Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Wales' big guns will return, but Dragons' future burns bright

Matt Jones 21/03/2019
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Wales surpassed Ian Rush to become Wales' top scorer last year.

Wales host Slovakia as Euro 2020 qualifying gets under way this weekend, with Ryan Giggs hoping to lead the Dragons to back-to-back European Championships.

After the high of going all the way to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 – Wales’ maiden appearance at a major finals for almost 60 years – there followed the low of failure to make the World Cup in Russia last summer under previous boss Chris Coleman.

Giggs has replaced him and his reign really starts in Cardiff this Sunday as Wales set out on the road to next summer’s finals.

They trundled to an unconvincing 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago in a friendly on Wednesday night.

Here are three takeaways for Giggs and Wales fans as they now launch their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.

BRINGING BACK THE BIG GUNS

Bale and Ramsey should both return against Slovakia.

Bale and Ramsey should both return against Slovakia.

Fans in Wrexham were disappointed that superstars Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and a slew of other big names failed to feature against Trinidad, but boss Giggs was rightly unapologetic as he sets his sights on Wales’ Euro 2020 opening qualifier against Slovakia.

A mix of fringe, young and newly-introduced international players were given the chance to impress at the Racecourse – teenage Liverpool attacker Ben Woodburn, 19, Leeds United striker Tyler Roberts (20) and 21-year-old Leicester forward George Thomas all taking the chance to shine.

There was also a smattering of seniority in the ranks with the side led by the vastly experienced Ashley Williams and record caps holder Chris Gunter – who surpassed Neville Southall’s 92 appearances in the 1-0 defeat to Albania last November.

But if fans and critics were skeptical heading into the pivotal opening qualifier with Slovakia in Cardiff on Sunday after a less than stellar performance in North Wales, they should be comforted by the list of names likely to return for that fixture.

Bale, Ramsey, Ben Davies and Joe Allen were just four of the big guns watching on from the Wrexham stands on Wednesday. Additionally, first choice goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, exciting Liverpool attacker Harry Wilson – tearing it up on loan at Derby in the Championship – and Bournemouth duo David Brooks and Chris Mepham are in contention to return for the start of Group E’s games.

Ethan Ampadu, Sam Vokes and Tom Lawrence will be missing but lightning quick Swansea midfielder Daniel James is another exciting youngster who could feature.

RYAN REALISES IT’S A RESULTS BUSINESS

Giggs is preparing for the opening Euro 2020 qualifier against Slovakia on Sunday.

Giggs is preparing for the opening Euro 2020 qualifier against Slovakia on Sunday.

It’s a year since Giggs was appointed and after a stuttering start to his tenure, it’s fair to say the honeymoon period is over and now results are expected. And the man in the hotseat knows it.

Ahead of the Trinidad game, the former Manchester United winger said: “Getting Wales to a major championships, that’s how I will be judged. I knew that going into the job.”

But expectation, in Wales’ case, is a good thing. It is a sign of how far they have come in a short space of time. For far too long, they had been a nation slumbering under a blanket of unfulfillment and ineptitude. Qualifying for Euro 2016 – reaching a maiden major finals in 58 years – raised hopes, which were rightly raised even higher when the Dragons roared to the semi-finals. There, their magical journey was finally burned away at the hands of Cristiano Ronaldo and eventual champions Portugal.

But a nation now expects. And while Giggs may be feeling the pressure, it is an eminently more advantageous position to be in than perennial failures. The heroes of Euro 2016 are slowly – but correctly – being jettisoned. The careers of Joe Ledley and Ashley Williams peaked in France and, while Williams remains, this is surely his swansong.

The results so far might not have been brilliant (four wins, one draw, five defeats), but it has to be remembered that Giggs has introduced a lot of new, exciting and talented young faces.

The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and with the tournament – like three summers ago – expanding once again to 24 entrants, progression should be easier. Especially for a nation definitely going places.

He deserves credit for the project being implemented. But after failure to reach Russia last summer, there will be few excuses should Giggs not get this group to next summer’s finals.

IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT BALE

The future's bright (l-r): Ampadu, Connor Roberts and Brooks).

