The Welsh Dragon hasn’t spread its wings on the world stage for 64 years now.
Eleven years ago, Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Wayne Hennessey walked off the pitch at Cardiff City Stadium after a 2-1 friendly defeat by Australia in front of a crowd of 6,373. This result saw Wales slump to 117th in the world, placing putting them below Hati and Grenada in the FIFA rankings.
Fast forward to November 2022 and the red dragon will fly to Qatar for the World Cup. Its been a rollercoaster journey, four managers, two European championships and now a World Cup.
A key figure in this magical story is the late Wales manager Gary Speed, who brought “professionalism and pride“ back reigniting the love of football in the country.
Speed’s successor Chris Coleman was fortunate to meet him remembering his “girlish kind of sound.” Coleman doesn’t deny being “ a bit in awe because he had magnetism.”
“He recognised the value in young players“ says Wales technical director David Adams. “Gary brought the feeling of what it meant to play for Wales.”
The nation’s first sign of progression was a historic Friday night in France. Coleman’s Welsh army defeated Belgium progressing to the semi-finals of Euro 2016. They couldn’t reach the final hurdle, but it felt like a statement on the biggest stage had been put down.
Coleman had more disappointment when Wales failed to reach another World Cup. He left the role in 2017 to take up the hot seat at Sunderland. The second most successful manger in the history of Welsh football left a long legacy in place.
His replacement was a surprising choice, Ryan Giggs. Taking the job made it the former wingers first full-time managerial role. The Cardiff born midfielder had some winning over to do after a turbulent playing career with some supporters.
Some supporters took to social media saying, “public enemy number one has returned.”
“Speed and Coleman put the passion back into Welsh football, players learned the national anthem, fans saw this and got behind them.”
“All this has been undone, a huge step backwards.”
“Giggs didn’t play in an “international friendly between 1991-2000, hoping for an easy ride in his international career.”
Supporters were disgruntled with Giggs decision to retire from international football in 2008, he then went on to represent Great Britain at the Olympics in 2012.
On the touchline, Giggs answered his critics qualifying for Euro 2020 with assistant coach Rob Page. Due to the pandemic the tournament was delayed 12 months, a lot changed in that 12 months for him personally.
The former Manchester United midfielder stepped aside in November due to an ongoing court case.
For the third time in as many years the Welsh job was vacant, Giggs assistant Rob Page fills in temporarily. Page gained experience at Port Vale and Northampton Town, already making him more qualified for the role then his predecessor. His first task was taking Wales to the delayed Euro 2020 in which he succeeded expectations.
Despite the pandemic the tournament still proceeded to be hosted in multiple countries across Europe. This meant unlike the previous Euros, a lot of travelling between games were on the cards for players and supporters. Wales was were forced to embark on a 5,382-mile odyssey for just four matches at the tournament.
Page’s men finished second in their group behind eventual winners Italy. However, they couldn’t live up to the dazzling heights of 2016 failing to reach the quarter-finals. A 4-0 defeat and a Harry Wilson red card rounded off a bad day at the office for the Welshmen.
The country was fully behind Rob Page and ready to charge towards World Cup qualification. Gareth Bale’s backs Page, “he is the long-term manager, I don’t think there is any question in the changing room or from the fans.”
Such as the impact the squad is having on the youth of Wales, Page is predicts that “football has overtaken rugby as the national sport.”
“When I was growing up in Tylorstown, playing rugby was the thing to do, not football, but I think the tides have turned now and I think football has become our No 1.”
After the final whistle vs Ukraine, the Cardiff City stadium joined in harmony to sing “Yma o Hyd”. Four minutes passionately singing “Ry’n ni yma o hyd’,Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth.” We are still here, in spite of everyone and everything.
Grown men and women singing bawling their eyes out in the pouring rain, this is what makes sport special.
Wales were successful all those years ago reaching the quarter-final losing to Brazil when a young striker by the name of Pele scored his first ever international goal. As that first whistle blows against the USA everyone associated with the red dragon will echo Rob Page’s fitting words.
“Gary Speed started this.”