Leon Bartonwales1 Comment


Leon Bartonwales1 Comment

Forgetting two-legged knockout ties, rarely do losing fans come away from a game happier than the winning fans. I can only think of one occasion I was in attendance when that was the case. San Siro, October, 20th, 2010. I was lucky enough to witness the birth of Gareth Bale as a global football superstar. Bale's hat-trick for a Spurs team reduced to ten men after eleven minutes was not enough to get any kind of result following an imperious first half in which Inter Milan had racked up four unanswered goals.

Surrounded by both home and away supporters - thousands of Spurs fans had travelled to Milan ticket-less with the hope of buying much cheaper tickets in the city - on the descent down the steep stairwells from the San Siro‘s top tiers, there was little doubt which set seemed the happier.

The Italians looked aghast that their team, full of hardened serial winners, had come so close to blowing a huge lead against such unheralded opponents. Meanwhile, the Spurs fans were all smiles.

There was a sense that the momentum gained by Bale's extraordinary one-man show, together with the return of experienced playmaker Rafael Van Der Vaart, would lead to a much better showing when facing the European champions again a few weeks later.

It was a feeling that was to prove justified as Spurs won a memorable match 3-1 at White Hart Lane. Both teams progressed to the Champions League knockout stage, though, so neither tie was do or die.

Even rarer is the occasion where fans who have been knocked out of a cup seem happier than the opposition fans.

This proved to be the case on 14 October 2008, when England‘s under 21’s made it to the European Championship in Sweden. They defeated their Welsh rivals 5-4 on aggregate after the second leg ended 2-2 at Villa Park.

Both teams had topped their respective groups to reach the knockout stage. Yet, with only seven places up for grabs, qualification was an arduous process but one that England were well used to. Wales, perhaps, were seen as another stone to step on before facing the big fish at the tournament.

For England's smaller neighbours, however, topping a group containing the likes of France, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania was already an unprecedented achievement. The 10,000 crowd at Cardiff's old Ninian Park for the first leg of the playoff was in stark contrast to the 700 who saw the victory over France at the same venue a year earlier. It was testament to the way the Welsh youngsters had turned the heads of their country.

The first leg had finished 3-2 to the visitors but there was plenty to admire in a Wales performance full of spirit and energy. The team was still very much in the tie as they headed to Birmingham for the second leg. On the terraces, there was even talk of thousands of Welsh fans travelling to Scandinavia for the 2009 European Championships.

That may be unprecedented for u21 football; but by this point, the wait to see a Welsh football team play in a tournament had been 50 years long. Such a long drought means being grateful for even the smallest drops. In the end, any such discussion proved academic as the English youngsters progressed. They performed well in the tournament too, reaching the final before falling to a Mesut Özil- inspired Germany.

Football is a results business, but for the Welsh in attendance, the final score seemed irrelevant. The moments seemed to matter most. And one in particular – in the 24th minute – stood out.

24th minute. After conceding a sloppy goal, Wales needed 3 goals and there seemed precious little sign that a very young team was capable of getting them.

Of course, the English were of tender years too, but nowhere near as young on average or experience. The English team contained players with English Premier League experience, like Mark Noble, Steven Taylor and James Milner. In contrast, the Welsh line up was full of teenagers. Darcy Blake and Shaun MacDonald were struggling to make an impact at their football league clubs, despite being key figures over the course of the qualifying campaign.

The stand-out player for Wales was the youngest player on show and it was he who gave Wales hope as the tie threatened to fizzle out in the drabbest manner possible.

At 17, Aaron Ramsey had already made more of an impression at club level than any of his teammates. After helping his local team Cardiff City to that summer‘s FA Cup final, Ramsey had made a huge impact. His performance away at Premier League Middlesborough in the quarter-final, in particular, had neutrals taking note. “How old did you say he was again?” asked co-commentator Mark Lawrenson during the BBC’s live coverage following another piece of intelligent Ramsey play.

