This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
In some ways, Wales face a thankless task. How will they ever top the ecstasy and elation of five years ago? Gareth Bale’s devilish free-kick against Slovakia, the battle of Lens, Aaron Ramsey’s dink against Russia, and, of course, Hal Robson-Kanu’s timeless turn and finish as Wales stomped through to the semi-finals of Euro 2016. Those involved in that journey pine for more of the same, while the newbies are desperate to sample a slice of what went before, and create a new chapter of stories supporters never tire of reliving.
It is impossible not to glance back but look beneath the surface, beyond the individual brilliance of Bale and the core of players successful in France, and there is a new generation of talent emerging, including Daniel James, Neco Williams and Ethan Ampadu. This squad is technically gifted, speedy and sprightly but they must also be courageous, streetwise, and foster a team spirit that proved priceless last time.
Last month Robert Page, the assistant coach who will stand in for the absent Ryan Giggs, apologised for trotting out the usual cliches when asked about what a good tournament would look like. “At this moment in time, Welsh football is in a good place and I want to continue that momentum,” he said.
Wales will be stronger for their experiences at Euro 2016 – their first major tournament for 58 years – and they appear to possess greater depth this time. Only eight players who went to France have made the squad. Whereas before, Chris Coleman’s greatest conundrum was whether to pick Sam Vokes or Robson-Kanu to lead the line, they have the luxury of options in almost every position, though remain light up front.
The route here was not straightforward but they secured their place at the finals courtesy of Aaron Ramsey’s double against Hungary more than 18 months ago. Since then he has barely featured and they have experimented with formations – a 3-4-3 with Harry Wilson playing as a false nine, and the previously preferred 4-2-3-1, which served them well in qualifying.
The threat of Kieffer Moore feels significant in a competition where tactics can turn on their head in an instant. The Cardiff forward is an awkward presence for defenders and proved more than just a target man in qualifying, scoring two goals and providing a different dynamic, allowing Bale to flourish on his favoured right flank and James on the left. Wales are laced with youth, full of hunger and while no one is expecting them to peak this summer, who would bet against them leaving another indelible mark?
Robert Page will lead the team in the absence of Ryan Giggs, who will go on trial in January accused of assault, which he denies. The former Watford and Sheffield United defender played with Giggs for Wales, winning 41 caps before stepping into management with Port Vale and Northampton Town. So far, Page has proved a more than capable deputy. He has a longstanding relationship with key players such as David Brooks and Joe Rodon from his two-year spell in charge of the Under-21s, and has been quick to put his foot down since taking the reins. “I have zero tolerance with ill-discipline,” he said. “We are here because we want to be successful. To do that we need maturity and a bit of class about us.”
Who else? As the Red Wall sings, Viva Gareth Bale. The captain is the darling of Welsh football and while they are not the one-man team often painted, Bale’s influence runs deep. He scored only twice in qualifying but has shown flickers of brilliance for club and country of late, dovetailing superbly with Harry Wilson against Belgium in March and registering a hat-trick for Tottenham at the start of May. Bale was immortalised in a Cardiff mural after Wales qualified for Euro 2016. He is Wales’ all-time record goalscorer and has been named the Welsh footballer of the year a record six times.
Thankful for a year’s delay
Joe Allen. He ruptured an achilles tendon in the penultimate game before lockdown last year but after being forced off seven minutes into his Wales comeback against Belgium, the 31-year-old midfielder faces a race against time. Allen was included in a 28-man training squad selected by Page for a pre-tournament trip to Portugal.
Ward; Ampadu, Rodon, Ben Davies; Roberts, Ramsey, Morrell, N Williams; Bale, Moore, James
What the fans sing
BBC Wales’ decision to use Frankie Valli’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You to promote the 1994 World Cup qualifiers wooed the nation. Fans have sung the lyrics in the stands ever since. The old hymn Calon Lân, Welsh for “pure heart”, is traditionally associated with rugby but got plenty of airtime at Euro 2016. It was allegedly written on the back of a cigarette packet by the poet Daniel James. Men of Harlech, played before every Cardiff City home game, is another popular stadium anthem.
What the fans say
Ar ben eu digon On cloud nine.
Taran o ergyd A thunderbolt of a shot.
Chwip o gôl “A whip of a goal”, reserved for worldies.
Give the ball to Gareth Some terrace talk is in English, too.
Tyler Roberts was one of three players – Hal Robson-Kanu and Rabbi Matondo were the other two – who were sent home from the last international camp after breaking a curfew at the team hotel. “It was obviously a mistake that I made and I was thinking straight away about the Euros,” Roberts said this week. “It was good to chat with the gaffer and put it in the past. Just grateful that I’ve been selected.”
Ben Fisher writes for The Guardian.
Follow him on Twitter @benfisherj.
For a profile of Kieffer Moore click here.