Tag Archives: Aaron Ramsey

From Novi Sad to Zenica, Chris Coleman’s tenure comes full circle with Euro qualification

It’s September 12th 2012, Wales have just lost 6-1 to Serbia in Novi Sad the night before – a disaster, a huge blow, catastrophic, all the usual terms used to describe a heavy defeat are brandished by the big names in the media in criticism of Chris Coleman’s side.

The national squad hadn’t suffered a defeat that heavy since 1996, but that side in the nineties was a team in transition playing against a strong Netherlands side – this was supposed to be the Golden Generation of Wales, pushing on to reach the World Cup for only the second time in their history.

Instead, they were a team in limbo.

After the tragic passing of their previous manager Gary Speed, 10 months prior, everyone knew that it was going to take time to heal – you never forget something like that – that the excellent form the team had showed under Speed in his final five games in charge might not immediately be reflected in Chris Coleman’s first few games as Wales manager, but nobody expected this. Five defeats on the bounce, with performances gradually getting worse up until the point where Serbia swatted Wales aside with ease.

Chris Coleman had nowhere to hide.

Sat in the airport the day after the game on his own, he looked like the loneliest man in the world – externally finding solace by being away from the presence of others but internally he was frantic. Admitting recently that he considered quitting before he found new motivation from his friends and family, Coleman said he felt he has never felt like that before:

‘We didn’t just lose in Serbia, we embarrassed ourselves and when you do that you embarrass the country – and that’s another ball game. I’ve never felt that before.’

Nowhere to hide.

Fast forward to today, as I sit here three years later writing this on my journey home, and the boot is firmly on the other foot. Make no mistake, with Wales now having qualified for their first major finals since 1958 and their first ever European Championship tournament, Chris Coleman still has nowhere to hide from all of the attention that is being focuses on him – but this time it’s adulation that is being thrown his way, not criticism. A funny old game, isn’t it? But the turnaround is undoubtedly deserved!

You have to give immense credit to the man for, in the very spirit his team now embodies on the pitch, coming out swinging when his back couldn’t be any more pressed against the wall. For being adamant that his way was the right way, and ultimately being proven right by the way his team have performed in Euro 2016 qualifying.

This past week, he and his squad have seen the rewards of demonstrating that tremendous spirit as they changed the country’s sporting history.

Fitting as well that the crucial game, the 2-0 defeat to Bosnia on Saturday the 10th, should happen in Zenica – the closest Wales have ever been to Novi Sad since that fateful 6-1 thumping in 2012 – and fitting also that luck should go their way this time, to the point that the defeat didn’t matter because other teams had done them favours to ensure qualification for Wales a game early.

Gareth Bale called it the best defeat of his life. I think every single Wales fan would have to agree. Never had a defeat been so lauded by the fans. 800 roaring dragons penned in to a tiny corner of an old, wet stadium in Bosnia, with the total ecstasy that followed warming the souls of a nation.

But this was only the penultimate group game – there would be one more chance for Wales fans to watch their heroes in action three days later against Andorra in Cardiff. A meaningless game for the neutral, a total dead rubber, with Wales already certain of qualifying and Andorra already certain of maintaining their position at the foot of the group table.

But for the Wales fans, it would be an opportunity to wash away years and years of misery and near-misses with one evening of pure celebration.

An hour before the game, the stands were filling up, songs were being chanted, merchandise was being bought commemorating the occasion – 58 years is a long time to wait, or a lifetime for those of us not fortunate enough to be around in 1958, and the Welsh weren’t going to miss this opportunity to lap it all up and enjoy it.

Even the match itself was perfect. A lot of people around Cardiff afterwards or on social media in the days since have said it was a frustrating affair and Wales could have done better than they did, or at least scored sooner than Aaron Ramsey’s 55th minute opener, but from this fan’s perspective the performance was rather fitting. A metaphor, if you like, for Wales’ journey from that fateful night in Novi Sad to this epic occasion I witnessed before me in Cardiff that night.

It wasn’t pretty at times, Wales had to work hard, they were being frustrated by so many factors out of their control such as opposition injuries and negative tactics, they had to come up with a Plan B, but, more importantly they had to keep faith and believe in what they were doing and that it would work – it eventually did, as Ramsey and Bale scored, and the likes of Ashley and Jonny Williams, Ben Davies and others put in a tremendous effort to give Wales that 2-0 win.

