In eight months Chris Coleman will go through a process no Welsh manager has done since Jimmy Murphy in 1958 – manage a Wales team at a major tournament.
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Depending on what day Wales’ first Euro 2016 fixture falls on next June, it will be close to 58 years exactly since Murphy’s men exited the 1958 World Cup in Sweden following a 1-0 quarter-final defeat to Brazil.
A 17-year-old by the name of Pele scored the only goal that day in Gothenburg, his first at the tournament. A hat-trick in the semi-final and two more in the final would help fire Brazil to their first ever Jules Rimet trophy.
While Pele and Brazil have since flourished, Wales have floundered – not making it to a major finals until now.
Former goalkeeper Neville Southall, Wales’ most capped player with 92, believes the historic qualification is the result of this Welsh team being one of the best all-round groups the country has ever produced.
“It used to be round pegs in square holes but we’ve now got the most balanced squad we’ve had since 1958, plus a matchwinner in Gareth Bale,” the 57-year-old told Sport360.
“In 1993 we had Dean Saunders out wide, Mark Hughes out of position while Gary Speed could and usually did play anywhere. There wasn’t the right balance.
“Now we have a rounded squad. There is a lot of hidden talent, for example David Vaughan was outstanding against Andorra. Hal Robson-Kanu has been magnificent during this qualifying campaign as the focal point.”
Coleman and his players deserve huge credit but their achievement is the crowning moment of something which began long ago.
Wales managers going back to Speed, John Toshack and even Hughes also deserve praise for getting them to where they are today.
Southall, who was put in brief caretaker charge of Wales along with Hughes in 1999 following Bobby Gould’s resignation, says the current squad’s triumph is the result of many years of hard work.
“The structures behind the scenes have got better, even since Bobby was in charge,” said Southall. “There were some bad times with Toshack but he played the kids to give them experience. Mark Hughes took it on massively and Gary Speed did the same with the sports science. This achievement has been built up over lots of years.”
Hughes’ time in the Dragons’ dug-out is a curious one as he was statistically the worst Wales manager in four decades, winning just 27 per cent (11) of 41 matches, but digging deeper reveals the fruits of his work. Wales’ joint seventh highest goalscorer is fondly remembered for bringing pride and passion back following the dark days of Gould.
Under Hughes, Wales would peak and trough, but defeats to Brazil, Portugal, Italy, England and Germany were hardly embarrassing, while he also inspired the Dragons to a famous 2-1 win against Italy in October 2002 and a 1-0 friendly triumph five months earlier against eventual World Cup finalists Germany.
He was followed by Toshack, one of Wales’ greatest ever players but someone who very much divides opinion as national team boss. Some still won’t forgive him for his first tenure, which lasted a laughable 41 days and one game. Toshack resigned after a 3-1 defeat by Norway in March 1994, citing problems with the Football Association of Wales.
Although being booed off the pitch at Ninian Park and suffering general indignation from Welsh fans surrounding the dismissal of his popular predecessor Terry Yorath surely couldn’t have sat well with the former Liverpool star.
Toshack’s second stint was, thankfully, longer and more successful. Although 22 wins and 23 defeats in 53 games is modest, he isn’t often given the credit he deserves. He was responsible for blooding many of those who make up the current squad that has risen to a record eighth place in the FIFA world rankings.
The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley, Ashley Williams, Neil Taylor, Joe Allen and Wayne Henessey were all given their debuts by Toshack during his 2005-10 reign.
If Toshack sowed the seeds of success, it was Speed who nurtured the emerging crop and helped them blossom. He was deeply passionate about being Welsh and playing for his country as a player. During his playing days, he was one of the early pioneers to recognise the changing nature of football – from taking up yoga in his early 20s to buying into the modern sports science approach under Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wonderers in the twilight of his career.
Speed accelerated Wales’ growth into the hi-tech age, introducing tests to determine individual training regimes. Just as he sought to get an edge over any opponent as a player, Speed was determined for Wales to grab on to anything that could make the difference on the pitch as manager.
His death in November 2011 will go down as one of the worst days in Welsh football history, but it is through such loss that Wales have emerged and finally put an end to years of heartache. Speed’s loss has galvanised a squad that were thrown together by Toshack but grew in stature under his and then Coleman’s stewardship.
Southall believes playing at Euro 2016 is the ultimate tribute to Speed.
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“Players wanted to play for him,” said Southall. “Qualification is a fantastic tribute to Gary Speed, who really pushed these players. He brought in (Dutch coach) Raymond Verheijen which brought in much-needed confidence.
“He wasn’t afraid to say we were a good team and we needed that arrogance.”
Today, a more unified Welsh team is strengthened further by the words woven into the fabric of every shirt sold. ‘Together. Stronger’ is a motto long associated with Welsh football but one that has only come to prominence since being pounced upon by FAW marketing gurus at the start of Euro 2016 qualifying.
The spirit of the team is something former Wolves star Carl Robinson believes is a major reason why they have made it to France.
“The main focus for this team is to play together and for each other and that has got them to a major tournament,” said the 52-times capped midfielder.
“Gary Speed may be gone but is certainly not forgotten. It is still a very sad loss and difficult to come to terms with and I’m sad that Gary never got to see the process happen, but I know he would have been very proud as a true Welshman.”
Gareth Bale said after qualification was confirmed: “We are like brothers and it shows the togetherness in the squad. We have fought deep and hard in the squad for qualification and this is what happens when you do that.”
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