It’s 11 September, 2012, and Wales have just suffered their heaviest defeat since 1996. A 6-1 loss against Serbia has led to despair amongst the visitors in Belgrade. Welsh fans went into their 2014 World Cup Qualifying group quietly optimistic; the group lacked any of the real heavyweights of Germany, Spain or the Netherlands, so Wales began to believe they had a chance of at least finishing second and taking part in a playoff. Just two games into the campaign, that belief has been shattered.
So just how have Wales turned it around?
The events of autumn 2004 were the first step on the road to Euro 2016. After failing to beat Russia in a playoff for Euro 2004, a bad start to the 2016 World Cup Qualifiers was enough to persuade Mark Hughes to trade in the international game for a domestic role at the then-Premier League team Blackburn Rovers. It led to John Toshack being appointed to his second stint in charge of the national team.
With many star players retiring from the international stage, Toshack looked to the youth of Wales and gave them their first international experience. Many of the current Welsh stars – Joe Ledley, Joe Allen, Chris Gunter, Aaron Ramsey and then-left back Gareth Bale – were blooded into the Welsh squad from a young age under Toshack’s management. The experience they gained from playing together for so long against some of the best footballers in the world has been invaluable to them.
WALES’ LAST MAJOR TOURNAMENT WAS THE 1958 WORLD CUP, WHERE A SOLITARY PELE GOAL SAW BRAZIL WIN 1-0 IN THE QUARTER FINAL
Unfortunately, there was a cost to pay for playing a lot of youngsters. The Welsh side under Toshack struggled to look competitive. After a poor start to the Euro 2012 qualifier and with Wales languishing in 84th place in the FIFA World Rankings, he left the team by mutual consent.
The FAW set off looking for a replacement. They soon found one in a former Welsh international who held the most caps for any Welsh outfield player: Gary Speed. Speed was fairly inexperienced as a manager, but that didn’t seem to matter. He was respected by his players; he’d even played alongside some of the older ones. Under Speed, the team got off to a slow start, but he towards the latter part of his reign he turned the team around and got them to show the passion and fight that was necessary.
Coming off the back of wins against Montenegro, Switzerland and Bulgaria, along with a narrow loss away to England, Speed led Wales up to a ranking of 45th. A dominant 4-1 win at home to Norway in November 2011 was all that Welsh fans needed to help them believe that maybe Wales could challenge for the next tournament.
What happened next was one of the great tragedies of Welsh sport. We’ll never truly know what caused the events on the night of 26 November, but Wales lost one of its heroes. Gary Speed, the consummate professional who had led Wales so well both on and off the pitch, had passed away.
It would be the late Gary Speed’s friend, Chris Coleman, who would take over the reigns to the team. Coleman got off to a bad start, and there wasn’t much faith in him. It was he who led Wales to Belgrade on that fateful September night, and he’s since admitted that the defeat left him questioning if he was right for the job at all. Coleman was the first Welsh manager to lose his first five games in charge, but after winning both games against Scotland, as well as beating Macedonia at home and gaining a respectable point away in Brussels to round out the campaign, Coleman held onto his job to see in the start of the European Championships qualification.
The road to Euro 2016 started in a familiar fashion for Wales. Within six minutes of the start of the campaign, the Welsh side found themselves 1-0 down. Embarrassingly, the match was away to Andorra. It took two goals from Gareth Bale to ensure that Wales took maximum points from their opening fixture with a 2-1 win. From this point on, perhaps something clicked in the Welsh side. The fighting spirit that they developed under Speed appeared to resurface. From that point on, they lived up to the motto that the FAW promoted: Gyda’n Gilydd. Yn Gryfach. Together. Stronger.
Having managed to go unbeaten for the opening 4 games, Wales fans were beginning to become cautiously optimistic, and that optimism increased after a trip to Haifa saw the visitors dismantle Israel in a 3-0 win. Welsh hopes were backed up again after a lone Bale goal as a result of a terrible defensive error from Nainggolan gifted Wales a 1-0 victory over group favourites Belgium and enter the top ten of the FIFA World Rankings, eventually resulting in them overtaking England.
September soon came, and three points in Nicosia and a stalemate against Israel was soon followed by a 2-0 defeat to Bosnia. However, an heroic result from the Cypriots against Israel secured qualification for Wales. A celebratory atmosphere was in store for Wales’ final group game against Andorra, where a 2-0 victory set the tone for a major party in the Capital.
So with Wales in the European Championships at last, what can we expect from them?
Wales are often criticised for a perceived overreliance on Bale, but they also have numerous other players to draw from. Ramsey, Allen and Ledley are all players with top-flight experience, and the Welsh defence are also a force to be reckoned with, conceding only 4 goals in the entire campaign. Wales have qualified on merit as a whole team, and they certainly won’t be looking to return home any time soon.
Euro 2016 will be a massive occasion for the Wales. After 58 years of waiting, Wales are once again invited to the party. For the fans, this is an opportunity that many never expected to see in their lifetime, and they will certain make the most of it.
And for those Welsh fans who made the brave trip to Belgrade in September 2012? I’m sure it will be just that little bit sweeter.