That is the story of Wales since that night in 2012. Nothing has come easy for them, it has all been hard work; spirited performance after spirited performance has seen them break all manner of records in the last few years and finally get this little nation of three million people noticed on the world footballing stage for the right reasons.

Not for missing out again, not for succumbing to a horrendous defeat, not for promising so much and delivering relatively little – people all over the footballing world are now talking about and looking at Wales and thinking ‘hey, these guys over here are pretty good.’

The big question is now – how do we build on that?

The European Championships will be key. Wales aren’t just going there to make up the numbers. They’ll obviously be going there to do well, to get out of their group and see where things take them. Can they achieve that? Absolutely. They’ve proved in this campaign that they can beat the best teams in the world – earning four points out of six against the now #1 ranked team – Belgium – is a clear indicator of that.

Will they achieve it? Who knows? But with the best fans in the world, one of the most tight-knit, talented group of players that Wales has ever had, and a manager who is as passionate and as well-regarded as Chris Coleman, Wales have as good a chance as anyone of doing the business out in France next summer!

Vive le Gallois!

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Do the hopes of two nations hinge on Haifa clash?

Following tremendous starts that have seen both sides go unbeaten in Euro 2016 qualifying so far, Israel welcome Wales to Haifa on Saturday in what is rightly being labelled the biggest game of the group to date.

Wales manager Chris Coleman labelled this game as Wales’ biggest since their Euro 2004 playoff with Russia, which the Welsh lost 1-0 on aggregate over two legs.

At the squad announcement last week, Coleman said: ‘This next game will be the biggest game in Welsh football for years, since Russia. It is an absolutely huge game for us.

‘Top against second! The next two games are going to dictate whether we finish in the top two or whether we’re fighting for third.’

The History

Anyone who knows the history of the Welsh national side knows not to get ahead of themselves too much because, like against Russia, or against Romania or Scotland in years gone by, it can all go so wrong so quickly.

Confidence in Welsh football right now is at it’s highest since that 2004 campaign and some have argued that there are striking similarities between now and then.

On both occasions, Wales went undefeated in the opening four games as well as securing perhaps unlikely results both home and away in both campaigns, in this campaign’s case perhaps the two 0-0 draws and in 2004’s case the Italy/Finland wins.

Perhaps what is fuelling Wales’ fans pessimism, or will at least be at the back of their minds, is what happened after the opening four games of Euro 2004 qualifying (Wales didn’t win another game in that campaign).

Old habits die hard

Two problems Wales have had over the years, both interlinked in previous campaigns, are an abundance of injuries and a lack of commitment.

For the first time this campaign, Wales have a (more or less) full strength squad to choose from as they go into this international clash against Israel.

Earlier in the campaign, Wales were rocked by over a dozen injuries as they faced Bosnia and Cyprus in a double header at the Cardiff City Stadium.

This time there is just a handful of injuries to worry about, something that leaves Chris Coleman with a nice selection headache for once in midfield.

Despite the fact that Jonny Williams is still out, Chris Coleman has to decide if he plays all three of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Joe Allen in midfield, and in what system if so.

Wales have played a 3-5-2 and a 4-2-3-1 this campaign. No-one is expecting to see the former again as that was a system catered for Bosnia so if the three are to play in a 4-2-3-1 do we see Ramsey at number 10 with the other two sitting deep, and if so can he fulfil that role?

I think he can. Former FAW Head of Youth Development Chris Whitley described Ramsey to me as someone who ‘wants to take the corners and head them in’ so his commitment is beyond question.

He has the creativity to play in that role and, whilst some have said his performances for Wales recently haven’t been up to scratch, shifting him to 10 could change that.

On the commitment front, Ashley Williams is the perfect example of why those issues are now a thing firmly in Welsh national football’s past.

He will earn his fiftieth cap on Saturday, in only the 57th Wales fixture since his debut, so an amazing show of commitment from the Swansea City skipper.

Joe Allen, who knows the centre-back very well from their time playing alongside each other at Swansea City, said that Williams’ commitment is his most impressive trait:

‘Ash has been a fantastic influence on me, at club and international level. I think the commitment and the drive he has to succeed is brilliant and rubs off on the entire squad.’

James Chester won’t partner him at the back as Coleman left him out of the squad due to Chester’s longstanding shoulder injury but a Williams-Collins combination is a good alternative.

Coleman said: ‘Shoulder injuries take longer to recover than doctors say – it is a shame because he’s been magnificent for us and has struck a great partnership with Ashley.’

