As the dust settles on Wales’ disappointing World Cup qualification defeat to the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff on Monday evening, thoughts will turn to what might have been for fans and players alike.
James McClean’s 57th minute strike broke Welsh hearts and ensured that Ireland would leapfrog their hosts into second place in Group D, clinching a place in next month’s play-offs to earn the right to travel to Russia next June.
For a team that enjoyed such a meteoric rise to prominence and endeared themselves to football fans around the world at last year’s European Championships in France, failure at the last hurdle will hurt; particularly considering that the Red Dragons had been unbeaten since a 2-0 semi-final defeat to eventual champions Portugal last July.
The inquest will begin as to why they were unable to build on the momentum generated last summer but for Wales through rain or shine, the media focus has definitively shone on one man; Gareth Bale.
Since his huge £77 million move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid in 2013, the Cardiff-born winger has become a global superstar. Wales have undoubtedly benefited from Bale’s development at one of the biggest clubs in the world.
International football can often be decided by the smallest margins and possessing a player with the capability of producing moments of individual magic is clearly a big advantage.
In the wake of their successful Euro 2016 qualification campaign, many accused Wales of being a ‘one man team,’ reliant solely on the individual talents of Bale, largely dismissing the value of his victorious teammates.
It is a tag that is very difficult to disprove. Bale went on to score seven of his team’s 11 goals and lay-on two of those for his peers as Wales finished second in a group containing a star-studded Belgium outfit, a capable Bosnia and Herzegovina and Israel, all of which were tipped to contest the two automatic qualification places ahead of the Welsh.
The European Championships told a familiar story. Bale helped his country to settle in their first appearance at a major international tournament since the World Cup in 1958, grabbing the opening goal with a stunning free-kick in a 2-1 victory over Slovakia.
He went on to repeat the trick in the next game, firing in another set piece against England and playing an integral role in a 3-0 demolition of Russia four days later, taking his team into a round of 16 fixture against Northern Ireland. A whipped cross into the six yard box drew a match-winning deflection from Gareth McAuley into his own net to send the Welsh into an unexpected quarter final berth against Belgium.
The events of July 1 2016 will deservedly go down in Welsh football folklore. Their remarkable come-from-behind 3-1 victory against a side tipped for greatness is arguably the best moment of Wales’ modern football history. However, it also marks the team’s independence from Bale’s brilliance.
The 28-year-old played and inspired but did little to directly influence an extraordinary series of events. Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsay, Stoke City’s Joe Allen, Burnley’s Sam Vokes and (at the time) clubless Hal Robson-Kanu produced the performance of their lives to leave their permanent marks on Welsh football history.
That game is a watershed for many reasons but chief among them is the realisation that there is far more to Welsh football team than Gareth Bale.
The pain of elimination will linger after Monday’s disappointment but this World Cup sortie provides a whole host of reasons for fresh optimism.
Compared to Euro 2016, the 2018 World Cup campaign has unearthed a new, exciting, Bale-inspired batch of young Welsh talent.
Of the 13 goals that Wales recorded in Group D, Bale scored four and assisted just once. Two of the four strikes were added when his team were already 2 goals to the good at home to Moldova and the third and fourth helped to secure home draws against Serbia and Georgia.
Instead Wales’ fate, up until Monday, was based upon the individual exploits of new heroes. 17-year-old Liverpool forward Ben Woodburn’s 74th minute winner against Austria became instantly eternal in Welsh football history for its beauty and its timing.
Derby County’s unheralded Tom Lawrence stepped up to the plate in the talismanic Bale’s absence to secure a vital point away in Georgia with an equally majestic strike to give Wales every chance of progressing to the Russian party.
Bale was once their ‘go-to man’ and although Wales will miss out next summer, this campaign has at least dispelled the myth that they are a ‘one-man team.’ Aside from his contributions on the field in recent years, the confidence that the former-Southampton man has given to the next generation of Welsh starlets should not be understated.
The future of manager Chris Coleman will be scrutinised with the contract of the former-Fulham coach set to run out next summer but he has recently acknowledged the encouraging progress that the lesser renowned Welsh players have made in Bale’s wake.
The Real Madrid man was suspended for his side’s trip to table-topping Serbia in June but Coleman stressed the importance of fostering a strong squad mentality.
“We can’t always pick our strongest team so you’ve got to bridge the gap somewhere along the line,” he said.
“Over the next couple of years we will lose some players, unfortunately.”
“You’ve got to plan for the future and it’s a good experience for some of these young ones to come in and see what it’s all about.”
The confidence that Bale has given the Dragons’ squad should not be underestimated but to dismiss them as a ‘one-man team’ is more than a little wide of the mark.
They may not be in Russia next year but the experience that the likes of young stars such as Tom Lawrence and Ben Woodburn have amassed during the campaign will surely stand them in good stead for the future.