Future of Welsh football buoyed by Dan James start at Man United and emerging new wave

Matt Jones - Editor 17:12 04/09/2019
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Dan James and Ethan Ampadu (l) are two of Wales' bright young stars.

Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey remain the nation’s poster boys, but there is rising wave of young talent behind them ready to carry Welsh football forward.

Fans have long been thankful for their two gallant giants, standing tall in a sea of relative nobodies. The likes of David Cotterill (Birmingham City), George Williams (Gillingham) Simon Church (Aberdeen), Owain Fon Williams (Inverness Caledonian Thistle) and Hal Robson-Kanu, who was without a club, were all part of a squad that wrote a fairytale, and re-wrote history, by reaching the semi-finals of a major tournament for the first time at Euro 2016.

Now on the road to Euro 2020, and with yet another failed World Cup qualifying campaign behind them, Wales head into a crucial fixture with Azerbaijan on Friday. Following back-to-back defeats to Croatia and Hungary, victory is vital.

They need their dynamic duo more than ever. But while Bale is enjoying something of a Real Madrid renaissance, Ramsey is ruled out by injury.

It had been hoped the former Arsenal man – who made a high-profile switch to Juventus this summer – might make his first international appearance in nearly 10 months.

But even though he made his Bianconeri bow in a pre-season friendly against Triestina, it is thought he hasn’t fully recovered from the hamstring injury that curtailed his final season with the Gunners and ruled him out of the first three qualifiers against Slovakia, as well as the Croatia and Hungary defeats.

It is a situation that might ordinarily fill Dragons disciples with dread. But remember that new young wave we mentioned earlier? It is forming into a swell.

Daniel James has made a scorching start to his Manchester United career with three goals in his first four games.

Bale and Ramsey have been the standard bearers for Wales for the best part of a decade.

Bale and Ramsey have been the standard bearers for Wales for the best part of a decade.

Of the Red Devils’ three new recruits this summer it was expected he would take the longest to settle. After all, he arrived off the back of just his maiden season in senior football.

Harry Maguire has 20 England caps and starred in their run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals. And although Aaron Wan-Bissaka is in a similar situation to James, he enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in the Premier League last year with Crystal Palace.

James, 21, finished 2018/19 in mid-table of the Championship, with Swansea. And yet the pint-sized winger has looked like a seasoned pro, shimmering in an otherwise spluttering start from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side.

His searing speed is already proving an asset – he was on hand to receive Paul Pogba’s pass following a fine counter-attack to score on debut and nail Chelsea’s coffin shut on the opening day – and he is the sixth most fouled player in the Premier League.

Felled every 25.9 minutes, yet he has played fewer minutes than all of the top five. He has also shown cold-blooded composure with his sublime finishes against Palace and Southampton.

He is the most high-profile Dragon roaring, but by no means the only one. Harry Wilson – effervescent under Frank Lampard at Derby County last season – is burning bright on loan at Bournemouth.

A scorer of stunning and crucial goals for the Rams in the Championship, Wilson, 22, showed he can do it at the top level too with a ferocious free-kick against Premier League champions Manchester City. It’s already a goal-of-the-season contender.

Team-mate Chris Mepham, 21, also has a goal to his name, too.

In the second tier, defenders Conor Roberts, 23, and Joe Rodon, 21, have been the backbone of Swansea’s scintillating start to the season. Right-back Roberts has an assist for the unbeaten Championship leaders, while centre-back Rodon is primed to win his first senior cap against Azerbaijan or in Monday’s friendly versus Belarus.

Midfield metronome Jonny Williams is impressing with promoted Charlton, who are second, and jointly leads the league with four assists. What a fillip it would be for boss Ryan Giggs if the 25-year-old could finally fulfil his promise after a stop-start career to date.

All this and we haven’t even mentioned David Brooks – the man earmarked as a potential successor to either Bale or Ramsey’s mantle as a future Wales talisman.

Brooks enjoyed a superb 2018/19 season with Bournemouth.

Brooks enjoyed a superb 2018/19 season with Bournemouth.

The injured forward took the Premier League by storm following a seamless transition from Sheffield United in the Championship to the Cherries last term – the now 22-year-old notching seven times and laying on five assists.

Another player set for stardom, meanwhile, is Ethan Ampadu, just 18. The Chelsea starlet signed a season-long loan deal with Bundesliga big boys RB Leipzig, though he is yet to make an appearance.

Bale, 30, and Ramsey, 28, are hitting their prime and have 77 and 58 caps to their names respectively. Theoretically, they have many more years ahead of them and Welsh fans will hope to see many more resplendent displays in a red shirt from the nation’s torchbearers.

But the next generation’s time is now, judging by how most of them have started the new campaign.

The Dragons have enjoyed a drastic upturn in fortunes in the last decade. Good times were ushered in by revolutionary Gary Speed, with Chris Coleman eventually building on his excellent foundations to bring about the best ever times for a nation that had poignantly come through its greatest tragedy.

Giggs is still finding his feet as a manager, and yet he arguably has a more talented squad at his disposal than either of his two predecessors. Perhaps he is even in control of the most exciting generation of Welsh players ever.

If the new wave and old guard can get on the same wavelength, Welsh football could find itself at high tide.

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