The future’s bright (l-r): Ampadu, Connor Roberts and Brooks).

Wales fans might have been left disappointed at not getting a glimpse of their heroes against Trinidad – Real Madrid superstar Bale in-particular – but it is the next generation that should really be generating excitement among supporters.

Bale – unlike in Spain – is cherished by Wales fans, and rightly so. But the pressure he heaps on himself to perform for his nation, as well as the expectation fans and media alike pin to the 29-year-old, is not healthy.

It is also not fair as the Dragons are hardly a one-man army. Bale has often been man-marked and double-teamed by opponents in recent years and can be ineffective. Incoming Juventus midfielder Ramsey was actually their talisman in France three summers ago, with Davies, James Chester, Williams, Gunter, Ledley, Hal Robson-Kanu and Vokes all unsung heroes.

“We all know what a talent he is, and if he plays games he’ll score goals,” Giggs said of Bale prior to the Trinidad victory. “But also I want to take the pressure off him at the same time, so if he’s not available we’re not just reliant on one player.”

Giggs instead took the chance to shine the spotlight on a rising wave of young talent he has been introducing to the international stage – particularly in attack.

“With the emergence of Harry Wilson, David Brooks and Dan James we’ve got so many attacking options,” Giggs added. And he isn’t kidding.

Brooks has been a revelation since stepping up to the Premier League with Bournemouth this season. Bought from Sheffield United after starring in the Championship last term, he has notched six goals and four assists in 25 appearances, and his cross for Vokes’ consolation goal in the 4-1 friendly hammering by Spain last October was world-class.

Wilson has whipped in 12 goals on loan at Frank Lampard’s Derby this season from 37 outings in all competitions. His goals are often spectacular, proved by the fact the Liverpool loanee has won the Rams’ goal of the month accolade five times in a row.

James, meanwhile, is also shining at Swansea, with four goals in 25 appearances. He caught the eye recently with a mermerising length of the field strike in the 4-1 FA Cup fifth round win over Brentford – which won the goal of the round.

The future burns bright for the Dragons.

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Why England's vocal coach Jordan Henderson won't be shutting up any time soon

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Jordan Henderson has assumed the unofficial role of England‘s vocal coach – and the Liverpool midfielder does not intend on keeping quiet any time soon.

At 28-years-of-age, Henderson is now an elder statesman of Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions set-up.

The former Sunderland man can reach 50 caps if he features in both forthcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Montenegro.

Harry Kane is the captain of an England squad still developing after reaching a World Cup semi-final last summer, but the likes of Henderson also play a key role.

He was heard barking out orders and instructions in the goalless Nations League draw in Croatia back in October – the eerily quiet atmosphere of the empty Stadion HNK in Rijeka shattered by his bellows.

Croatia had been ordered to play the fixture behind closed doors following fan trouble but the coaching staff, security and media inside the ground would have heard Henderson rallying the troops.

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“It’s something that is quite natural,” he replied when asked about how vocal he was that night.

“I haven’t just been like that over the past couple of years, I’ve been like that most of my career, even when I was really young.

“Maybe when I was younger too much in the wrong way, but I feel as though I’ve improved that and I’m more constructive, more helpful to the team.”

Henderson believes he may be part of a dying breed of players willing to raise their voice and be heard by their team-mates, something he feels is vital in helping the younger players on the pitch.

“There aren’t many players I can think of now to be fair but I do think that is still important,” he added.

“I don’t just do it for its own sake, I do it because I feel as though it can help. The more people you have on the pitch that are talking and communicating then the easier it is really.

“You need people who are vocal on the pitch to give information at different times of the game.

“Coaching younger players and coach them within the game – what you want them to do as a team, what we’ve been working on. I try to do that as best I can.”

Henderson has plenty of wisdom to impart having captained Liverpool all the way to the Champions League final last season.

Jurgen Klopp’s side slipped to a 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in Kiev before Henderson joined up with an England squad which would go on to surprise many onlookers by reaching the last four in Russia.

He may have learnt a lot from those near misses but the main thing Henderson takes from coming so close to two major honours is the feeling to put it right when next given the opportunity.

