Euro 2020: Wales' new generation unfancied and ready to play the role of party poopers
Semi-finalists at Euro 2016, Wales are a much-changed squad under Robert Page
Marouane Fellaini, Thomas Meunier and Jason Denayer went one way. Hal Robson-Kanu went the other, the most famous Cruyff turn in Welsh footballing history fooling three Belgian defenders.
Robson-Kanu, who had scored three goals in the Championship that season, put Wales ahead as they went on to beat Belgium 3-1 in the Euro 2016 quarter-final. Wales’ first major tournament for 58 years would take in a semi-final.
It was five years ago. That it was another era was underlined when Robson-Kanu was one of the Wales players who failed to make the final cut. There are only eight survivors of the 2016 squad in their party for just their third major tournament. It underlines how revolutionary Ryan Giggs proved, sidelining Wales’ greatest team and promoting youth. Wales have the third youngest average age of any participant in Euro 2020, but they don’t have Giggs, stood down while facing domestic abuse charges.
And so it is Robert Page, whose previous managerial experience came in League Two and League One with Port Vale and Northampton, who takes the reins.
And yet Wales’ preparations feel smoother than they sound. Page has acquitted himself commendably in eight games as the stopgap, winning four. The seamless continuity extended to Robson-Kanu’s omission; Ruben Colwill, a 19-year-old veteran of six matches for Cardiff, instead made the squad.
The remodelling of Wales was facilitated by the way, as rarely happens in smaller countries, one fine generation made way for another. The 2016 team was one of senior professionals and solid citizens, garnished by two world-class talents.
Now Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale’s bodies are creaking. Bale has made 22 league starts in two seasons, Ramsey 24. Bale has at least featured regularly for the national team – the infamous flag reading “Wales, Golf, Madrid” was a joke about his supposed priorities – but while Ramsey has played in Wales’ last two friendlies, he was only able to feature in only one of their previous 11 games.
Only Antoine Griezmann outscored Bale in Euro 2016 but it was Ramsey, along with Joe Allen, who was named in the team of the tournament. Now the dynamism comes from a younger group; the decisions revolve around them.
Harry Wilson scored a wonderful goal against Belgium in March, Daniel James in a World Cup qualifier win against the Czech Republic. Each was in the front three with Bale then. Factor in Ramsey and David Brooks, another whose season has been interrupted by injury, and Page faces questions about the composition of his forward line.
The 6ft 5in target man Kieffer Moore proved a fine foil to Bale in 2019 and 2020 and struck 20 times for Cardiff City this season but Wales have veered towards using a false nine in a faster, more fluid forward line.
Wales nevertheless begin cast in the role of outsiders in Group A. Perhaps that is because of the loss of their manager, perhaps because Bale no longer ranks among the world’s outstanding players. But in both 2016 and the 1958 World Cup, they showed a propensity to upset more fancied teams. They can hope history repeats itself.
Published: June 11, 2021 08:10 AM