Gareth Bale leads a team huddle with the Wales team
With 94 minutes on the clock, and a slender one-goal lead to protect, most teams would have treated a corner kick as an opportunity to eat up some precious seconds. Keep the ball, slow it down, cling on to what you have got. Wales are not like most teams, though, and it was indicative of the sense of freedom and enthusiasm in their squad that they did the exact opposite in the dying moments of their thrilling victory over Turkey.
Not once, but twice. From the first stoppage-time corner, Gareth Bale powered towards goal and almost scored. From the second, he danced down the goal-line before picking out Connor Roberts for a tap-in. What made Bale even think of pursuing a second goal at this late stage? What made Roberts, a defender, charge so high up the pitch? “I just thought there was a bit of space so I would wander in and see what happens,” he said.
It was a moment that defied footballing convention, which felt fitting for a Wales team that continues to punch so far above its weight. Yes, Bale and Aaron Ramsey were born to play at this level. But who could really have said the same about Joe Morrell, a Luton Town squad player, or Danny Ward, the Leicester City goalkeeper who has made zero league appearances in the last three seasons?
Together, many of these Wales players are once again pushing each other to new levels of performance. Rob Page, the manager, said after the victory that it must be the “crest on their chest” that makes them raise their game. Chris Mepham, another player who excelled despite an indifferent season at club level, described their team spirit as “unique”.
It is impossible to pinpoint a precise explanation for this collective unity, but a few aspects are obvious to anyone who has watched this national side at Euro 2016 and beyond. Wales are a team unburdened by expectations, internal or external, and the overriding feeling within their camp is one of adventure rather than pressure.
As could be seen so clearly in that second goal, Wales approach these occasions with a willingness to express themselves. Give it a go, and see what happens. Why not? It is a sense of freedom that infects everyone, even Bale. To those on the outside, he is expected to lead the way. Inside the group, and inside his own mind, he does not feel that pressure.
- Euro 2020 wallchart and predictor
This is not to understate his influence, as Bale’s sheer presence is another key reason for their togetherness. Despite all he has achieved — and indeed earned — Bale acts no differently to any of his lesser-known team-mates. He is the squad prankster rather than prima donna, and his enthusiasm for his country has rubbed off on his team-mates. After all, if Bale can pour every ounce of energy into playing for his country, why can’t everyone else?
When the players gathered in a huddle on the pitch after the final whistle, Bale apologised for his penalty miss. “I think it’s part of the reason why we are here,” said Morrell, who will surely keep his place when they meet Italy in the final group game on Sunday. “He’s the greatest Welsh player of all time, so I don’t think he needs to apologise for anything.”
Behind the scenes in the past week, it has not been as easy for Wales as it was in France in 2016. Coronavirus restrictions have essentially locked them in their hotel in Baku, although they did briefly don their Wales-branded bucket hats and venture into the city on Sunday.
In the hotel, there have been card games and Playstation contests (the Formula One video game is a particular favourite). Tom Lockyer, the defender, has impressed with his card tricks, while Chris Gunter and Adam Davies take control of the music. In their bedrooms, the players have personalised messages in Welsh and English.
At Baku airport on Thursday morning the Wales fans were still luxuriating in the joy of it all, despite their sore heads. For those who have been following the team for years, it still feels surreal for them to even be at a major tournament at all. “I would not have cared if we came here and lost every game,” said Rhys Boore, from Cardiff.
Supporters of Wales during the win over Turkey
Ten days in Azerbaijan is not cheap, and it is not easy during a pandemic. A 10-day isolation awaits for the Red Wall, but there would not have been a single supporter on Wednesday night who regretted their decision to travel. “It’s around £1,500, but it is a chance to see my team in the finals of a tournament,” said Boore. “I had given up hope of ever seeing that, until 2016.”
For fans and players, the sense is that they are desperate to just make the most of the experience. They will not have Bale and Ramsey forever, and they will never take for granted their place at the top table of international football. Together, they simply want to savour every moment and leave each match with no regrets. They can take risks, and they can dream big. It is, evidently, a powerful and unifying feeling.
Aaron Ramsey’s inspiring performance shows that he needs the right stage to shine
By Jeremy Wilson
Aaron Ramsey’s career has long been punctuated by performances that take on an almost Roy of the Rovers quality in the unstoppable way that he elevates his influence beyond all those around him.
Like a Steven Gerrard or Roy Keane at their best, you can only look on in wonder at the stamina and the desire, as much as the technical quality, in how he can suddenly arrive with a vital action in literally any corner of the pitch.
In inspiring Wales to their 2-0 win against Turkey on Wednesday night, Ramsey not only scored the goal that put Wales into the lead but missed a further hat-trick of largely self-made chances before sprinting back inside his own box in the closing minutes to deny Mert Muldur with a dramatic sliding tackle.
This was the Ramsey who Arsenal fans will remember at the start of the 2013-14 season when, surrounded by the protective blanket of Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Bacary Sagna, he could safely rampage all over the pitch creating havoc. He was like it also for Wales at Euro 2016, especially in their epic 3-1 quarter-final win against Belgium, and in scoring winning goals in the FA Cup finals of 2014 and 2017. It should come as no surprise that Ramsey would regularly top every test at Arsenal for endurance running, whether that was distance covered in a game or an aerobic capacity to repeat rapid sprints.
And yet these strengths could also be a weakness. It is a style of football that places plenty of stress on your body and persistent, albeit mostly only niggling injuries, have been another feature of his career. Ramsey also requires the right system and players around him to truly thrive.
Answering the old cliche of ‘covering every blade of grass’ might sound alluring but is sometimes also hugely problematic. Against better teams, and especially in a central midfield two, there would be times when Ramsey’s thirst to drive forward across all areas of the pitch simply left gaping great holes that were exploited.
Ramsey has started only 24 games for Juventus since moving to Serie A two years ago and, while former manager Andrea Pirlo was taken aback by some of his qualities, you have to suspect that would have been mixed by frustration at his positional discipline. It is simpler for Wales. Ramsey and Gareth Bale are the stars around whom you must build a team.
Notice, then, how Joe Allen sat in front of the defence against Turkey and a further central midfield anchor point was provided by Joe Morrell. Even Bale was often drifting inside and that all gave Ramsey the licence to charge around the pitch and follow his instincts.
Those diagonal runs from a deep central midfield were deadly for several reasons. Keiffer Moore’s physical presence was distracting the centre-backs and, most important of all, he had a team-mate in Bale who has been clipping defensive-splitting passes in his direction for more than a decade. Turkey would have known the threat but, as former Wales captain Ashley Williams explained, actually defending against it is incredibly difficult.
At the age now of 30, this feels like a huge summer for Ramsey. The noises both from Turin and in his most recent interview suggest that a new start is likely. “The last two seasons at Juventus have been very difficult, frustrating, not just from a physical point of view – I want a place where I can feel good again,” said Ramsey. He still looks physically fit and potentially has several good seasons left. But he needs the right stage. And that is a stage with team-mates and a manager who buy into a wider system that can mitigate the flaws and simply unleash a rare force of energy.