Generations of Welsh football fans have not known what it is like to see their country grace a major tournament. However, years of hurt, anguish and toil are set to be vanquished, ushering in new era in Welsh football. An entire country is starting to subscribe to the belief that they are about to qualify for Euro 2016.
When Russia broke Welsh hearts in the Euro 2004 qualification play-offs, it seemed as if another of Wales’s golden era’s failed to live up to expectation. Attending that game full of expectation, there was passion oozing from the stands, the roar of the crowd deafening in ways only a Welsh crowd in full voice can.
Wales lost 1-0 on aggregate but with it so much more. Filling out the Millennium Stadium that cold November night, it seemed like a procession of broken dreams and shattered souls. Grown men were crying, even throwing programmes and probably betting slips into the River Taff, while a father tried to console his son who was sobbing uncontrollably on the train home.
It was dejection of the highest order, never has a loss felt like such a backward step. Memories of Craig Bellamy scoring the winner against European giants Italy grew more distant.
The nation had belief in Mark Hughes, the man at the helm at that time, and his ability to finally lead Wales to the European Championships and sun-kissed Portuguese shores. The loss was all too keenly felt as Wales as a country was finding its own identity since devolution politics took over.
Proud Welshman Chris Coleman has turned a side once ranked 117th in the world into a formidable unit, capable of winning against the best Europe has to offer. He is on the brink of finishing the Football Association of Wales (FAW) project, that of qualifying for a major tournament.
In the same breath that you discuss Coleman’s stellar efforts, you cannot talk about Wales recent success without mentioning the pivotal contribution of the late Gary Speed, the troubled man who started Wales on this unrelenting course to finally qualifying for major tournament football is key.
Speed believed that this current crop of players had what it took to break free of past qualification demons, to push standards and restore national pride by being more disciplined and direct. Speed had the respect of the dressing room, his peers and the wider sporting community. Players responded positively to his methods and produced performances to match.
His contribution cannot be overlooked, it was crucial to stopping the backward slide, and Welsh football would be poorer without Speed’s work.
Coleman has not had it all his own way, losing his first four games in charge. It led to the inevitable and very uncomfortable discussions by journalists and fans, while vast sections of Welsh supporters called for him to go. The insinuation was that he was not good enough for the job or even out of his depth.
However, the FAW backed him to the hilt a decision that looks like paying off handsomely. Those dissenting voices have been silenced and are now fully paid up members of the Welsh national project.
The team is harder to break down now and with talisman Gareth Bale finding some solace and home comfort from the caldron of Bernabéu politics, they are on the brink of attaining the dream.
Wales may not have the multimillion pound squad of their group rivals Belgium but they have something more important – a real team ethic. They fight for every ball, throwing themselves into the line of fire to block the route to goal, and Coleman has made them defensively solid.
As well as becoming more mentally resilient as a unit, Wales also possess the ability to counter attack with pace.
Qualification for France 2016 has gone from a distant pipe dream to a very much shoe in territory. Remaining fixtures will be tricky affairs but Wales have the measure of Israel, and Cyprus in September will provide the perfect backdrop around which to celebrate qualification. It would be ideal to have everything wrapped up well before they face Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Following the 1-0 sensational win over Belgium last week, Coleman has been more pragmatic and has sounded a degree of caution. Until Wales cross that line there will be no let up, no celebration.
We went crazy at full-time. As a coaching staff we have had tough times, but we have gained strength through adversity. There is a long way to go but we should enjoy it. That was the biggest win of my managerial career, and I believe there is a bigger one coming. That will be the one that says we are going to France.
The 1958 World Cup in Sweden was the last time Wales graced a major football tournament. The way in which the game was played was very different, multi million pound players even at that point would have been unimaginable. Sponsorship and commercialisation of the game was at its very infancy. Those are the reference points this generation of Welsh players are dealing with.
Wales has not seen the likes of this from its football team in a very long time while likes of the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and England have had ample opportunities to showcase their talents on the biggest stages.
Qualification will also mean that Wales will rise in rankings significantly, improving the chances for qualification to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Other benefits include improvements in players due to tournament participation, wider exposure of the Welsh football brand, and more funding due to participation fees and commercial opportunities. The implications of major tournament participation go beyond Welsh fans investing in French guidebooks and booking planes, trains and automobiles.
Wales are on the brink of a cataclysmic shift in national footballing fortunes. It means so much for a footballing mad nation to upset the rugby set, to claim their stake in the nation’s sporting future. It’s no less than Coleman and his side deserve for their hard work. Belief has been restored, now is the time to cross the finishing line.