If you’d asked a Wales fan a decade ago if they’d like a manager to guide them to three tournaments in a row, they’d have bitten your arm off in one hungry bite. Do the same in 2023, and you’d have a chorus of “Rob Page Out!” before you could finish asking the question.
It does seem unfair to the former Sheffield United defender. Page only took over the Wales job out of necessity, after Ryan Giggs was suspended by the FAW following an accusation of domestic abuse (which has yet to be proven in court). Giggs’ assistant was thrust into the spotlight, hailed with the impossible task of leading Wales in EURO 2020 with only a few seasons in League One under his belt as a manager.
He hadn’t even been in charge for any of the qualifiers. Ryan Giggs carried on the great work of Chris Coleman with his stint as Wales boss. When the team were drawn into a group with top teams like Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary, most fans had written off Y Ddraig. However, Giggs worked his magic, introducing young stars like Neco Williams and David Brooks into the side as he finished second in the group – enough to send Wales to the EUROS.
As we all know, we had to wait a year for the party in Europe (well, it was mainly in Azerbaijan for the Wales fans). This was one year too long for Giggs, who was withdrawn from his position as manager. With no time to coax Chris Coleman back from China, Rob Page had to stand in as the interim manager for the tournament. Hardly the best preparation in the world, but Wales never did anything sensibly.
The lack of direction from the new man was clear. Wales did have some good results in the 2021 edition of the European Championships. A win over Turkey complimented the draw with Switzerland, and even battled well in a 1-0 loss to eventual winners Italy. Sure, there was clearly no game plan from Page, and his substitutions and tactical changes during the game left a lot to be desired, but Bale, Ramsey and co managed to drag Wales to the knockout rounds. It was here that a 4-0 drubbing by Denmark would spoil the day, and send Wales home packing.
That should have been the end for Rob Page, but the FAW instead gave him a brand-new four-year deal. This was not want the fans wanted, as they had seen the clear drop-off from Giggs to Page both on and off the pitch. Wales had some good results in the EUROS, but how much of that was actually up to the manager was up for review.
And then, the miracle happened. Something nobody had expected for half a century or more finally came true. Wales qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – once again inspired by a hat-trick of miracles by the talismaic Gareth Bale. After a tough qualifying campaign, Wales managed to qualify for the Nations League playoffs, giving them another chance to play in the first World Cup since 1958. Two goals from Bale against Hungary won them the semi-final against Hungary, while his 40th international goal earned Cymru a 1-0 win over war-torn Ukraine to earn their shot in the World Cup.
This was where the fairy story ended. Wales had a torrid time in Qatar. Gareth Bale was clearly passed his best, and had moved to LAFC to stay fit for the World Cup. Long gone was the man who would run the pitch and score from 40 yards as if it was nothing, carrying his team to victory in spite of a squad full of league one benchwarmers.
No, this was Bale’s last hurrah, and it was not very hurrah-y. He scored the only goal Wales scored in the tournament – a penalty in a 1-1 draw against the United States. A dreadful performance in a 2-0 loss to Iran (in which Wayne Hennessey was sent off for an outrageous running knee into the strikers face) all but sent Wales home, before a 4-0 loss to England confirmed it. The performances from all the players were awful. There was no system to speak of, no game plan and no tactics for the players to follow. The plan was to give Gareth Bale the ball and see what happens. In 2016, that got them to the quarter-finals. In 2022, it ended in disaster.
In a way, Wales have been burdened by success. Never before has any manager took charge of Wales in more than one tournament. One shot at a major tournament adds you to the Welsh history books, yet Rob Page is nowhere to be found in the canon of great Welsh managers. He stands leagues below Jimmy Murphy and Chris Coleman, despite his success being very comparable – some say, surpassing them. He is the only Welsh manager to manage in a EUROs and World Cup, and could make it three-in-a-row if Wales qualify for EURO 2024 in the play offs.
Yet Rob Page has to go. He is not a great manager – he is barely a good one. He does not show the tactical understanding of a Ryan Giggs. His in-game management is far below that of Chris Coleman. He hasn’t bedded in the youngsters like Gary Speed, and he hasn’t inspired the nation like Mark Hughes. He’s just there. Thrust into the spotlight without the experience to carry him forward.
I hope he stays on and guides us to the EUROS. There is nobody else, unless the Welsh FA give Craig Bellamy a shot (they won’t) or Steve Cooper takes a drastic step down (he won’t), to take over the reins at Wales. Yet, he needs to go. But they cannot sack a manager who has guided Wales to more major tournaments than any other.
We are truly burdened by success.