A reflective look on how the last decade has shaped international football in Wales.
Last Saturday night an emotional Chris Coleman stood on the Zenica turf and attempted to put into words what qualification actually meant to his country. He failed, as words could never justify or equate to the emotion attached to what his side have achieved over the course of the qualification campaign. Ironically, the greatest celebrations were saved for the first defeat of the campaign, but the 2-0 reverse to Bosnia and Herzegovina quickly became insignificant as events in Jerusalem ensured Wales had finally exorcised the ghosts of 1958 and achieved something that so many great players wearing the famous red shirt over the years never could. Although Coleman has overseen the best part of the last four years, the goal of experiencing the emotion of Saturday night began over a decade ago, and the dream has now been realised.
Mark Hughes was entrusted with the task of salvaging credibility for a talented generation failed by his predecessor Bobby Gould. Wales came close to reaching EURO 2004 but were controversially denied by Russia at the final hurdle. It marked the end of an era, and when John Toshack arrived in November 2004, his entrance was quickly followed by a string of departures from the international scene. Toshack remained in post for almost six years, and in that period built the foundations that Gary Speed, and eventually Coleman, would benefit from. Unheard of teenagers formed the basis of Toshack’s team, and supporters slowly turned their backs on the long-term project as results failed to match those of the generation before. Few people other than Toshack and intermediate manager Brian Flynn believed at the time that these would be the players that would take Wales to their first major tournament since 1958.
I am privileged enough to say that I witnessed Gareth Bale and Chris Gunter make their Wales Under-21 debuts in May 2006. Only a couple of hundred people can say that, as only a couple of hundred people were at Port Talbot Town FC for the friendly against Cyprus on that midweek afternoon. However, a stand-out figure amongst the modest crowd was John Toshack, and within months of that game Gareth Bale had become the youngest ever player to represent Wales in a senior international. In addition, defender Chris Gunter is now the most capped player in the current senior side, and with experience ahead of his years he is one of a number of players currently on course to break the appearance record for Wales. But while Toshack had the foresight and patient understanding of what could eventually be achieved, his limitations were exposed by his eventual successor.
John Toshack was old school. A football man from a previous generation. There were rumours that he did not own a mobile phone. Gary Speed was appointed manager following Toshack’s eventual resignation in December 2010, and while his predecessor had modernised the team, Speed recognised the need to change the culture and professionalism within the group and the association as a whole. Supported by Chief Executive Jonathan Ford, himself a young and ambitious figure with an appreciation for modernisation, radical and holistic changes were made to ensure the players were treated to the same off the field standards that they take for granted at their respective clubs. Modern coaching and training methods exposed Toshack’s dated approach, and performances and results eventually improved before the tragic events of November 2011.
Chris Coleman was chosen as the man to carry on the proven work of Speed, but the remit was initially taken too literally, and it took a year of acclimatisation for Coleman to realise that he would need to be true to himself and do things his own way. Ashley Williams was made captain and the shape of the team was changed to bring the best out of the talented individuals in the squad and to compensate for the limitations of others. EURO 2016 would be the defining campaign for Coleman, and his confidence that Wales would finally achieve success never wavered. An incredible run of results and performances over the course of the campaign ensured that history has now been made, and the celebrations that followed the events of Saturday night were more than just relief.
But Welsh football is not just about the present, but about the future too, and there is now a clear pathway for young players to progress through the international system. Overseen with a hands-on approach by FAW Technical Director and Coleman’s assistant Osian Roberts, the intermediate teams are being brought through the ranks to play the Welsh way with a philosophy to allow an easy transition from youth to senior international football. Tom Lawrence and Emyr Huws are two exciting graduates of this investment and belief, and both featured for the senior side in the successful qualifying campaign. Coleman has shown that he is not afraid to give youth a chance, and even that mirrors a previous philosophy implemented by Toshack that his successors eventually benefited from, but he was criticised for.
Coleman was quick to praise the work of Gary Speed as he stumbled through his media commitments in the immediate aftermath Zenica, but there is no doubt that the work of John Toshack and Brian Flynn played a pivotal role in the current generation emerging with the ability to make such an impact. Qualification will change the shape of Welsh football at every level and Coleman and his staff can bask in the praise of seeing the project through to completion. However, the emotion of it all is more than justified, and deserved.