Bale Bother

For all of the criticism being levied at Gareth Bale in Spain at the moment, whether you think it is justified or not, his commitment for Wales cannot be questioned.

Chris Coleman commented in this regard: ‘Gareth comes here, he wants to be involved, he’s incredibly motivated – he is the last person I am worried about honestly.

‘We’re almost half way and we’ve got a really good chance. The pressure is on and he loves that pressure, he can handle that, that environment where everything is on the line.’

Wales left-back Neil Taylor reaffirmed the views of his manager and added that, despite the criticism, Bale isn’t taking any notice of it and is just enjoying his football:

‘I don’t know if playing here is a release for him, you’d have to ask him, but all I know is that he looks like he is enjoying his football.

‘He’s fit and ready, like everyone, he turns up for every trip and always gives his best so you can see how much he wants it as a Welshman.’

Whatever is being said, his talent is undeniable. The criticism and the car-bashing in Spain is too far. Sure he can improve but who can’t? If he scores the winner against Israel but has an awful game otherwise, which of those two facts would people remember more?

Israel’s Monsterous midfield

A bit if research will tell you that, although they aren’t doing it in the English Premier League or in La Liga, Israel’s midfield are more than competent goal-scorers!

Biharis Nacho, Eran Zahavi and Lios Refaelov have all scored tonnes of goals domestically this season – Zahavi has managed to get 25 on his own – and Damari up front is joint-top-scorer with Danny Welbeck in qualifying so far on five goals.

Israeli journalist Raphael Gellar told me of his confidence going into these fixtures: ‘It is a very good time for Israel. I expect us to beat Wales and hopefully get a point from Belgium.

However Gellar was realistic regarding the run Israel have had to get to this point in the group: ‘If we can get 3-4 points from the next two matches, I will be impressed.

‘I am not surprised we are doing well but at the same the only tough team we played is Bosnia (and arguably Cyprus) but Bosnia had several injured players and they didn’t support their manager.’

They’re no slouches on the defensive end either; when Israel played Portugal in the last campaign, they completely shut down Cristiano Ronaldo, so could they do the same with Bale?

What is clear is that this is a huge game for both teams – if Wales lose, does the memory of previous campaigns come back to haunt them? Will it be too big a task to pick the players up for the next game, which is at home to Belgium in June?

For Israel, this game is the first of a double-header that will decide what they’re fighting for in the group. If they lose to Wales, can the manager pick them up for a game three days later against Belgium,  one of the best international teams in football?

So much is on the line in this one for both sides – as a Welshman I will obviously be backing Coleman and the guys but Wales are absolutely going to be up against it in this one.

Victory Shield win shows Wales’ Golden Generation Still to Come

The Chair of The Football Association of Wales’ Senior Technical Group, Chris Whitley tonight insisted that Welsh Football’s bright future is soon going to get even brighter.

Speaking to me exclusively after coaching a youth football session in Colwyn Bay, Mr Whitley expressed his immense happiness regarding the Welsh National side’s current success before promising more was to come in the very near future.

‘Chris [Coleman] and all of them speak about this current Welsh National squad being the Golden Generation but I think differently if I’m honest’.

‘The Golden Generation will be the next one. We have half a dozen players at least now waiting to come through to the senior squad that are going to be great players very soon. Make no mistake!’

Mr Whitley, who is also the Head of Youth Development at Conwy Borough Football Club, has been responsible for pushing through the youth development of a number of Welsh football greats such as Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Gareth Bale, Ryan Giggs, Aaron Ramsey and so on.

However Mr Whitley thinks that the current group of youth players, such as the under-16s who won the Victory Shield recently coached by FAW Technical Director Osian Roberts, could make for Wales’ most talented squad to date when they join the seniors in the near future.

‘When we bolt these youngsters on to the existing lot, who in a few years’ time will still be young enough, we will have an exceptionally talented squad of players without a doubt’.

Whitley spoke of a number of Welsh Youth players who he believed had the potential to go to the top but picked out three in particular as his standout stars for the future.

‘There are so many talented youngsters coming through but Joe Murrell, Harry Wilson and Tyler Roberts really stand out for me’.

‘Tyler is absolutely outstanding in my opinion. I’ve seen so many youth players coming through but Tyler is the best number 9 I have seen in a Wales shirt since Mark Hughes without a doubt’.

Whitley’s career within the FAW has spanned over 40 years but he believes there are a number of key changes that have been made in recent years, most notably during Gary Speed’s tenure, that have put the current senior and youth squads in such a strong position.

