By Daniel Parker
Rob Page’s Wales squad announcement for the upcoming European Championship qualifiers against Croatia and Latvia last week was a landmark moment for Welsh football.
The dark hour which had been a subject of dread for an entire sporting generation had actually arrived: Gareth Bale was no longer be available for Wales selection.
His contributions in a red shirt – as well as those of fellow national team heroes, Joe Allen and Chris Gunter – have now officially entered the realm of memory.
The likes of Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies are still in the mix, as are emerging talents Neco Williams, Brennan Johnson and Dan James, but Wales have become a new team overnight, whether we like it or not.
It’s now an absolute necessity that the national team embraces a rebuild on the scale of the project undertaken by John Toshack when he assumed the reins from Mark Hughes in 2004.
There’s a fair chance there will be a few painful days ahead, especially for the youngsters who will need to be thrown in at the deep end over the next two qualifying campaigns (some of whom will be unable to meet the elevated expectations which have been placed on every player donning a Welsh jersey post-Euro 2016).
But, with the talent pool unearthed by Toshack and Brian Flynn now close to drained with the passing of time, Wales once again need to play the long game.
With that in mind, the 2022 World Cup will be remembered as the blaring warning klaxon that Welsh football needed.
Social media reaction to Wales’ early exit from the tournament was divided between those who argued that qualification was a pyrrhic victory in and of itself; and opposing them (often viscerally) others who felt that the bar had been set too low, and merely making up the numbers in Qatar equated to an abject failure.
After all, to quote Wales’ greatest poet, ‘ambition is critical’.
Both camps make legitimate points.
Wales’ qualification for the World Cup was a moment of triumph: every Panini sticker and wall chart emblazoned with the word ‘Wales/Cymru’ represented a small victory for a nation that has (thank goodness) been defined by shy virtue over bombastic confidence.
WATCH: No reason to panic for Wales after Gareth Bale retirement says Aaron Ramsey https://t.co/rxDViAIpsO
— IOL Sport (@IOLsport) March 20, 2023
Wales’ Disappointing World Cup: You Wait 64 Years And Get Around 35 Minutes Of Excitement
Pundits who in years gone by were content to salivate over the qualities of glamorous, distant icons – the Roger Millars, Carlos Valderamas and Gabriel Batistutas of this world – were forced to devote build-up airtime to the talents of Gareth Bale; the versatility of Ethan Ampadu; and the potential Charvisian ‘bouncebackability’ of an injury-blighted Joe Allen.
And the sound of that most stirring nonconformist hymn, Calon Lan, belted out from the Doha stands to billions of viewers worldwide, represented a moment of global exposure which would have delighted Welsh revivalists of yore.
But fans are also justified in feeling badly let down by their team.
After 64 years of waiting, Wales’ World Cup contribution was contained to three games and 270 minutes of action.
Within that near five-hour hour showing, there were about 35 minutes of positive, attack-oriented football, confined solely to a do-or-die second half against the USA.
The rest of it was miserable.
Key players Bale and Ramsey were visibly off the pace, and other talented regulars underperformed (at one stage Joe Rodon’s own brother kindly took to Twitter to suggest that his sibling had played like he was under the influence of a performance-reducing drug).
The most disappointing aspect of all three games was that in each instance, the opponents seemed to want it more.
Wales’ performances were a far cry from the encouraging displays in World Cup qualifiers and, perhaps even more tellingly, the summer 2022 Nations League fixtures where a depleted squad went toe-to-toe with strong Dutch and Belgian outfits.
— PA Dugout (@PAdugout) March 20, 2023
Wales’ Strange World Cup and the Need for a Radical Reset: Can New Blood and Backroom Staff Revive the National Team?
Wales may not have been the worst team in Qatar, but they were probably the strangest: tactically naive, physically out-of-sorts and oddly devoid both of a cohesive game plan and any trace of the fire and brimstone energy you would expect as a minimum requirement of a Welsh national side.
We entered and left the tournament in a drowsy daze: it could not have felt more like the end of an era.
