With Wales set to face Finland in the Nations League opener on Thursday, former striker John Hartson tells Steffan Thomas how the exciting current crop of youngsters can exceed the achievements of those who have gone before them.
John Hartson insists Wales have a golden generation of youngsters to rival the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey but has warned they will go down as flops unless they make their mark at future major championships.
Wales currently have some of the brightest prospects in British football in their ranks with the likes of Liverpool starlet Neco Williams, Swansea City defender Ben Cabango, Manchester United midfielder Dylan Levitt and Schalke winger Rabbi Matondo.
All four could be used by manager Ryan Giggs for Wales’ Nations League opener against Finland in Helsinki on Thursday evening – a match which is live on S4C.
Ten years ago a talented crop of players which included Bale, Ramsay and Joe Allen were exposed to international football by John Toshack and eventually went on to lead Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 under Chris Coleman.
Former Wales striker Hartson is confident the current group can match their achievements and said: “This group can be as good as the crop that came through a decade back with Ramsay and Bale.
“The big question will be over whether they can come together as a team and get the results which allow them to qualify for more major tournaments. Ultimately, you are judged on major tournaments.
“It’s a great time for Welsh football and Ryan Giggs is absolutely spoilt for choice in terms of different positions. If you look up front, Kieffer Moore has recently joined Cardiff City so he’s going to be more in the spotlight.
“You’ve got Neco Williams, who has just pledged himself to Wales and just signed a five-year contract at Liverpool. You look at Connor Roberts at right-back, you look at David Brooks and Harry Wilson, and you’re talking about a generation of fabulous players.
“Yes, they’ve still got to go and qualify for major tournaments which they already have done for the Euros. But what a group of players we’ve got coming through and you join these with experienced players like Joe Allen, Bale and Ramsey and it’s mouth-watering.
“Look at the team I played in. Our front three was Giggs, Hartson and Bellamy. We had Robbie Savage playing Premier League football, we had Mark Pembridge playing Premier League football.
“We were a Premiership team. But despite the quality we had we never qualified for a major tournament.
“My point is it’s all well and good saying they are a great group, but ultimately you have to qualify for major tournaments. For now, it’s only great potential but what talented players they are.”
Giggs named a 26-man squad for the two Nations League clashes with Finland and Bulgaria, while the Republic of Ireland are also in their group.
The manager recalled West Bromwich Albion striker Hal-Robson Kanu after the 31-year-old’s decision to come out of international retirement.
And Hartson believes this could prove to be a masterstroke from Giggs.
He said: “I’m a big fan of the decision to bring him back in because he’s got great experience. He was outstanding in the Euros.
“He scored some important goals for us, including the wonder goal he scored against Belgium in the quarter-final. He has played at high level international football and I think he can still be effective for Wales.
“I know we’ve got Kieffer Moore, and we’ve got Daniel James and other players who are doing exceptionally well but Hal is an invaluable member of the squad in terms of coming into the group and offering that experience alongside Ryan and his staff.
“I think it’s a really wise choice by Ryan Giggs to do that. But I don’t know whether he goes straight into the starting line-up.
“I think after the success of the players that have done really well in recent games it will be hard. John Toshack asked the same of me but I didn’t come in because I wanted to play.
“John always told me I retired too soon and he would have liked some of the senior players to stay on because myself, Gary Speed and Mark Pembridge retired at the same time. He went on record saying he wanted some of the senior players to stay around when he was giving the likes of Ledley and Bale their debuts.”
Some countries have used the Nations League as a chance to experiment, but Hartson insists this would be a grave mistake and believes Wales should go fully loaded in Finland.
“I think it’s a good opportunity to go and be strong and go and get your team ready for the Euros,” he added. “Everybody is still basically on trial.”
“There are five or six players that you would say are absolute certs. I think there’s several positions up for grabs.
“There’s a backbone of good midfield players. Everybody will want to impress the manager and cement their place in the team.
“I think it gives Ryan an opportunity to have a look at a lot of the players but also take the games very seriously.”
S4C – Thurs – 7.25pm – Sgorio: Finland v Wales
Live coverage of the UEFA Nations League as Wales return to competitive action. All the action live with Dylan Ebenezer.