On the 25th March 2011, I went to my first ever football game. Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium was the venue and I was overwhelmed by the famous faces that I was seeing on the pitch. One of the faces I was most excited about seeing, however, was that of the late Gary Speed – the man that was to revolutionise Welsh football. Although he had only been in the job for three months, he was clearly beginning to install a sense of desire and belief into both the Welsh players and supporters. The game itself, then, was set to be a thriller between Wales and England in a qualification match for Euro 2012. How wrong my expectations were. England strolled to a 2-0 win and Wales failed to register a single shot on target. Indeed, the most exciting thing that happened throughout the whole day was sharing a handshake with Peter Crouch after the game.
If you have read this far and are wondering why I am prattling on about a fairly insignificant game which took place over five years ago, it is because that throughout Euro 2016, I was constantly reminded how far Wales have come as a team. From the first game against Slovakia in the group stages, it was clear that this Welsh team had been instilled with a hunger to win. That, coupled with Chris Coleman’s astute tactical mind, led to a history making Welsh side. Perhaps his most successful tactic within the Welsh set-up has been the introduction of a fluid back five led by Ashley Williams. In a team with Gareth Bale, it would be easy to just focus on the brilliance of the Wales attack, but it was undoubtedly the defensive ethic of the side which took Wales to the latter stages of the tournament. The stats speak for themselves; Wales only conceded four goals in six games and kept clean-sheets against Russia and Northern Ireland. When it comes to inviting pressure from the opposition, however, Wales need to strike a balance. A team full of quality will eventually score when given enough of an opportunity, as England did in the second group game derby.
This attacking prowess was brilliantly balanced by the midfield anchor of Joe Allen
Throughout the tournament, however, this impressive defence enabled the more technically gifted players such as Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, both of whom had great tournaments, to dazzle further up the pitch. This attacking prowess was brilliantly balanced by the midfield anchor of Joe Allen (the Welsh Pirlo) who played a big part in the Welsh passing game. And instead of lacking any sort of attacking creativity, like we did in Cardiff five years ago, Wales set alight the tournament with the most emphatic of wins against Russia and Belgium. Indeed, for a large portion of the tournament, Wales were the top scorers. It was perhaps that win over Belgium, the second best team in the world according to the FIFA rankings, which will live in the memory the longest. The match had everything. The heartbreak of an early, phenomenal goal from Belgium, the hope that came from an equaliser, the goal of the tournament from surprise package Hal Robson-Kanu and the unbridled joy that came from a Sam Vokes header at the end the game to seal a famous 3-1 win.
In the end, a match against the defensively astute Portugal proved one match too far. While the Welsh were again the ‘nearly men’; nearly getting to the final of a major tournament is far more exciting than only nearly qualifying for one. It is worth mentioning that before the tournament even started, there were major doubts that Wales would even be able to get out of their group. Instead, they proved all the doubters wrong by reaching the semi-finals in just their second ever appearance at a major tournament. I believe that this isn’t the end of the journey. With a young squad led by Ashely Williams, Chris Coleman and these Welsh players can continue to do great things. I am confident that they will give me more than just a Peter Crouch handshake to shout about.
Although Euro 2016 may not have the most unforgettable tournament for the majority; for the underdog it has been immense. Wales topped their group and got to the semi-finals; they created great memories for every Welsh person, including those with tenuous family links to Wales. I certainly never thought I would see the day when England fans were jumping on the Welsh bandwagon. While I may have watched Wales lose to England and concede two goals again, for some strange reason, I don’t seem to mind as much this time.