The qualifying campaign to come is a huge test for Page. The man from Tylorstown deserves enormous credit for steering Wales to two major tournaments – in difficult circumstances – and his place in Welsh soccer history is already secured.
No-one could challenge his passion or commitment to the cause; and he represents the kind of quiet, dignified everyman that the Welsh public can relate to.
Page doesn’t owe Wales anything. The only question now is whether he is the man who can initiate the radical reset the national team need going forward.
The addition of new backroom staff Eric Ramsay (Assistant Manager) and Nick Davies (Head of Performance) from Manchester United and West Ham respectively could represent the first step in a positive shake-up behind the scenes.
Just as his own introduction into Ryan Giggs’ coaching team proved a decisive moment in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, Page will be hoping his new charges can breathe life and fresh ideas into what, on the evidence of last year, has looked a tired, stale set-up.
There’s also exciting new blood in the squad Page has announced.
Swansea City midfielder Oli Cooper has excelled in the Championship after making the step up from League Two with Newport County; while youngsters Jordan James, Nathan Broadhead and Luke Harris will all hope to taste first-team action this campaign.
Millwall’s Tom Bradshaw has also earned a recall for his net-busting form in the second tier: a welcome return for an out-and-out striker other than Kieffer Moore in a Welsh squad.
The lack of strike power is the biggest issue Wales need to address. As you might expect for a squad coached by a centre-half, defence hasn’t really been a weakness over the last two qualifying campaigns, but goals have been at a premium.
That problem has immediately become more acute in the absence of Bale. Who fills the void?
Wales’ Prospects for the Qualifying Campaign: Brennan Johnson and Aaron Ramsey in the Limelight
Brennan Johnson is the obvious candidate, but there’s already a risk that too much is being expected of him too soon.
Whether the mantle will be taken up by Johnson, Moore or perhaps Dan James – a perennially underrated player who only lacks goals – will be a talking point for at least the next two qualifying campaigns.
It’s also a huge campaign for Ramsey, who will need to definitively overcome his injury demons if he is to make the captaincy his own.
The Caerphilly product will feel he has a point to prove after a World Cup performance which clearly infuriated him, and the former Arsenal and Cardiff City man will need to embrace a new limelight which he has been used to sharing for well over a decade.
An uninterrupted run of games with Wales would do the Nice midfielder’s confidence a world of good.
So what of Wales’ prospects for the campaign ahead?
A trip to Split to face a Croatia team which defied doubters to finish third in the 2022 World Cup is the very definition of a tricky start.
A point on the Dalmatian shores of the Adriatic would represent a tremendous outcome for Page’s men, who will face greater pressure to see off a Latvia side ranked 133rd in the world in Cardiff three days later.
New Era for Wales Begins: Challenging Qualifiers Against Turkey, Croatia, and Armenia Await
The Latvians aren’t to be sniffed at, having secured Nations League promotion last summer and proved competitive opponents for the likes of the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey in the last World Cup qualifiers.
The Turks also feature in Wales’ draw this time, and will travel to Cardiff for the group’s climactic fixture on November 21st.
Some of the pressure will be off Turkey in this campaign given that their Nations League results last year have already bagged the Crescent Stars a play-off berth (the same is true for Croatia).
You wouldn’t expect that to affect their performances though, particularly when they play at home.
Wales will also face Armenia this time around; a side that will have something of a chip on their shoulder after a dismal 2022 which included a 9-0 defeat to Norway and heavy defeats to Scotland and Ukraine.
The Armenians travel to South Wales on 16th June before a return tie in the Caucasus in November.
Whether 2023 brings joy or pain for Wales fans remains to be seen.
It’s a challenging group, but qualification for Germany 2024 will be expected, and certainly isn’t beyond even a Bale-less Wales.
One thing is for certain though: when we kick off against Croatia on March 25th, a new era will have begun in earnest.
Read more about Rob Page
Read more about Gareth Bale
Read more about Aaron Ramsey