He came off the bench against Portsmouth at Wembley to become the second youngest player to play in an FA Cup Final. He made an immediate impact, doing more than anyone to try and get Cardiff back into the game. It was to no avail – Cardiff losing 1-0 – but the young midfielder had already shown an aptitude for the big occasion.

Straight away in the cup final I could see it…his attitude was: ‘Give me the ball. I‘ll try and make something happen’
— Ryan Giggs

Making something happen out of nothing is a rare and precious skill. What was so memorable about Ramsey‘s goal to level the game at Villa Park was that it was so unexpected. 30-yards out, the ball was on his weaker left foot, his team outplayed by much stronger opponents, and the highly-rated Joe Hart to beat.

Often, when space opens up for a player with a view of goal in the opposition half, the crowd will encourage a shot, even in a semi-ironic manner. There were no cries of ‘Shoot!‘ among the Wales fans, many of whom (like myself) were level with Ramsey when the ball bounced at his feet.

Even the commentator, busy explaining the state of play in the tie, doesn’t appear to countenance that Ramsey might be about to shoot.

It was only with the ball flying through the air towards goal that I realised it might actually go in. A gasp the England fans in attendance can be heard on the TV footage, showing how unexpected it was.

This was the Aaron Ramsey show. Five minutes later, he turned provider. Running at England‘s lumbering central defence, he slipped an inch-perfect pass through to Simon Church, who lifted the ball over Joe Hart. It was Church's third of the tie making the score 1-2 on the night, 4-4 on aggregate. Another goal was needed, but the momentum was with the Welsh.

Disbelief and delirium reigned in the small Welsh corner of Villa Park. There can‘t be too many under 21 matches in history that have been subject to a pitch invasion, but some could not contain their glee. Two senior matches between the two rivals had been played in recent years; 2004 at Old Trafford and 2005 at the Millennium Stadium. If they were boxing matches, the Welsh players had not even laid a glove on their superstar opponents. At last, the Welsh youngsters were at least prepared to have a go at their larger neighbours. It was the first sign of the promise of a brighter footballing future to come.

The Welsh deficiencies at set-piece defending were exposed once again when England equalised through an own goal from Sam Vokes. Despite the home team being reduced to ten men in the second half - a crude challenge from Tom Huddlestone - their added experience showed as they were able to see out the tie. Vokes blew the best chance to send the game into extra time when hitting the post late on.

So Wales failed again at the final hurdle, whilst England went to a tournament where progress was halted by one of world football‘s big gun. So far, so to script, right? On the surface, yes, but it did not feel that way to the Welsh fans.

If you‘re looking for the places where the seeds of Wales‘s success at Euro 2016 were sown, then that particular u21 campaign provides the fertile, rich soil. Joining Ramsey, Vokes and Church, were Joe Allen, Andy King, Wayne Hennessey, Gareth Bale, Chris Gunter and Dave Edwards. All played in France last summer.

The Welsh at Villa Park stood to applaud our young players, while the England fans slunk away, seemingly a little embarrassed to have qualified at Wales‘ expense.

It was the memory of that giddy spell between Ramsey‘s unexpected strike and the pitch invasion following Church‘s goal which lingered in the heads of Welsh fans as we walked the streets of Aston following the game.

Sentiments such as ‘a load of shite, wasn't it?’ from those with Birmingham accents provided a stark contrast to the buzz among the Welsh fans. Could these youngsters be different? Could they end five decades of hurt? Could Aaron Ramsey be the goal-scoring playmaker Wales lacked for so long?

Jason Koumas was a player as infuriating as he was entertaining – a mercurial maverick with absurd ability but none of the mental fortitude required to be a true success at the highest level. Early on, Welsh fans anointed Koumas as the ‘chosen one’ early on – the midfield magician Wales had so sorely lacked.

