By Rob Cole
To quote Osian Roberts – assistant manager to Ryan Giggs with the the senior Wales team – after his Wales U16 side had won the 2014 Victory Shield outright for the first time in 65 years, “it shows that the Welsh football future is in good hands and is moving in the right direction.”
Roberts described the Class of four years ago as a “special group of players”. Too right!
No fewer than four of the squad that clinched the title for the first time since 1949 were involved in the back-to-back Nations League victories over the Republic of Ireland – Matt Smith, Ethan Ampadu, Ben Woodburn and Tyler Roberts. Opponents on that night four years ago, England, can count only Mason Mount as a breakthrough achievement.
The Welsh tally is a pretty good return from one age group team and there are more coming through what is now a very impressive player pathway created by Roberts, Rob Page and the Football Association of Wales.
As much as the unsung coaches deserve a pat on the back for helping to steer talented youngsters through to the senior international side, the investment from the FAW needs to be applauded as well.
While everyone was raving about Harry Wilson’s free kick in Dublin that earned Wales a 1-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland this week, equally as significant were the victories by Wales U19 over Poland in Bangor (2-0) and Wales U21 against Switzerland in Newport (3-1).
David Brooks and Chris Mepham played in the opening game of the U21 European campaign against Switzerland 12 months ago and are now entrenched in Giggs’ senior squad.
All of a sudden, we aren’t talking about the Bale, Ramsey and Allen axis, but getting excited about the skill and courage being displayed by the Welsh youngsters.
As Page admitted recently, playing for Wales is no longer seen as a last resort by players at even the best of Premier League academies. The message about the Welsh football revolution has quite clearly spread far and wide.
Captain of the 2014 Victory Shield side was Tyler Roberts. He headed home the clincher in a 2-0 win in Northern Ireland to make victory safe and bring the title back to Wales after a long, long wait.
If that was the end of his journey at U16 level, his step into the senior ranks of international football has only just begun . . . and brightly!
He is just one of the players who has passed through the hands of Page and the age grade coaches.
“Leeds saw the potential in Tyler and signed him from West Brom. He is now showing his true qualities and I don’t expect to see much of him in the future, but that’s just part of the job,” said Page.
“George Thomas is a great character, Joe Rodon is developing nicely, but none of these youngsters can afford to take their eye off the ball week-in, week-out at their clubs. The minute they show potential, and are consistent at that level, it is important they get a taste of first team football.
“What’s important throughout all the intermediate age groups is that they understand the key principles of how the Wales first team goes about its business.
“They are the non-negotiables, but within that you have flexibility to play different systems to suit the players you have.
“Ideally, at Under 21 level we will play the same style as the first-team, but the key thing is the players all understand exactly what is expected of them when they reach the top team.
“Ryan is pro youth and fast tracking players and that’s appealing to players with dual qualifications like Brooks and Mepham.
“To be honest, it is easy to convince them once when they come into our camp and they experience the environment we work in. To his credit, David Brooks went to play in Toulon with England, got player of the tournament, but he had already promised me he would give Wales an opportunity.
“We took him to Switzerland and Portugal, he scored a great goal against the Swiss and I knew once we had him in our camp we wouldn’t lose him.
“He met with Chris Coleman at the time, we had a conversation and he won his first senior cap against France in Paris.
“How many national managers would do that for a youngster? The great thing is that when you play for Wales it’s like a club environment.
“We got David Brooks and we’ve had others since.
“There is no greater honour than playing for your country and I now have agents constantly phoning me about players with dual nationality.
“There are some who slip through our net and when we know who has the right qualifications, and which other countries they can play for, we send the scouts out to look at them.
“The facilities and funding we’ve had have been very important in our development. It has given us the chance to improve our standards.
“We are now giving our players top quality and top standard facilities. It is important that we keep the conveyor belt of talent coming through, so that means we need to keep investing in our systems.
“As Ryan has said, we want to have the senior players looking over their shoulders in training and seeing youngsters who want to take their shirt. That breeds success.”
That is certainly the case at the moment and the U19 and U21 results earlier in the week will keep the likes of Brooks, Roberts, Ampadu, Mepham, Wilson and others staring down the age groups to see who is following in their footsteps and likely to put them under threat – sooner rather than later.
WHAT A WEEK THAT WAS!
