Rob Page, Manager of Wales looks on during a training session
Credit: Dan Mullan /Getty Images Europe
Even on the team holiday, while the rest of the players were nursing their hangovers by the pool, Rob Page would be the man sorting things out. Organising, arranging and, in the case of Sheffield United’s group trip to the Costa del Sol in the early 2000s, demanding crucial funds.
“Rob was always the one making sure things were running smoothly,” says Michael Tonge, Page’s former team-mate. “We went away to Marbella once and it was Rob who organised the whip round. He was wandering around the pool, collecting the euros. A tenner from the senior pros, a fiver from the young lads. Making sure everyone had drinks all day.”
Much has changed in the two decades since, for Page and indeed for professional football, but his approach remains the same. As a player, Page was a leader and an organiser. As a manager, he is now the primary leader and the chief organiser of the national side. The boy from Tylorstown, a village in the Rhondda valleys, has become perhaps the most important man in Welsh football.
When the Football Association of Wales turned to Page in November last year, after Ryan Giggs was arrested, they hoped for a steadying influence. Essentially, his brief was to do nothing silly, to keep things calm. Page has done all that, but he has also brought much more to the role.
Make no mistake, this is now Page’s team. The 46-year-old, an assistant under Giggs, is certainly not regarded as a mere temporary stand-in by his players, who know well that he is not to be messed with. Tough and authoritative, Page set standards as a player and he continues to do so as a manager.
“He would not accept sloppiness,” remembers Tonge, who played alongside Page for three seasons at Sheffield United. “You need someone to remind people that sloppiness is not good enough, and he did. As soon as you let one thing slide, people think they can get away with it.”
It felt like an exertion of Page’s growing authority when, in March, he sent home three Wales players — Hal Robson-Kanu, Rabbi Matondo and Tyler Roberts — for disciplinary reasons. This was the ultimate proof that the assistant had become the boss, and that the boss had certain expectations.
Euro 2021 – Group A – Wales full squad
Page’s reputation as a hard man was forged during an 18-year career that started at Watford but also included spells at Sheffield United, Coventry City and Chesterfield, as well as seasons at Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town. He was the captain of his teams for much of his career, and wore the armband for Wales in one of his 41 international appearances.
It would be unfair, though, to present Page as little more than an old-school disciplinarian. He was a natural leader, yes, and a figure to whom others always gravitated, but as a player he also demonstrated a fine grasp of the tactical side of the game.
“As a centre-half, he could see the players in front of him,” says former defender Paul Robinson, who played alongside Page at Watford. “He would treat them like chess pieces. He would move players into position, dictating their positioning. They were simple messages but he made the job so much easier for his team-mates.”
Page is not afraid of showing his frustrations. Wales defender Chris Mepham said Page was “fuming” at half-time of their friendly against Albania last weekend, and as a Coventry player he once broke his hand in a training-ground punch-up with team-mate Michael Doyle. Doyle came off worse, losing three front teeth.
“He was fiery,” says Robinson. “He was a winner. If someone wasn’t pulling their weight, he would let them know. He would do that with everyone. We all fed off his leadership and expectations.
“Off the pitch he was a gentleman. He made me and my family feel really settled. Pagey has a softness to him and I enjoyed spending time with him. Maybe not on the golf course, though, because he would probably aim for you if you put him off a little bit. That was the fun and games we had, and I always went to him for advice.”
Back in the valleys, there is enormous pride in Page’s success. These are challenging times for a struggling region which has been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic. Public health experts have said the area’s poverty and health inequality are behind the high Covid death rates.
Rob Page is the undisputed leader of the Welsh squad, despite only recently taken over from Ryan Giggs in the top job
Credit: TOLGA BOZOGLU/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock /Shutterstock
“This is a very deprived area,” says Jack Baldwin, the assistant manager of Tylorstown FC, a Sunday league side in Page’s old hometown. “You see so much talent come through these valleys and it gets cast to the wayside due to the lack of opportunity. It is incredible what Rob has done.”
The route from the valleys to the professional game is rarely straightforward, and is seen to be far easier in rugby. Page was only 11 when he joined the Watford youth system, travelling back and forth and staying with a local family. Others do not have such options, or indeed the courage to make such drastic life changes.
“We have no conveyor belt for football in the valleys,” says Baldwin. “I know one boy who made it as a professional footballer. But I was in school with four boys who made it in rugby. That pathway simply does not exist in football.”
Page forged his own path as a player and then started his managerial career at Port Vale in 2014. Two years later he went to Northampton Town, where he lasted eight months in the job. From there he was hired as the Wales under-21 manager before joining the senior coaching staff in 2019.
The absence of Giggs, who will go on trial next year accused of assaulting and coercively controlling his ex-girlfriend, provided Page with a chance to step up again. He has so far seized that opportunity: Wales have been beaten only by Belgium and France in his eight matches as manager.
This tournament provides Page with the most high-profile challenge of his career. He will have help from the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, but it is Page who will make the decisions. It is clear that he feels immensely proud to be here, and he has twice cited his journey from Tylorstown in recent weeks.
“If someone from the valleys doesn’t see Rob as an inspiration, there is something seriously wrong,” says Baldwin. “He is at the pinnacle. Some of the greats of the game don’t even experience what Rob is experiencing right now, leading his country to a major tournament. It’s a fairytale.”