales team, it is not formally recognised, but it starts with Gareth Bale, then Aaron Ramsey, with Allen and captain Ashley Williams usually switching between third and fourth place. It is not something that the team would ever internally recognise or accept, as it is the ‘Together, Stronger’ strapline that has taken them this far, and the mutual respect and camaraderie in the group places everyone on an equal level to an extent that it also includes the backroom and administrative staff. It has been the cornerstone to their success. However, Allen has shown that he has the capability to rise to the top of the pecking order in the absence of the leading two, but on Saturday he did it in their company, and his contribution to the victory cannot be underestimated.
Manager Chris Coleman opted to make a small tactical switch in attack, a motion that was proposed by former Wales striker Craig Bellamy in the press leading up to the match. Jonny Williams was drafted in to accompany Gareth Bale, with usual target-man options Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes named on the bench. Wales were fluid in their positioning, with Bale, Williams and Ramsey well-supported by Allen and Dave Edwards, another somewhat surprise inclusion in the starting line-up. A high-energy, high-tempo performance followed in the opening half as Slovakia struggled to contain Wales, and with the crowd lifted to a somewhat spiritual level by Bale’s opening goal, it appeared that the game may have already been won at the break.
However, Coleman would never be so complacent on what was the biggest match of his managerial career. As Wales began to ease off from their high-tempo approach, Slovakia made the necessary changes that would bring them level, and it was Coleman’s turn to offer a tactical response. Bringing on Robson-Kanu after 71 minutes, the currently club-less striker scored ten minutes later in front of his adoring public, and Wales held on to make history. The euphoria that followed both goals was poignant. Bale celebrated with the bench and the backroom staff. Robson-Kanu with the fans. Both celebrations based purely on their location at the time. The similarities though, the collective of involving those not on the field, said everything about the unity that exists from the team to the terraces.
But it was the terrier-like performance from Allen that was so uplifting, so energetic, so determined to make this night one that would be remembered for years to come. Tenacious in every tackle, stretching to intercept when the odds were against him, while all the time showing signs of the technical qualities that inspired his former club manager Brendan Rodgers to label him ‘The Welsh Xavi’. Allen is modest, but proud and passionate when it comes to representing his country, and it is his football that will do his self-promotion. The fans recognise his contribution, but Allen also recognises them, and as the players spoke with satisfaction at the final whistle, there was a common factor in the direction of their praise.
“From start to finish they were fully behind us,” said Allen about the sea of red support that took his side over the line. “Even that spell where they were certainly on top of us, our fans stayed with us, stayed loud, created a fantastic atmosphere and I think that helps get that extra five or ten percent out of the lads. That’s what makes all the difference. I think the message was if we lost, we wouldn’t have been out of the tournament, if we win, we’re not through. So, this is one of them ticked off – three points – which is our best-case scenario. I think our focus now is to make sure complacency doesn’t set in in our preparations for the next game.” And that next game, is against England.