Welsh football’s most eagerly-awaited squad announcement in 64 years takes place in Tylorstown on Wednesday. It’s the day Robert Page announces his 26-man group for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Daniel Parker considers all options.
On the face it, the roster in the Rhondda shouldn’t yield many shocks.
Robert Page himself has already suggested he will remain loyal to the players who helped secure World Cup qualification, and so he is unlikely to spring a plane-load of last-minute surprises.
With that being said, the battle for those precious seats should still be competitive and Page isn’t completely averse to throwing a bolter into the mix.
Few predicted Rubin Colwill’s inclusion in the Euro 2020 squad, for example.
The unfortunate injury to utility man Rhys Norrington-Davies – one of the most reliable performers during a challenging Nations League campaign this summer – has also opened up a place on the historic flight from Cardiff Airport.
So which Welshmen can expect a date with Doha destiny?
Wayne Hennessey and Danny Ward should have already cancelled their newspaper deliveries and notified the milkman – they’re on the plane to Qatar.
The only real question is who’ll line up between the sticks when Wales face the USA on November 21.
Veteran Hennessey forced his way back to the top of the pecking order for the crucial World Cup play-off ties with Austria and Ukraine; but is still warming the bench at club level for Nottingham Forest.
Elsewhere in the East Midlands, Ward has overcome an underwhelming start to the season to establish himself as a bona fide Premier League number one at Leicester City.
Ward has totted up a respectable number of clean sheets (four) for the faltering Foxes, and impressed in defeat against Manchester City recently.
One foot in the Persian Gulf:
Barring any unforeseen snags, the customary third Wales squad goalkeeper is unlikely to see any action in Qatar outside the training pitch.
The frontrunner for what is likely to be a ceremonial berth is Adam Davies, who has impressed for Sheffield United since making his competitive debut for the Blades earlier this month.
Former Newport County keeper Tom King – now with deep-pocketed Salford City – has also been a regular in Wales squads since 2019, albeit without winning a cap.
King has enjoyed a decent enough start to the season, but is unlikely to feature in the squad ahead of Davies.
Uncapped Chris Maxwell is a regular in the Championship for Blackpool, and was even linked with a shock move to Everton in the summer to provide back-up for England’s Jordan Pickford.
The 32-year old – a former League One Golden Glove winner – had previously linked up with Wales’ senior squad ahead of Euro 2016, but failed to make the final cut for the tournament.
Waunarlwydd’s David Cornell is a solid back-up option for fellow Swansea City alumnus Freddie Woodman at Preston North End, but the former Under-21 international is probably out of the picture for a senior call-up.
Newport-born Walsall shot-stopper Owen Evans will also struggle to catch Rob Page’s eye in League Two, but does look capable of playing at a higher level.
Ben Davies is indispensable for Wales and is playing with confidence at club level for Spurs; bagging a goal in the North Londoners’ win over Bournemouth the other day.
Antonio Conte’s faith in the versatile defender is paying off.
Joe Rodon – who, by contrast, was criminally undervalued at Spurs – is finding his feet on loan at Rennes in France’s Ligue 1.
The former Swansea man really needs a new club on a permanent basis, but can surely rest assured of his place in the starting XI for the USA game.
Wing-backs Connor Roberts and Neco Williams are also nailed on starters, with Page’s success in fitting both attacking players into his system proving one of Wales’ major tactical triumphs over the last year.
Ethan Ampadu should also be a certainty for the squad, though his recent injury in action for Serie A side Spezia is a cause of concern.
Ben Cabango and Chris Mepham have progressed over the last year – both are now regular starters for Swansea City and Bournemouth respectively – and should pack their bags for Qatar.
My summary of the game last night did not do justice to Ben Cabango’s performance. I hope it has confirmed his place in the squad for Qatar. Not only do I love the new kit but, my goodness, doesn’t it look bloody brilliant on Ben. 🏴⚽️ pic.twitter.com/QCfJaTbRkG
— ToshFan (@ToshFan44) September 26, 2022
One foot in the Persian Gulf:
Chris Gunter is now in the autumn of his career with AFC Wimbledon in League Two, but it’s likely that Page will seek to utilise the Newportonian’s experience and leadership qualities in his squad.