“I think we missed a genuine playmaker like Ivor Allchurch who was probably the last ‘midfield general’ back in the 1950s and 1960s. Myself, Brian Flynn, John Mahoney and later Peter Nicholas were all pretty similar. We ran about and gave people a good whack every now and then and we had plenty of hwyl – spirit – but we never had the one player like Graeme Souness, who dictated the pace of a match in the middle of the park”

These are the words of former Wales captain Terry Yorath in his autobiography Hard Man, Hard Knocks. By the time the 20th century had ended, two decades since Yorath last played for Wales, we were still waiting for such a player. We had seen some very good midfielders in that time, but not one who could be described as a playmaker. The great Gary Speed was a wonderful footballer – a genuine leader, brave, superb in the air and with the intelligence to play a number of roles, but he lacked the ball-playing ability to dictate the game against strong opposition. Even friend, mentor and former Leeds teammate Gordon Strachan stated that what made Speed effective was that he made up with attitude what he lacked in skill.

So by the time Koumas declared for Wales at the age of 21 in 2001, we still lacked the ‘midfield general‘ that Yorath described in his book. Early on in his career, you could see that Jason Koumas had the potential to be the player we had been waiting for.

“Why haven‘t we got anyone like him?” I thought when Gheorghe Hagi basically destroyed Wales twice to take Romania to the 1994 World Cup at our expense. Hristo Stoichkov for Bulgaria during the campaign to qualify for Euro 96, the young Bastian Schweinsteiger for the Germans in 2007…Welsh fans have become used to seeing our team undone by an opposition string-puller. In 2009, an ageing and very average Finland came to Cardiff for a World Cup qualifier. They were a team who looked unmistakably there for the taking. No matter, the veteran Jari Litmanen ran the game, in which Wayne Hennessey was Wales’s best player.

Koumas was unable to live up to expectations and promptly retired from Wales duty. having flattered to deceive for the entirety of his eight-year international career and playing in fewer than half of the 75 matches Wales played between his first and last caps.

Wales, though, did not have to wait too long to see that, at long last, the chosen one had arrived; the boy who would be king. Aaron Ramsey.

He scored his first senior goal with a free kick against Liechtenstein in the October of 2009 but it was a few weeks later, in a friendly fixture against Scotland that Wales knew they had the real deal. Scoring a lovely goal following a Giggs-like mazy run to make it 3-0 was the icing on the cake, but he‘d been superb up until then anyway. He was a cut above anyone else on the pitch, including 19-year old left back Gareth Bale.

The excitement of what a Wales team might do in qualifying with a proper playmaker was palpable amongst the fans. A midfielder who can open up defences and score goals?! The bubble quickly burst a few weeks later, when Ramsey broke his leg after a tackle from Ryan Shawcross. The fear was that he might never play again, or at least never be the same player he might have been. Welsh fans wallowed in self-pity once more – ‘we‘re cursed, we‘ll never qualify…’ the oft-repeated mantra.

We were wrong. Although the goals of Gareth Bale and rock-solid defending of captain Ashley Williams were the twin pillars around which Welsh qualification for Euro 2016 were built, it was Aaron Ramsey who proved Wales’s best player at the tournament itself and was selected in Uefa’s official team of the tournament.

A wonderful goal against Russia, crucial assists against both Slovakia and Belgium and a general sense that here was a talented player proud to be his country's key man on the big stage. It was little surprise that a Ramsey-less Wales was unable to make an impact in the semi-final against Portugal, despite the best efforts of Gareth Bale. The feeling of what might have been – if only Ramsey had not been suspended – remains strong several months on. Mixed in with the sense of regret is a great deal of pride about the performances in France. There should be – Welsh football reached hitherto, unscaled heights in the summer.

The emergence of Aaron Ramsey – who first blossomed on the international stage during those u21 playoffs against England – has made watching Wales a far more pleasurable experience. Together with the two Joe’s, Allen and Ledley, Wales currently has the greatest central midfield in its history.

Arsenal fans may still be torn about how much he brings to the table but he’s loved in his homeland. And for many of us, it‘s been that way ever since Ramsey first drew blood, at Villa Park, back in 2008.

By Leon Barton. A version of this post originally appeared on Podcast Pel-Droed. Photo credit goes fully to Jon Candy.