Culture, standards, professionalism – How Welsh football turned a corner

Wales is officially a footballing nation! Or at least for the next six months as they prepare to travel to their first World Cup final since 1958.

A recent UEFA survey revealed that football has overtaken rugby as the top sport in the country and last weekend’s win over Ukraine underscored that fact.

The 64-year long wait for a place at the game’s top table finally came to an end in a passion-filled Cardiff City Stadium last Sunday against opponents Republic of Ireland tonight. Has anyone really given Wales a chance to repeat the heroics of John Charles, Ivor Allchurch, Jack Kelsey and Cliff Jones?

They were not numerous outside the Principality, especially after the 3-1 beating that the Ukrainians had inflicted on Scotland. Of course, Rob Page’s side took advantage of their chance, had their goalkeeper, Wayne Hennessy, to thank as much as Gareth Bale, but that was no accident.

Meticulous planning has gone into Welsh football from top to bottom for over a decade and the fruits have been two trips to the Euros, where they reached the semi-final in 2016, and now the Holy Grail, the World Cup in Qatar.

Current manager Page has won 42 caps for his country and openly admits he was part of a team nicknamed ‘Rag Tag Rovers’ for the way they prepared. Once they went to a prison to train because it was arguably the best ground in the country.

They moved from hotel to hotel, had no designated training center and were a rather disparate group. And half the time, Alex Ferguson discouraged Ryan Giggs from showing up.

Managers came and went, some came back more than once – Mike Smith and John Toshack – and then there were the heartaches. Joe Jordan’s handball that turned into a Wales penalty against Scotland at Anfield in 1977, the severe penalty against Wales in Cardiff against the Scots in 1985, then Paul Bodin’s missed penalty against Romania in the Welsh capital in 1993 had all managed to keep the Welsh away from football’s top table.

How times have changed. A golden generation of players, led by Bale and Aaron Ramsey and including Joe Allen and Hennessey, rose through the ranks and became outstanding international entertainers.

Just as Jack Charlton inspired Ireland’s golden generation to win two World Cups and a European Championship, it was Gary Speed ​​who started a revolution in mindset, style of play and football. attitude in the Welsh camp when he became Wales manager in 2010.

“Gary Speed ​​started it all 12-13 years ago and I dedicated the win against Ukraine and the qualification for the World Cup to him. He changed the culture, the mentality and the professionalism and made it taken to another level,” Page said.

“The professionalism, the way we approach the games, our identity as a nation and as a team – Gary laid the foundations and we’ve added little bits since. Without the foundations he put in place, we wouldn’t be 100% here today.

“It’s not just about building a culture. The biggest change for me was the connection we now have with the supporters – which was huge and they were right behind us from the first minute until the 96th minute on Sunday.

“It helps the players, but winning games is also important. You can create a culture and do all that, have a team spirit and camaraderie, but if you don’t win games, the fans won’t be happy.

It might have been the biggest off-pitch moment of Ryan Giggs’ football career, but he came across Page in difficult circumstances to deliver what Football Association of Wales CEO – Limerick native Noel Mooney – reckons to be a £10m bargain. for the game by qualifying for Qatar.

Significantly, a large portion of this money will be invested in the base. The FAW seem determined to knock rugby union off its self-proclaimed perch as the ‘national sport’ of Wales and they are doing a great job at the moment.

They have built bespoke training bases in Newport and Wrexham for their age squads to benefit from, they have taken over the former Cardiff Blues training facility at the Vale of Glamorgan Resort and put it up to date. level to Premier League standards.

“We had to evolve and the standards and facilities changed. The players lack for nothing and we have to give them the same standards as the top teams, like Real Madrid, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal.

“If we want the best players to continue playing for us, that’s what we have to give them. That means there can be no excuses. It’s more like a club environment now.

The FAW has also spent much of the recent past linking up with UEFA for their mutual benefit. Waes hosted the Champions League final in 2017, the UEFA Super Cup in 2014 and started with the UEFA Women’s Under-19 Championship final tournament in 2013.

In addition to this, the FAW has managed to attract a number of top names in football to obtain UEFA A, B and Pro coaching licenses in their courses. Patrick Vieira, Mikel Arteta, Thierry Henry, Marcel Desailly, Sol Campbell, David Ginola, Craig Bellamy, Les Ferdinand, Tim Sherwood, Jens Lehmann, Tim Cahill, Garry Monk, Simon Grayson and the former Wales and Fulham chief Coleman are all graduates of their highly regarded courses.

More importantly for the advancement of the game in Wales, many coaches at JD Cymru Premier League clubs have gone through the same courses. Teams in the top three tiers of the domestic game must adhere to strict standards in terms of training and the establishment of academies.

Football has always won the battle of numbers with Welsh rugby, but it is now winning the culture war. Welsh nationalist Dafydd Iwan’s moving song ‘Yma o Hyd’ (Still Here) may have been written during the dark days of Thatcherism, but it has become the unofficial anthem of Welsh football fans.

Such is the financial power of the game that Welsh football captain Bale has earned almost as much in a week in the last nine years at Real Madrid (£600,000) as current rugby captain Dan Biggar earns in a year. .

This connection between the team and the fans has been vital. Page has traveled the country meeting school children and supporters and the bond that has been forged seems unbreakable for now.

Culture, requirement, professionalism, allied to a winning team, have propelled the round ball to the top of the charts. There’s a lot for other nations that won’t be in Qatar to learn from the new approach.

Helen D. Jessen