James Lawrence is slightly off the radar at FC Nurnberg in Germany’s second tier, but previous involvement in the international set-up should count in his favour – even if he has yet to completely convince in the red of Wales.
Tom Lockyer, who looked comfortable in the Welsh rear guard during the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, is returning to form at the right time.
The Cardiffian has reclaimed his place at the heart of the Luton Town defence after a stop-start year marred by injuries, and would be a safe pair of feet in the squad.
Swansea City’s Brandon Cooper deserves consideration, though the talented Porthcawl product has been consigned to the club’s Under-21s side this term.
Fellow Newport County old boy Andrew Hughes has established himself in the Championship with Preston North End, but his solid form with the Lancastrians has not translated into attention from the national selectors.
Hughes’ recent struggle with a thigh niggle will not help his cause this time around either.
Stoke City’s Morgan Fox, who qualifies for Wales through his father and had previously linked up with the national squad under Chris Coleman, is another Championship regular.
Tom Lockyer. #BLALUT | #COYH pic.twitter.com/sEJXI77KF6
— Luton Town FC (@LutonTown) November 5, 2022
Norrington-Davies’s hamstring injury woe may leave space for a full-back to fill the void – but it’s very unlikely to be Fox.
Among the current crop of Wales Under-21 internationals, there may be some hope for Cardiff City’s Oliver Denham (a surprise call-up to the senior squad during the summer Nations League games) or Swansea loanee Fin Stevens.
Other very distant outside bets include Bristol Rovers’ Luca Hoole; Lincoln City’s Regan Poole; Bolton’s on-loan Liverpool left-back Owen Beck (great-nephew of Ian Rush); or even Welsh Kilmarnock duo Ash Taylor and Joe Wright.
The chance of a recall for previous caps Kieron Freeman and Declan John is virtually non-existent with their game time on the wane at Portsmouth and Bolton Wanderers respectively.
Aaron Ramsey has performed fairly well for a stuttering Nice side in Ligue 1, and it goes without saying that the Caerphilly maestro will be one of the first names on the team sheet for the USA game.
Wales fans will be hoping that Ramsey’s Euro 2016 comrade Joe Allen is also in contention to start the Pool B opener, although the Welsh Pirlo’s absence from action until then is a concerning blow.
There’s no like-for-like replacement for the Narberth dynamo, but Joe Morrell – if not as influential as Allen at his best – can deputise with energy and grit.
Harry Wilson’s return from injury is a huge boost for Rob Page, and the Fulham player should play a prominent role in the campaign ahead.
One foot in the Persian Gulf:
Swansea City’s Ollie Cooper is the in-form attacking midfielder in Wales at the moment, and is surely edging towards a first cap.
He is untested at international level, but it would be difficult for Page to justify excluding him in favour of players in English football’s third or fourth tiers.
Elsewhere in the Championship, Sorba Thomas’s performances at Huddersfield Town continue to earn rave reviews from Terriers coach Mark Fotheringham.
The 23-year old has been quietly impressive in his six Welsh appearances to date, and his versatility (he can play anywhere in midfield or at wing-back) is a major string in his bow.
The same could be said of the in-form Wes Burns, a strong performer in the last round of Nations League games who surely won’t be playing in League One for much longer.
Dylan Levitt has come on in leaps in bounds since his move to Dundee United last season, and is likely to be in Page’s thinking for Qatar (provided that he can successfully recover from a recent knee knock).
Matt Smith has been a squad regular over the last four years without making any real waves. His club form has been commendable, though he is marooned at the wrong end of League One with MK Dons.
Red Wall favourite Jonny Williams has also been in fine form for Swindon Town, but there are legitimate question marks about whether ‘Joniesta’ can continue to compensate for the leap from League Two to international level.
With that being said, his wealth of his experience in Wales squads – and his ability to impact a game from the bench – will probably see him over the line.
Cardiff City’s Rubin Colwill will be in contention, too, though the Neath product faces a race against time to get back to full fitness after a lengthy lay-off.
Page has already stated that the World Cup door is open for highly-rated Fulham youngster Luke Harris.
Big things are expected of the Jersey-born 17-year-old, who, like Birmingham City’s Jordan James, has already linked up with the senior Wales squad this year.
