European football’s governing body, UEFA, today announced that three Welsh players had made it onto the shortlist for their team of the year. Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale have been rewarded for a series of stand-out performances for Wales as they progressed to the semi-finals of the European Championships in the summer. Their recognition is well-deserved, as is that for Hal Robson-Kanu, who has been nominated for goal of the year for his audacious turn and finish in the quarter-final fixture against Belgium. There is no doubting that the European Championships was a major triumph for Wales – players, supporters, the management team under Chris Coleman, and officials. If qualifying for the first major tournament in 58 years wasn’t enough, wins against Slovakia, Russia, Northern Ireland and Belgium propelled the team into the semi-finals and the spotlight in a way that none of us could ever have dared to dream. I was fortunate to travel to Bordeaux for the opening weekend of the Championships. It was an experience that I will never forget and that I will probably never come near to matching. You can read my blogs about the opening games of the tournament here and here.
What has been most impressive about the way that Wales has gone about building a competitive national football team, is that it has not been an accident of good fortune or lucky timing. Whilst Bale, Ramsey and Allen are undoubtedly the pick of the squad in terms of technical ability and (in Bale’s case at least) world class, the success of the team is founded on the established principles of working hard for each other, never knowing when you’re beaten, and giving 100% effort for the cause on every occasion. Whilst Bale received the plaudits in France for his goals and all around attacking flair, in many ways it was Ben Davies who set Wales on their way with a miraculous goal-line clearance in the opening 10 minutes of the first game against Slovakia. You could sense in the stadium at the time a sudden surge of belief that we could do this! We were not just there to make up the numbers – cannon fodder for the ‘more established’ teams.
The Welsh Football Association’s plan for the development of all aspects of the game – under the banner Together Stronger – encapsulates that spirit of teamwork and togetherness and applies it to junior and women’s football, at the grassroots and elite levels, and across all four corners of the country. In partnership with the charitable FAW Trust, investment in the latest artificial surfaces now sees many FA Wales Premier League matches played on high quality surfaces all year round, irrespective of the weather. And those same surfaces support youth teams, development centres, women’s football, and disability football programmes throughout the rest of the week. It’s a commitment to the game that has seen participation rates increasing, with over 210,000 (8% of the population) adults regularly playing football or futsal according to the latest figures. Just by way of comparison, this is nearly three times the participation rate for rugby union in Wales. Given that the last published survey was in 2014, one suspects that the numbers may have increased further in the last two years.
Whilst the current World Cup qualifying campaign has not yet reached the heights attained during the Euros, Wales remain unbeaten after four matches and very much in contention in a group where everybody is taking points off everybody else so far. The two matches against the Republic of Ireland look likely to be crucial in determining both nation’s fate in the race for Russia. The game in Dublin in March will be a cracker.