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Time to turn the page and write a new story for Welsh football

27 Mar 2024 9 minute read
Wales manager Rob Page. Photo Davies/PA Wire.

David Owens

These games never get any easier.

Nerves were frayed, prayers were said and lucky bucket hats were worn as Wales entered a winner takes it all playoff final against Poland.

If the passion of the Red Wall and the decibels generated by the anthem equalled footballing success then Wales would have qualified for Euro 2024 a long time ago.

For many of us, attending games at the citadel of Welsh international football has become something of a quasi-religious experience and we hoped a higher force would guide us to footballing nirvana, or Germany as its also known.

A small nation like Wales has to make the absolute most of its resources and virtually the whole of the starting eleven were in form and firing for their clubs. Last night there was no better opportunity to make it to the Euros.

After Wales dispatched Finland 4-1 in the semi-final, hopes were high for a similar performance albeit against much sterner opposition.

The Poles like Wales had endured a forgettable qualifying campaign which saw them replace their manager after a string of poor results.

The talk in the Poland camp pre-match was that of fearing Welsh pace. This was echoed by their fans who had little faith in a rearguard who had shipped an average of two goals in away matches in qualifying.

Yet, there was surprise when the speedy formation that had dismantled Finland so effectively was discarded with Keiffer Moore starting up top.

The eyes of those giant Polish defenders must have lit up when they saw the team sheet.

Wales’ Ben Davies scores their side’s first goal of the game before it is ruled out for an offside during the UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying play-off final at the Cardiff City Stadium. Credit: Nick Potts/PA Wire

The game itself was a war of attrition, of very few chances created and the width of Ben Davies’ kneecap denying the defender what was an offside goal.

Half-time came and went, and the script remained the same. Doggedness and defensive domination from the likes of Joe Rodon and captain fantastic Davies, who didn’t give Poland’s goal machine Robert Lewandowski a sight of goal all night.

While Kieffer Moore laboured up front, his one clear chance a header that looked destined for the top corner forcing Polish keeper Szczesny into a brilliant save, the sight of us lumping the ball up to the tiring Welsh striker appeared to be an exercise in absolute futility.

Then the questions started.

Taking Brennan Johnson off in the 70th minute for Dan James when Kieffer Moore was a spent force was the first of many head scratching moments as a tense game wound its way towards extra time.

When Connor Roberts went off injured on 84 minutes to be replaced by David Brooks, Dan James moved to right wing back and a potential matchwinner’s potent abilities were immediately nullified when we needed them most to get at a tiring Poland backline

Why didn’t we go four at the back with Neco swapping to right wing back and Davies left wing back? Or if you wanted to persevere with a five put Ampadu back in defence, with Davies left wing back, Neco right wing back and bring Aaron Ramsey on into midfield.

The game was crying out for a playmaker to conjure up a little magic to help Wales cross the line, but Rambo was nowhere to be seen. If Ramsey was never going to play then why was the mercurial Rubin Colwill not on the bench?

When queried post-match about why Ramsey wasn’t introduced Rob Page’s reply of ‘we needed two number sixes’, only exposed the manager’s tactical intransigence. We needed to win the game and Poland were there for the taking. Page wasn’t brave enough or astute enough to make those changes.

You can feel the nerves. Wales fans during the UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying play-off final at the Cardiff City Stadium. Credit: David Davies/PA Wire

Another puzzling moment came when David Brooks’ stay on the pitch lasted for all of 18 minutes before the sub was substituted for Nathan Broadhead in extra time. If, has been suggested, he was sick what was he even doing on the bench in such an important match?

If it was a gamble by Page, then it failed badly.

So it was than that the Polish substitutes filed onto the field, while Wales stood still. How must it have felt for those Welsh substitutes knowing that the manager had absolutely no intention of placing his trust in them.

The Poland boss meanwhile must have been thrilled to realise that his opposite number was not going to change shape or make any attempt to adapt formation.

It was the Poles then who looked the more likely to score as we seemingly played for penalties.

Now, Wales historically has a relationship with penalties that is so horrendously dysfunctional it could double as a plotline in EastEnders.

Those of us of a certain vintage who remember the penalty heartbreak of Joe Jordan – ’77, David Phillips – ’85, Paul Bodin – ’93 were praying we’d find a winner as nobody wanted to revisit the horror of the past.

It was perhaps sadly predictable that we would lose the shootout – Dan James seeing his pen saved by Szczesny to hand the Poles the win.

The kid is a hero for stepping up and he will be an important part of that Wales squad for many years to come.

Anyone who dares to criticise him needs to have a word with themselves.

That said, you have to ask why Ipswich Town’s penalty taker Nathan Broadhead wasn’t one of the five to step up.

