Next up as I profile this year’s European Championship semi-finalists are the last home nation standing and the tournament’s surprise packages, Wales.
Results so far
- Wales 2-1 Slovakia
- England 2-1 Wales
- Russia 0-3 Wales (Wales finish top of Group B)
- Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland
- Wales 3-1 Belgium
- Gareth Bale – 3
- Hal Robson-Kanu – 2
- Aaron Ramsey – 1
- Neil Taylor – 1
- Sam Vokes – 1
- Ashley Williams – 1
6 questions with the Podcast Pêl-droed (@PodcastPeldroed)
1) What was the mood like in Wales before the tournament? What were your hopes/expectations?
Clearly the squad had belief in spades. Welsh football history is littered with failure, tragedy, farce…so to qualify was an achievement. I heard fans talk of being happy even if we lose all the group games, just being here means so much. Personally, I was of the view that now that we’re here let’s see what we can do; and Coleman has been the same. The group lacked a traditional ‘big gun’ – Italy, Germany, Spain, etc. – and that’s not anti-English sentiment by the way; rather a reflection of the last half century of tournament football.
The ‘happy even if we lose’ mindset is merely a self-deprecating flak jacket; one that we all wear as Welsh fans that helps insulate and protect us from said failure and the condascending London media. When you have winners in the squad – UCL, FA Cup, EPL winners, not just League One play-off winners – tournament football should hold few fears. And so it has turned out to be the case. The positivity and self-belief in the squad was infectious, despite average pre-tournament results. Last 16 was a realsitic achievement and, as we said a while back on our podcast, an expanded tournament with few stand out sides other than Germany was likely to open up in the manner that it did. We have capitalised on that. England, Italy and Spain failed to do so and ended up with a tougher draw than they needed to have. We haven’t been particuarly lucky, rather other countries have been careless.
I’d have been lying though if I said I expected a semi final berth!
2) 4 years ago, you lost 6-1 to Serbia. What has changed in that time to get Wales to where they are now?
Where to start?! For a squad that has only 3 players over 30 (Collins, Ashley Williams, David Vaughan), four years is a long time in which a young squad can gain more experience. However it gave them more time to come to terms with the loss of Gary Speed. Don’t underestimate how long and dark a shadow that cast over this team. Speed had restored belief and pride in the national side, among fans and players alike. Out of understandable but misplaced respect to Speed’s reign, Coleman changed very little when he came in; he is on record as saying this many times. But he wasn’t getting the results and was very close to losing his job. As soon as he started to do things “his way” results improved and the players clearly adore him.
Osian Roberts is importnat too. He is Coleman’s assistant but he also holds a senior role at the Welsh Football Trust and so is involved in the intermediate ages and in the hugely-respected coach education system that is sees football coaches rank as one of Wales’s biggest exports; Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, Patrick Viera, Jens Lehman are just a few of the players that have passed through the Trust’s Dragon Park HQ in Newport. What this has fostered is a ‘Welsh Way’ philosophy that sees a similar approach from under 15s to the full team. When a player jumps from u17s to u21s or u19s to the seniors, for instance, the set-up is identical: tactically, culturally and in terms of the sports science applied. I recently watched the full squad train prior to them flying to Sweden for their final warm up game and Tyler Roberts and Ethan Ampadu were training with the full squad which is another example of the unity and continuity between age grades.
3) How big a player is Gareth Bale to this team? Who are the other key players?
Bale is obviously huge. A two time UCL winner and playing at the world’s biggest club under the most intense spotlight on the globe. This Euros is meat and drink to him. That he retains a playful sense of humour, few airs and graces and is the ultimate team player is a massive testament to him and his family. He is on the same wavelength as the fans as well; acutely aware of Welsh footballing culture and history (even the bad bits…) but, like a lot of the current squad, is not weighed down or cowed by it. This crop are intent, and have been for a while, on writing their own history. They, and especially Bale, seem the least surprised by the current achievements.
The accustaion that we are a one man team has always been hugely erroneous, derogatory and, frankly, poorly researched by media and fans. Wales have a massively strong and experienced spine: Hennessey, Williams, Ramsey, Bale. All have over 50 caps, except Ramsey who would have had it not been for his broken leg, and anyway he’s flanked by the Joes, Ledley and Allen, and the former is the second most capped player in the squad. For me, after Bale it is Williams and Allen who are, in the footballing parlance, the next names on the teamsheet, even ahead of Ramsey. Allen sets the temp, links defence with attack and is terrific at pick-pocketing opponents and re cycling and startig attacks. Likewise Williams is a massively underappreciated element in Wales’s attacking approach
In the context of the Euros James Chester and Ben Davies have been immense. Resolute, strong and able to distribute the ball they have been even better than Williams for me.
4) Who is the unsung hero of the team?
Difficult to say. To us Welsh they’re all very ‘sung’. If I had to pick someone it would probably be Chris Gunter [Olly: This was very pleasing to read being a Reading fan!]. He’s our most capped player and put in shift after shift after shift. He’s not the most accomplished full backs but he knows his role and is having a great tournament. He’s likely to be Wales’s first ever cap-centurion and will draw level with Ian Rush and Peter Nicholas on 73 caps against Portugal. He’s only 26. His commitment to the cause makes him a real hero among Welsh fans.
5) How badly will you miss Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies for the Portugal game?
For Davies, either James Collins will come in like for like, or Coleman will re-jig things to move Gunter into the back 3 and Jazz Richards will come in at right wing back. We have done either when we have had absences and all have been fine. Richards achieved cult hero status when he kept Eden Hazard quiet in Cardiff in qualifying. It’s not so much defensively that we will miss Davies, but more his distribution.
Ramsey will be a huge blow. He’s joint highest in the tournament’s assist stakes and like Bale he’s a talisman. The options are either Andy King or David Edwards who will provide industry to the midfield but not compensate for the lack of flair, vision and creativity. Or bring in Jonny Williams who is more creative but less robust. He’s likely to win lots of free kicks though. And we have someone by the name of Gareth who is pretty good at those.
6) Can you actually win Euro 2016?!
Why not? Any team in the semi finals of a tournament, at whatever level of the game, should think they are in with a chance of glory. In order to win the tournament we need to stick to our pattern and formation. We didn’t do that against England and got punished. The impressive thing against Belgium and to a lesser extent against Russia is how composed we were on the ball and how we imposed our game on the opposition. This won’t be easy against Portugal and I expect them to want to slow the game down. This doesn’t bother me much as we have the players to inject pace into our game and counter-attacking suits us fine.
Lastly, we need to play without fear. We are already so proud of what they’ve achieved. Even if we lose to Portugal the journey has been magical and they will be heroes. Let’s not leave any ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ in Lyon. And if we need to dig deep, let’s do it for Speedo.
Many thanks to the Podcast Pêl-droed for taking the time to answer the questions (and with no mention of Hal Robson-Kanu!), and you can catch Wales’s semi-final against Portugal in Lyon on Wednesday from 7:15pm on ITV.