‘This all started towards the end of Gary Speed’s era in charge where we said one of our objectives is to make our squads one of the best prepared squads in the world and they are without a doubt!’

Key changes have been made also in the way the FAW recruits its youth talent:

‘Our recruitment and retention of players now compared to years gone by has improved so much! To be honest, 75% of our team now are English-based players’.

‘Years ago we wouldn’t have discovered them because we didn’t go out there and look for them – we used to stumble upon them by accident sometimes’.

The National Coaching Conference took place in Newport at the Welsh Football Trust earlier in the week and, with a record number of coaches in attendance, Whitley believes the Welsh coach development is another key piece in what is currently a very successful Welsh Football structure.

‘The coaching education in Wales is first class, absolutely first class. We had a record number of coaches at our recent national conference – 350 coaches! Unbelievable!’

‘Our coach education programme is second to none. The Welsh Football Trust is doing a tremendous job in terms of coaching education and player development’.

Welsh football is currently going through a tremendous period of success and, having spoken to Mr Whitley about his experiences within the side and where we are making changes and trying to develop, I for one fully believe that the future for football in our country is very bright indeed and I hope we can continue to be rewarded for the amazing support that we fans have always given!

“So Much More To Come” – Chris Coleman on Wales’ Progress.

Chris Coleman last night fired a warning shot to Wales’ Euro 2016 qualification rivals by insisting that there is so much more to come from his young, high-flying national side.

Following an event at Conwy Borough Football Club which saw the Welsh Men’s National Side manager open a new clubhouse, Coleman was happy to speak to me briefly about Wales’ progress.

Following on from Wales’ relatively straightforward fixture against Belgium, the ex-Fulham manager is keen to outline how much the side had learnt and benefitted from the adversity they’d faced in previous fixtures.

“In every game so far we’ve had a bit of adversity and we’ve handled it really well, no matter what the conditions have been whether it be the pitch in Andorra or the amount of injuries against Bosnia and Cyprus. We’ve got over every bump in the road really well and that speaks to the character of these players.

It is fine having the ability in football but you have to have the mentality as well and the last few months have proved that these players have both.” He said.

The Welsh National side is a very young one; the starting XI against Belgium had an average age of just over 25-years-old and with youngsters such as George Williams (19), Jonathan Williams (21) and Harry Wilson (17) coming through, the manager believes the future is bright for Wales.

“They’re so young so we have a lot of years left to work with this squad and that’s great because we’re going to have a lot of players who have experienced a lot of adversity together and know how to deal with it and that can only be good for Welsh Football.” He said.

Adversity and character are two words that pop up frequently in our brief conversation as Coleman argues that one leads to another and can only serve to bring the best out of his side.

“There’s a lot more to come from this side. All of the experience they’re getting now coming through the adversity that they’ve come through is great because it shapes them and their character.”

Although he initially struggled to get things right after taking the Wales job in incredibly unfortunate and difficult circumstances, the former Wales defender believes he has found the secret to success.

“The secret to success here is getting players who don’t regularly play together, some who don’t even play at all, outside of the national side to play like a strong cohesive unit for 90 minutes.

Wayne Hennessey has been absolutely wonderful – Chris Gunter, Robson-Kanu, Joe Ledley, Joe Allen, George Williams, Dave Cotterill and so on – it is definitely a collective effort.” He said.

Sensing that, after going four games undefeated in qualification and losing only one of the last nine at home, momentum is with his side, Coleman is chomping at the bit for Wales to get going again.

“If I had my way we’d have gone to Israel five days after the Belgium game to keep the momentum going but the fixtures are the way they are and we have to wait until March.

We’re taking everything on a game-by-game basis. My target now is obviously to win against Israel then it’ll be to win the next one and the next one to put ourselves in the best position to get to France in 2016.” The ex-Sociedad manager added.

Whilst coming to the conclusion of the interview, news filters through of Wales’ triumph in the Victory Shield Competition – the first time the Welsh have secured an outright win of the competition since 1948/49 – Coleman is elated that Wales’ focus on their youth is paying off.

“The win is a strong indicator that all of the FAW’s hard work down in the lower levels of Welsh Football is paying off – developing the youth is the name of the game.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re coaching them right, treating them right and making sure they develop correctly.”

One thing is for sure – if the youth follow the example that the senior national side is setting right now then future is very, very bright for Welsh football!