It is easy to miss Wales, sitting on the southwest of Great Britain, in a globe or on a world map. Our tiny island nation with its craggy coastline, mountains and distinctive Celtic traditions, has a population of just over three million, residing in an 8022 square mile area.
We have fiercely guarded our traditions, which are almost always very different from our English counterparts, sticking to our origins and fiercely protecting our ways of life.
Wales has been blessed with our share of famous sons and daughters. Stars like Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, writers and poets Roald Dahl, R. S. Thomas, philosopher Bertrand Russell have flown the Welsh flag high, letting the world know about the dragon spirit that is ingrained in all of us.
Now, like any other parts of the British Isles, we too have over love affair with football. Ryan Giggs, Neville Southall, Criag Bellamy are household names thanks to their exploits with various English clubs. Despite the array of talent, the national side, till now, had failed to ignite on the bigger stages of the world game. The team’s qualification to EURO 2016 was its first foray into a major international event since the 1958 World Cup.
The current generation of players, however, were not ready to throw in the towel, happy to just make an appearance at the continental championship. The team, expertly handled by Chris Coleman, did all of us proud by making it to the semifinals of the 24-team competition. The arrival party in Cardiff was richly deserved, with the team embarking on an open-top parade through chock-a-block city streets.
In France, Wales, playing with a well-worked game plan, defended deep, using the pace of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey to hit the opposition with decisive, direct football on the counter. The team’s hunger for success was evident in its 3-1 demolition of Belgium, one of the favourites to win the competition.
Coleman has proved to be a fantastic man-manager, who has successfully instilled a sense of togetherness in the squad, dispensing away any notions of individuality. For him team spirit has always come first. His understanding of his players and the intellectual capacity to tailor a system to suit their game has been the bulwark of the team’s success. No wonder he is much sought after with even the English vying for his signature. Coleman, though, has already politely declined.
We are lucky to have a great coach in him — the players, the backroom staff and the fans respect him greatly — and Wales can now make a run to make our presence felt at the 2018 World Cup.
The manager has done his bit to bring the best out of players such as Sam Vokes, Hal Robson-Kanu (it’s a mystery why Reading released him after the end of last season), Neil Taylor and Chris Gunter, who embodied the Welshman spirit. These players really make up Wales. They might not play every game but when they do they always turn up and are reliable options for the manager and the team.
In Swansea’s Ashley Williams, Wales has found a great captain and an even greater organiser. His experience and resilience on the pitch throughout the tournament was an inspiration to the rest of the boys. Bale and Ramsey are the two outstanding world-class players in the squad and they are an asset to any team. The duo backed their talent with a zealous fighting spirit, often offering their all to eke out a point. They played away from their usual attacking comfort zone, shouldering defensive duties to give shape to the manager’s vision.
It would be wrong to disregard the work of Gary Speed, who prematurely left us in November 2011. As part of my role at the Welsh Football Association, I had petitioned the FA for Gary to get his job. His success in international management within a short period was truly spectacular. He adapted very quickly and commanded respect and Wales was ranked 45 in November, 2011 — a dramatic jump from 110 when Gary had taken over in December 2010.
Continuity at every level is needed for success — from grassroots right up to the first team — and Gary helped Wales put this system in place along with me and the other coaches. He will always be remembered for this.
I played my part in Wales’ grassroots programme, which was put in place seven years back and we are reaping the rewards now. Results don’t happen overnight. I was glad to fit the role of a technical director and work alongside talented coaches like Osian Roberts (who is now the assistant manager of the national side) and his select team. All of us are proud of this as we have all worked hard together. So, hopefully, for Wales this is just the start of things to come. Together, we are stronger!
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