On May 27, 2006, a skinny teenager positively drowning in his oversized green-and-yellow kit became Wales’ youngest ever player. A few minutes after coming on as a substitute, 16-year-old Gareth Bale sprinted down the left and crossed into the middle to Rob Earnshaw, who met the pass to score the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Trinidad and Tobago.
Twelve years on and Bale is an icon for club and country. Now the chiseled Cardiff-born forward hulks out of his red Wales shirt. A true specimen of skill and physique, Bale is ready to lead his nation into a European Championship semi-final. For Earnshaw, who retired from football earlier this year having finished his career in Canada with MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps, Bale’s bow is still remembered vividly.
“When I first saw him he was 16 just coming into the national team,” Earnshaw recalls to Sport360. “He set me up for a goal on his debut. I was thinking ‘who’s this kid?’ Soon after that, I remember he took the ball one time in training and dribbled past a few players and I thought, ‘oh okay, this kid can play!’ You see that certain young players have got that extra ability about them and it’s really nice when you see them use it. As soon as he set up the goal on his debut, it was a case of ‘this boy’s here and he’s going to do something.’
“Of course I’m not going to sit here and say I knew for sure he would be a Real Madrid superstar but we knew he was a special player. It’s been more about evolution with Gareth. He always had the ability but it’s his desire to get better, he always wanted more, that’s what has taken him to the next level. He’s achieved things and then he’s immediately looking at how to improve himself again. It’s a credit to him. He keeps analysing his game and has this incredible drive to tweak things to get better and better.”
Off the pitch, too, Bale made an impression on Earnshaw, who echoes the sentiments of many Welsh players at Euro 2016 – that the Madrid maestro is certainly no prima donna.
“Importantly Gareth’s a great lad, too. I’ve always had laughs and jokes with him when we played together. He’s got this confidence but he’s humble too. He just loves what he does. I loved playing with him, it makes life easier and it also makes you step up as a player when you’ve got someone of that ability playing alongside you. There were times in training when I just saw him go into take-off mode – he’d get the ball and take one or two players on. You’d just really enjoy watching it.
“Any time I’ve spoken to him or been around him, he is down to earth and really proud to be playing for Wales. He really enjoys it. It’s almost like that schoolboy enthusiasm when he pulls that Wales shirt on. It’s not a pressure, it’s a pleasure. That’s the key. It’s where he’s from, he’s super proud. We’ve known him since he was 16 and he is still this passionate Welshman who just loves playing for Wales.”
Having appeared in his last international in 2012, Earnshaw – who scored 16 goals in 59 caps – has played with the majority of Wales’ European Championship squad. And it has been thrilling for him to watch from afar – he is now a youth team coach at Vancouver – as his friends and former team-mates have upset the applecart in France.
“I’ve seen every game live and everyone has certainly been paying attention to Wales,” Earnshaw says. “It’s amazing, you can travel anywhere in the world and there will always be Wales fans there. I watched the Belgium game in a bar in Vancouver and it was filled with Welsh fans. We celebrated, they took some photos after the game – it was great. It felt the whole bar was rooting for Wales. We’re everywhere! I am in Las Vegas now so I’ll be watching the semi-final here.
ROB EARNSHAW - WALES MILESTONES
- 1999 - Scored on debut to secure 1-0 win vs Germany.
- 2004 - Bags a hat-trick vs Scotland.
- 2011 - Captains Wales vs Scotland.
- 2012 - Plays final game for Wales, a 2-0 loss to Bosnia.
“Obviously I would have loved to have played in a major tournament but it didn’t happen. But I approached every Wales game like it was the final of the European Championship – I loved every moment of playing for my country. I played for 10 years and I have no feeling of disappointment, I was lucky to even get one year of pulling on that red shirt.
“I’ve spoken to a few of the boys, they are really enjoying it, taking it in. You can feel the pride that they’ve got for where they are, what they’ve achieved so far. I’ve been in constant contact with the lads I’m close to. It’s nice to see those guys do well. I’m just happy that some of my friends are there, that they can play and represent their country. It feels like we’re all in it together – every fan is kicking every ball, I’m the same. The players understand that everyone is behind them.”
One of Earnshaw’s friends could be in for the toughest challenge of his career against Portugal. With Ben Davies out, veteran centre-back James Collins is expected to step in to replace him. He hasn’t yet featured at Euro 2016 and has not started a game since West Ham played Tottenham on March 2. But Earnshaw is convinced that Collins can handle the occasion and if required, handle Crisitano Ronaldo too.
“It’s huge for him and if James steps in of course he can cope,” says Earnshaw. “He’s someone I’ve always been very close to, we came through at the same time – I played with him from the age of 16. Listen, he’s been playing in the Premier League for more than a decade, he’s an experienced top level player. He’s a great defender, 100 percent committed to what his job on the field is. Every game you know what you are going to get and that is full effort.
“He’s used to big players and big games – he is more than capable. I’ve seen him from afar and I’ve seen him close up and either way it’s the same. As long as they stick to the gameplan and what their individual roles are, they’ll be fine. I hope he has Ronaldo in his pocket. It’s been funny to see Ronaldo at this tournament, so often he kicks it wide and sprinting in the box to try to get a header.
“He’s easier to defend against if he’s playing this way. He’s got so much ability that of course he can score goals in different ways. The key thing about football, though, is that if your concentration is there on the day you can stop anyone. James Collins can do that of course.”
With Earnshaw also a former roommate of Joe Ledley and a club-mate of Chris Gunter at Nottingham Forest, there is much to connect him to this Wales team. He will be watching the match against Portugal intently and believes that his former team-mates can not only win the semi-final but lift the Henri Delaunay trophy this Sunday.
“Wales are capable of beating Portugal, of course. Ronaldo doesn’t have a team behind him, Bales does. I actually think Wales are favourites. You just feel the togetherness. You have to have a team that wants to work together, pushing in the same direction. That ‘Together, Stronger’ captures everything you need to know about Wales.
“I think anything is possible now, including winning the tournament. Sport is unpredictable, that’s why we love it. It is about the right moment, the right time. You have to grab the chances that you have.”