Fulham’s Luke Harris has been called into the Wales squad for the Nations League games against Belgium on 22 September and Poland three days later
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) September 14, 2022
Charlie Savage – son of Robbie – has also caught Page’s eye thanks to his impressive form with Manchester United’s academy.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that any one of the three is named in the squad this week.
Conversely, a frustrating hamstring injury looks set to have curtailed a fairytale comeback for David Brooks, who hasn’t played a first-team game in over a year.
It’s almost certainly asking too much of Brooks to rush straight from the treatment room to a World Cup, but the Bournemouth man will remain an important player for Wales over the years to come.
Page has been spotted at Ewood Park this season. keeping an eye on Blackburn’s Ryan Hedges, who has impressed for the Championship high-flyers.
The Hawarden-raised midfielder is battling with a groin injury though, so a squad berth for the next European qualifying campaign may be a more realistic goal.
Josh Sheehan’s superb comeback from injury at Bolton will have caught the eye of Wales, but the man from Pembrey may run out of time to recapture the fine form which earned him a handful of caps during his time at Newport County.
🔘 Wanting to put things right on Saturday. 👊
🔘 Being part of a strong midfield department. 💪
🔘 Aiming to go as far as possible in the FA Cup. 🏆
📺 @JoshSheehan_ spoke ahead of tomorrow’s @EmiratesFACup First Round tie against @BarnsleyFC. #BWFC 🐘🏰
— Bolton Wanderers (@OfficialBWFC) November 4, 2022
Injury has also blighted any lingering hopes of an international return for fellow County graduate Lee Evans this autumn, with the Ipswich Town man facing up to four weeks on the treatment table with a knee knock.
Other League One long shots include Burton Albion’s Terry Taylor and former Cardiff man Will Vaulks, who is battling to hold down his place in Sheffield Wednesday’s first team.
Rangers’ Tom Lawrence – who has been out of favour for Wales under Page – also looks set to miss out; with a lengthy spell on the sidelines disrupting his impressive early form at Ibrox.
To paraphrase Sam Neill’s Alan Grant in Jurassic Park 3, no force on earth or heaven could prevent Gareth Bale from boarding the plane to Qatar.
Kieffer Moore, who has been among the goals for Bournemouth of late, will join him.
Daniel James, who so often sets the tone for Wales in attack (and in his underrated pressing game in defence), is another essential pick.
Nottingham Forest’s Brennan Johnson will also make the cut, even if he has struggled to match the heights he scaled at the City Ground last season.
One foot in the Persian Gulf:
Cardiff City’s Mark Harris has impressed in his showings for Wales to date, showing skill, guile and a penchant for effective hold-up play in the final third.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Matondo has struggled for form at Rangers this season, but offers something different in attack from the wide channels. He may be worth a punt.
Kieffer Moore’s Bournemouth Bounty Is About To Put The Ultimate Hat-Trick In Reach With Wales
Tyler Roberts has yet to fully convince in a Wales shirt, but will also be in contention. QPR boss Michael Beale has emphasised that the Leeds loanee will be fit in time for the World Cup, but won’t be ready to play for the West Londoners in the interim.
Wales’ breakout star of the ultimately doomed 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Ben Woodburn, has endured a topsy-turvy few years, but looks to have found his feet at Preston North End in the Championship.
Don’t be surprised to see him re-emerge on the scene with a point to prove.
Nathan Broadhead has also performed fairly well in the Championship for Wigan Athletic.
The chance of a call-up for Aberystwyth’s Luke Jephcott (Swindon Town) is also extremely remote – though he has previously been touted as a possible long-term solution to Wales’ lack of out-and-out centre forwards.
You feel for Aberdare’s Isaak Davies, whose injury woes have almost certainly ruled him out of the international equation in what looked set to be a breakthrough season at Cardiff.
Injury frustrations have also scuppered any distant hopes that Cwmbran’s Christian Doidge (Kilmarnock), Ruthin’s Pat Jones (Huddersfield) or Lampeter’s Gwion Edwards (Wigan) might have harboured.
Wales squad prediction
W Hennessey, D Ward, A Davies
B Davies, J Rodon, C Roberts, N Williams, E Ampadu, C Mepham, B Cabango, T Lockyer, C Gunter
A Ramsey, J Morrell, J Allen, H Wilson, O Cooper, S Thomas, W Burns, D Levitt, J Williams
G Bale, D James, K Moore, B Johnson, M Harris