The former Wales international striker discusses the past, present and future with HITC Sport.
It is safe to assume that 2015 is a year that will live long in the memory of Welsh football followers.
The hope is, of course, that 2016 turns out to be even better, with a first appearance at a major international tournament in 58 years set to be taken in on French soil next summer.
Those who make the journey to cheer on Chris Coleman’s side can be expected to embrace the sense of occasion, with the opportunity to witness such an event having bypassed several generations and some of the finest talent the country has ever produced.
There is much to look forward to and much to be excited about, with the successful completion of a qualification campaign allowing shredded nerves to be rested and for gnawed nails to be re-grown.
For now, pre-tournament friendlies will continue to whet the appetite, but they have taken on a different feel, with experimentation and the piecing together of a European Championship squad now the order of the day.
The first of those outings takes place on Friday, with Wales finding themselves in the rather pleasing position of welcoming the Netherlands to Cardiff in the knowledge that the visitors will be envious of the standing they currently enjoy, rather than the other way around – with the Dutch having failed to qualify for Euro 2016 and slipped below their hosts in the FIFA World Rankings.
The game should be viewed by Coleman’s men as opportunity to put down another marker, with the absence of key men such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey offering the perfect stage for others to step up and inherit the post of talisman.
That is a view shared by former Wales international Iwan Roberts, a man with 15 caps to his name and one looking forward to seeing further progress made by his countrymen over the coming weeks and months.
Roberts, who was speaking at the filming of the Vauxhall Home Nations Football Show, told HITC Sport during a phone interview: “A couple of friendlies might give Chris a chance to experiment a little, see the strength he has in his squad. He is obviously going to be without Bale and Ramsey for the next game against Holland, but that gives him a chance to have a look at players who haven’t featured too much in the final games of the qualifying competition.”
Pressed on the issues most in need of addressing as the countdown starts to next summer, Roberts added: “Probably scoring goals. It’s been a big problem for us. We have relied heavily on Gareth’s goals to get us wins in games and if Gareth went through a bit of a barren patch of not scoring, then we might not be as successful as we have been.
“Other players need to step up to the plate – Sam Vokes has been given a chance, Simon Church has come on in a few games and they haven’t really got the goals that they would have liked. You have got Tom Bradshaw in this squad for the first time, the young boy from Walsall, you have got Tom Lawrence in the squad again, who came on against Andorra, so maybe it’s a chance for them to show what they are capable of doing. We need to score more goals. We can’t always rely on our defensive quality to keep clean sheets and to win games by the odd goal, we need to score more goals. I think Chris and the squad would agree with that.
“We need a good strong squad, with depth to it, to go over to France because we can’t always rely on the best XI starting every game because you are going to get injuries, you are going to get suspensions and players are going to have to come in and have an impact.”
Bale will play no part against Holland as he has only recently returned from a spell on the sidelines, but he has already shown what he is capable of and Roberts agrees with Coleman’s assessment that the Real Madrid man needs to be managed carefully so as to ensure that he is not pushed to breaking point.
He said: “I think it’s the right decision. You look at when Giggsy played, he missed quite a few friendlies, let’s be honest, for one reason or another, and I think the time has come now that the same could happen with Gareth. It’s disappointing, but I can totally understand it. He’s at a huge club who are always competing for trophies, playing 50-55 games a season because of the runs they have in the cups, so something has to give.
“He always turns up for Wales, he would play every game if he was allowed, but he’s got to be careful and he’s got to be managed properly. He has got this weakness in his calves that has created problems over the last few months. The biggest thing for us as a nation is that Gareth stays fit for the competitive games.”
Bale netted seven times in qualifying to book Wales’ ticket to France, including match-winning efforts against Andorra, Belgium and Cyprus, but can he deliver again when the pressure is turned up another notch in a major competition?
Roberts said: “I think so. It’s one of the biggest stages to play at. He’s already shown what he can do in the Champions League (final), even though he probably didn’t have his best game, he scored that all important second goal. We’ve never been to a World Cup, but he’s in a dressing room at Madrid full of international stars who have had that taste of World Cups and European Championships, and now he’s got that chance. I do think he’ll grab it with both hands.”
And Wales as a collective, what can we expect from them as they prepare to enter the unknown?
Roberts added: “We aren’t just going there to make up the numbers. We are going to be in a difficult group because we are going to be in Pot Four, but I fancy us to beat anybody on our day, especially when all the big-hitters are available – the likes of Ashley Williams at the back, Joe Allen, Joe Ledley, Ramsey, Gareth Bale. When everybody is fit, I think we can go out and beat anybody.
“It’s not a case of just turning up and enjoying the three weeks out there, enjoying the great stadiums, we need to build now. We need to be consistently reaching these tournaments, which we haven’t done in the past, but with this squad of players, who are still relatively young, we have got a great chance of doing that.”
They certainly do, but Roberts is right to suggest that complacency cannot be allowed to set in.
This must be viewed as the first of many steps in a positive direction, with it important to generate an era of success, not enjoy a one-off and fade back into the shadows, with the stars of tomorrow relying on those of today to pave the way for them to tread a similar path in the future.
Watch the Vauxhall Home Nations Football Show with Ian Wright, Gerry Taggart, Kevin Gallacher and Iwan Roberts by subscribing to Vauxhall Football on YouTube here.