Hoodoos are meant to be broken, but now at least Wales’ younger fans have their own collective penalty agony to ’embellish’ their Welsh supporting experience.

Wales’ Daniel James is consoled after missing the decisive penalty in the shoot out during the UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying play-off final. Credit: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Today stings. What especially hurts is missing out on attending a tournament in one of the best countries on earth to watch football in. If we thought Euro 2016 was epic, Germany 2024 had the potential to match the greatest summer of our lives.

We now look to the future. What that will look like regards the management team remains to be seen.

Understandably, questions are being asked of Rob Page and in truth it’s difficult to see how he can stay in the job any longer.

Time has not treated him kindly.

In the cold light of day, the harsh reality is that in the 20 matches since Wales beat Ukraine in the World Cup playoff final in June 2022, Rob Page’s side have won only five games, one of them being in a friendly against Gibraltar.

We underperformed horribly at the Word Cup. We underperformed equally as badly in Euro qualifying. Three wins in eight qualifiers and one point in two matches against Armenia tells its own story.

Getting a second bite at Euro 2024 via the playoffs arguably saved Page his job several months ago when he faced calls for his resignation.

However, to lose a Euro playoff final to a side that didn’t have a shot on target in 120 minutes is perhaps the most damning statistic of all.

In the post-match press conference the Wales boss once again trotted out his oft parroted line that Wales is a team in transition which is patently nonsense and his default setting when scrabbling for excuses.

If you look at how many caps that starting line-up had accrued, there was almost 500 appearances between the 11. If by ‘transition’ you mean Gareth Bale retiring as some would suggest then that’s a large peg to hang your excuses on.

Wales did enough to win yesterday. To a man you could not fault any of them for their passion, their fight and their endeavour, but that is not a reason to keep Page in a job.

Cast your eye across the age groups and it’s hard not to think that Welsh football is on the up.

Yesterday, the U17s qualified for their second tournament in a row while the U21s currently sit atop their qualifying group.

As for the senior squad many of those who took to the pitch last night are in the prime of their career with the caps and experience to show for it.

Yet moving forward and for all the many reasons detailed above, it’s now time for a new man to take this team to the next level.

We need to move on with fresh ideas and a coach that possesses the tactical intuition and footballing intelligence to befit the quality of the playing squad.

No one doubts that Page is a good guy and a passionate Welshman. He will always be writ large in Welsh football folklore as the man who took us to our second ever World Cup.

Nevertheless results since and including Qatar have been woeful.

We’ll wish him well, but now is not the time for sentiment, but it is the time to plot an even brighter future for Welsh football.

As we went to press on this piece, the FAW president Steve Williams issued a two line statement to the BBC saying that Rob Page will stay as Wales manager. Despite the weight of evidence and opinion this decision has been made less than 24 hours since we failed to qualify for Euro 2024. Where is the FAW review that according to chief executive Noel Mooney is undertaken after every qualifying campaign? A more considered response is urgently needed, because that statement only raises more questions than it answers.

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13 days ago

Totally agree, Rob Page’s lack of tactical nous has been exposed on quite a few occasions, and he does not seem to ever have a ” Plan B “. Thanks Rob, but time for a new manager.

Andy Williams
13 days ago

What’s wrong with a fresh face, fresh ideas?

13 days ago

He should definitely be gone. He’s made some mad decisions not only recently. He’s also shown his lack of tactical ability many times and just stuck to a formula. Fresh ideas and some intellect and experience are required.

12 days ago

Enjoyed the piece with many very fair criticisms made, although a couple I strongly disagree with. You have to laugh at this part: “When queried post-match about why Ramsey wasn’t introduced Rob Page’s reply of ‘we needed two number sixes’, only exposed the manager’s tactical intransigence.” So in the writer’s opinion, the fact that Page insisted on sticking with 2 number sixes exposed his tactical intransigence. Would be interesting to see what he had to say after the Armenia home defeat, where Page was absolutely ripped to shreds for playing Ramsey in that position and the cry from 99% of… Read more »

12 days ago

We need a coach who uses all players. all the time. Sadly Page suffers the Giggs affect. Over the halfway line, ignore the right side of the pitch. It alienated Bale at the end and now Wilson.

Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas
12 days ago

There are two remarkable parallels with England here. First is the terrible record at penalties; is there something about this island that makes the people born on it, irrespective of nation, useless at penalties? Secondly is that both teams have a manager who has achieved a level of success which is, in the context of their nation, very high. Despite this, neither Southgate nor Page seem to have entirely won over the fans. We are all old enough to remember when the only TV clips of Wales in a major tournament you ever saw was Pele scoring against them in… Read more »

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