As Welsh football supporters wake up bleary-eyed, their eyes blinking into a light not emitted for 57 years, they’ll do so with one thing on their minds: France.
Getting to the Euro 2016 finals to see their team play next summer will now be priority number one for those long-suffering fans, but they should at least allow themselves time to reflect on what was a curiously Welsh sporting day.
In the Rugby World Cup, Wales were unable to follow up their dramatic win over England as they floundered in the face of some terrific Australian defending and lost 15-6. No matter, they’re still going into the quarter-finals and will face South Africa with a spring in their steps.
In the Euro 2016 qualifiers, Wales took an unbeaten run to Bosnia – having only conceded twice in eight games – and knew that a point was all they needed to reach a first major tournament since 1958. They lost 2-0, but qualified anyway because Israel lost to Cyprus. “It was the best defeat of my life,” said Gareth Bale.
And of course Bale’s is the face staring back at those Welsh supporters from their commemorative newspapers this morning. This wouldn’t be possible without one of the very best players in the world today, but credit belongs elsewhere too.
Manager Chris Coleman should take a lot of the praise, but he will only be interested in sharing it out amongst his team. He should, however, make sure that his captain receives a healthy dose of it.
Because it is through these qualifiers – starting last September in a 2-1 win on a horrendous plastic pitch in Andorra – that centre-back Ashley Williams has truly become one of the very best defenders around today, with his form for Swansea City mirroring his displays for his country.
Strong, and quicker than he looks, Williams was a rock in the clean sheets kept both at home and away to Belgium and home and away to Israel, with the eight points Wales picked up from two wins and two draws effectively being the results which secured qualification.
Usually stationed in a back three, his reading of the game proved crucial to a Welsh side who aren’t apologetic over their best tactic – to simply keep it tight and then hope that Bale can produce some magic on the break, in tandem with the many qualities of Aaron Ramsey.
Strongly linked with a move to Ramsey’s Arsenal a couple of summers ago, Williams isn’t the type of character to push for a transfer or upset the apple cart, but more minds than his will wonder just what might have been if he ends up staying at Swansea for the rest of his career.
It is common knowledge that Brendan Rodgers was repeatedly told that Williams, now 31, was too old to sign for Liverpool when he tried to move for a player he once coached at Swansea in recent summers.
Liverpool’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, were instead only interested in bringing in younger talents who would retain a decent sell-on fee if their moves didn’t work out, something that we could be finding out was a good tactic if new boss Jurgen Klopp decides that the likes of Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno aren’t to his liking. Who knows? If Rodgers had got his way and signed Williams then perhaps #KloppForTheKop would never have happened, and the Internet wouldn't have broken.
You can never be truly certain with such statements, of course, but Williams has proved over this Welsh campaign that he can live with both added expectation and pressure, and he certainly stacks up well to all the defenders on Liverpool’s books.
That is all in the past though, and it is the future that Williams and Wales are thinking of this morning.
A huge weight has been lifted off Welsh shoulders with this qualification, and now the wait for next summer begins.
Williams should just be happy where he is.
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