Monday, 15 October, 2018 – WALES U19 2 – 0 POLAND U19
Wales Squad: George Ratcliffe (Cardiff City), Adam Przybek (West Bromwich Albion), Ryan Reynolds (Cardiff City), Jay Foulston (Newport County), Morgan Boyes (Liverpool), Neco Williams (Liverpool), Ryan Astley (Everton), Ben Cabango (TNS – loan from Swansea City), Brandon Cooper (Swansea City), Dan Griffiths (Cardiff City), Joe Adams (Bury), Brennan Johnson (Nottingham Forest), Luke Jephcott (Plymouth Argyle), Pablo Martinez (West Bromwich Albion), Issak Davies (Cardiff City), Jack Vale (Blackburn Rovers), Dylan Levitt (Manchester United), Ryan Stirk (Birmingham City), Sam Bowen (Cardiff City), Lewis Collins (Newport County)
Goals: B Johnson 2
Tuesday, 16 October, 2018 – REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 0 – 1 WALES
Wales: Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace); Connor Roberts (Swansea City), Ashley Williams (captain, Stoke City – loan from Everton), James Chester (Aston Villa), Ben Davies (Tottenham Hotspur); Joe Allen (Stoke City), Matty Smith (FC Twente – loan from Manchester City, George Thomas 74 – Scunthorpe United – loan from Leicester City); David Brooks (Bournemouth, Andy King 87 – Leicester City), Harry Wilson (Chris Gunter 84 – Reading), Tom Lawrence (Derby County); Tyler Roberts (Leeds United)
Subs not used: Gary Ward (Leicester City), Adam Davies (Barnsley), Jazz Richards (Cardiff City), Sam Vokes (Burnley), Ben Woodburn (Sheffield United – loan from Liverpool), Declan John (Swansea City), Joe Rodon (Swansea City), Gwion Edwards (Ipswich Town), Kieron Freeman (Sheffield United)
Goal: Harry Wilson 58
Tuesday, 16 October, 2018 – WALES U21 3 – 1 SWITZERLAND U21
Wales: Owen Evans (Wigan Athletic), Aaron Lewis (Swansea City), Rhys Norrington-Davies (Barrow AFC – loan from Sheffield United), Cian Harries (Swansea City), Regan Poole (captain, Manchester United), Keston Davies (Swansea City), Robbie Burton (Arsenal – Isaac Christie-Davies 93 – Liverpool), Joe Morrell (Bristol City), Mark Harris (Newport County – loan from Cardiff City – Mo Touray 80 – Barry Town United – loan from Newport County), Connor Evans (Bristol City), Nathan Broadhead (Everton – Alex Babos 61 – Real Union – loan from Derby County)
Goals: J Morrell (36), C Evans (38, 87)
2014 VICTORY SHIELD – WALES U16 1 – 0 ENGLAND U16
It was a 1-0 win over England that set Wales U16 on their way to a famous Victory Shield triumph.
Managed by Osian Roberts, with the help of Liverpool legend Ian Rush, Wales also beat Scotland 2-1 and Northern Ireland 2-0.
“I’m very proud. It’s a great accomplishment, a great achievement by everyone. It’s an historical night,” said Roberts.
“It’s been a long time in coming, but it shows that the Welsh football future is in good hands and is moving in the right direction.”
The matchwinner against England was scored by Cardiff City academy defender Liam Angel.
He is currently playing for Cinderford Town in Southern League Division One South, while another of the Cardiff contingent, Keiron Proctor, has signed this season for Pontypridd Town AFC in the Welsh League Division 1 after spending time at both Sunderland and Derby County.
Not every player is going to make the highest grade, but the system gives everyone a shot at a professional career and further international honours.
Wales: 1 Scott Coughlan (Cardiff City); 2 Cole Dasilva (Chelsea), 3 Ben Williams (Blackburn Rovers), 4 Liam Angel (Cardiff City), 5 Daniel Jefferies (Swansea City), 6 Max Smallcombe (Exeter City), 7 Keiron Proctor (Cardiff City), 8 Matty Smith (Manchester City), 9 Tyler Roberts (captain, West Bromwich Albion), 10 Ben Woodburn (Liverpool), 11 Liam Cullen (Swansea City)
Subs: 12 Adam Przybek (West Bromwich Albion), 13 Theo Llewellyn (Bristol City), 14 Joe Lewis (Swansea City), 15 Ibby Sosani (Cardiff City), 16 Sam Phillips (Wolverhampton Wanderers), 17 Ethan Ampadu(Exeter City), 18 Keiran Evans (Swansea City)
Goal: Liam Angel 43
England: 1 Taye Ashby-Hammond (Fulham); 2 Dujon Sterling (Chelsea), 5 Japhet Tanganga (Tottenham Hotspur), 6 Tolaji Bola (Arsenal), 3 Vashon Neufville (West Ham United); 8 Charlie Gilmour (Arsenal), 4 Callum Slattery (Southampton), 10 Mason Mount (Chelsea); 7 Keanan Bennetts (Tottenham Hotspur), 9 Martell Taylor-Crossdale (Chelsea), 11 Jonathan Leko (West Bromwich Albion)
Subs: 12 Lewis Thompson (Manchester United) for Tanganga ht; 14 Mackenzie Heaney (Newcastle United) for Bennetts 55; 15 Sadou Diallo (Manchester City) for Gilmour; 16 Okera Simmonds (Liverpool) for Taylor-Crossdale 75
Sub not used: 13 Ryan Sandford (GK; Millwall)