“I think it always stays with you, those moments,” he said.

“It gives you even more motivation to then keep going, keep wanting to be in that position again to make it right, and go that final step really.

“It’s definitely an extra motivation that I use. Maybe I had a little taste of it playing in finals but I haven’t really managed to win the big trophies, and now that’s the next step really.

“I don’t really look at it (the experience) as a benefit for me, I look at it as a benefit for the team more than anything.

“When you’ve got players that have been in that situation before, of experience, big games, semi-finals, finals, big competitions, then it’s good for the team.

“For players to be able to help them, especially the younger lads, to help cope with bigger occasions. And give them a little bit of experience on what to expect. The more players you have playing in those finals, the better really.”

England, meanwhile, will pay tribute to goalkeeping great Gordon Banks at Wembley on Friday when Tom Heaton will return to the squad.

A sell-out crowd will remember the 1966 star when Southgate’s Three Lions kick off their Euro 2020 qualification campaign against the Czechs.

There will be a period of appreciation in England’s first match since Banks died aged 81 on February 12, with players to wear black armbands and a banner to be displayed featuring his yellow World Cup shirt and the number one.

Members of his family will be in the Royal Box and representatives from his former club Stoke have been invited to a match that will see their current goalkeeper Jack Butland involved.

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Wales boss Ryan Giggs advises Liverpool's Ben Woodburn to put difficult season behind him

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Ben Woodburn (l) celebrates his injury time winner against Trinidad.

Liverpool forward Ben Woodburn has been advised by Wales boss Ryan Giggs to put his troubled season behind him and keep showing his natural talent.

Woodburn spared Wales’ blushes in Wrexham on Wednesday when his injury-time winner secured a 1-0 friendly victory over Trinidad & Tobago – the small Caribbean nation ranked 93rd in the world.

It was the 19-year-old’s first goal in senior football since his sensational debut winner in a World Cup qualifier against Austria in September 2017.

And Woodburn’s delight was evident after a difficult time when his loan spell at Sheffield United turned sour and Liverpool’s youngest-ever goalscorer returned to Anfield to play under-23 football.

“Very often the first loan move just doesn’t quite happen, for whatever reason,” Giggs said.

“Because Sheffield United were doing so well he was in and out. But now he’s back, he looks fit. It’s an important end to the season.

Giggs is preparing for the opening Euro 2020 qualifier against Slovakia on Sunday.

Giggs is preparing for the opening Euro 2020 qualifier against Slovakia on Sunday.

“When you’ve got that talent, that doesn’t go away. Now he’s got himself in really good physical condition, and he’s a threat.”

Woodburn burst onto the scene when making his Liverpool debut in November 2016 to become the third-youngest player in the club’s history.

He scored on his second appearance against Leeds in a League Cup tie at the age of 17 years and 45 days.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp dubbed Woodburn “The Prince of Wales” after his Austria heroics and sent the teenager out on loan last August to gain further first-team experience.

But Woodburn started only one Championship game in five months at United, and failed to score in eight appearances before returning to Liverpool at the start of January.

“Ben has to keep working hard, which he is doing at the moment,” Giggs said.

“He’s at a very good club who will look after him. The last few camps, he’s been really good in training. You could see the quality.

“I was dying to give him a game so it was great to see him score, especially late on and persevere like he did.”

Giggs disappointed the 10,000-plus capacity crowd at the Racecourse Ground with his second-string team selection against Trinidad.

The game marked Wales’ return to the north for the first time since 2008, but Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen were among the senior stars missing ahead of Sunday’s opening European Championship qualifier against Slovakia in Cardiff.

Giggs defended his team selection, saying the Slovakia game was his priority, but he admitted Woodburn’s performance had provided food for thought with Sunday in mind.

“When forwards score, they usually keep on scoring,” Giggs said.

“I said before that I challenged the players to push if you’re not in at the moment. Ben will definitely be an option that I look upon for Sunday.

“He has now had four or five games in the (Liverpool) 23s and he looks lean and fit. He is talent and he’s a goal scorer, and to have that to call upon if needed is great.”

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