2011 – Wales are ranked 117th in the world and in the middle of a multi-decade absence from a major international tournament.
Fast-forward five years, the British nation is not only in the global spotlight for the first time in 58 years, they also find themselves one step away from a European Championships final.
The Welsh roster now boasts the most expensive player in world football in the form of Gareth Bale, who has brilliantly spearheaded his team’s campaign in both qualifying and the tournament itself. However, one man is unable to engineer success alone and the Real Madrid star has been superbly supported by a spirited crew of teammates who ply their trade throughout a range of competitions in England and Scotland.
The quartet of Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams, Joe Allen and Ben Davies, all based at some of the Premier League’s largest clubs, have impressed in France with some classy displays. But Ramsey and Davies, having picked up a second booking for the tournament against Belgium, will be absent as the Welsh take on Portugal for a place in the final at the Stade de Lyon this week.
These further setbacks just add to the task for a side which continues to defy the odds. In a tournament that many did not see them advancing past the group stages, Wales are yet to present any substantial vulnerabilities in their game, and will fancy their chances against a fairly mediocre-looking Portuguese side who are yet to win a match in 90 minutes.
The means for this quiet confidence is not entirely down to Bale himself, or even the other aforementioned quality players. Of course, they have been key to their nation’s remarkable run, but there are plenty more individuals who have committed their heart and soul to the Welsh national team.
Here are three of these unsung heroes behind Wales’ incredible rise:
A significant subplot within the Welsh fairytale, there is no underestimating the unity, belief and organisation that has been instilled in the playing group by manager Chris Coleman. He has pieced together a squad that can well and truly be described as a ‘mixed bag’, repeatedly perfecting both his motivational and tactical plans throughout the tournament. After a tough start in charge, the 46-year-old has admirably steered Wales out of the international footballing wilderness, building upon the strong foundations laid by the late Gary Speed, whom Coleman succeeded in the job after his tragic death in 2011. Speed’s short period in charge saw an incredible 72 place rise in his nation’s FIFA ranking – from 117th to 45th in a matter of months. Coleman, the former Fulham gaffer, has since proved the perfect successor to continue that legacy, and the unfolding success at Euro 2016 would surely make no man prouder than Gary Speed himself.
— UEFA EURO 2016 (@UEFAEURO) July 2, 2016
For a man who is currently unemployed, Hal Robson-Kanu is having the time of his life! His superb ‘Cruyff turn’ and composed finish to inflict a knockout blow against Belgium has flung the former Reading man into international headlines. A rapid yet strong attacker, the 27-year-old has been mainly deployed as a winger at club level, due to his high work-rate. His goal-scoring record is far from impressive, both in the Championship for Reading and internationally. Despite this, his selection for the tournament has been a productive one, creating the decisive goal to eliminate the Red Devils’ ‘golden generation’ in the quarter-finals, as well as grabbing the winner against Slovakia in the group stage. Robson-Kanu has proved effective in his striker role, as he harnesses his best attributes to either divert the attention of opposition defenders away from Bale or Ramsey, or make a direct impact on the scoresheet himself.
With Chris Coleman electing to tackle the international stage with a wing-back orientated formation, Reading stalwart Chris Gunter is integral in the execution of this game plan. At the age of 26, he is the most experienced member of the Welsh squad, already boasting an impressive 72 caps for his nation. Whenever given the chance, he has not disappointed. A string of solid performances so far at Euro 2016 were capped-off by a resolute display against Belgium, where he kept the outstanding threat of Eden Hazard relatively quiet and even bagged an assist – delivering a pinpoint cross for Sam Vokes to nod home the sealer. These recent heroics have had the Cardiff City youth product linked with a £1 million move to Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic.