As the Wales players made their way on to the team bus after the game, fuelled with optimism but looking physically and mentally spent, three million people back home were saluting their heroes. Yet for Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and everybody else connected with Chris Coleman’s team, it was the 24,000 Wales fans inside the stadium who deserved all the praise.
Bale described the supporters as “our 12th man”, Ramsey said he had been close to tears during a national anthem sung with such fervour that Coleman admitted he had to try to detach himself from the emotion of the occasion, and Danny Ward, in what was intended as a compliment, said that he struggled to get his message across to the Wales defence in the first half because of the din behind his goal.
It was that sort of day in Bordeaux, rich with history and full of raw emotion, no more so than during that wonderful moment deep into the second half when the sea of red shirts at one end of the stadium cleared their throats and, at a time when Coleman’s players were starting to wheeze, broke into a stirring rendition of Land of my Fathers. “No other country would think of doing things like that to lift the team,” Bale said. “We were under the cosh a bit towards the end but our fans pulled us through.”
The “Together Stronger” slogan is more than a marketing gimmick. The Wales players and fans are singing from the same hymn sheet in every sense. “That was incredible,” Ramsey said, reflecting on the atmosphere. “It was really spine-tingling hearing the anthem sung like that with so much passion. We had to pinch ourselves to stop the tears coming down. It was fantastic. They have been absolutely superb throughout the campaign, they have definitely helped us in certain games and they managed to do that again.”
In full voice off the field and showing plenty of guts and courage on it, Wales dug deep to carve out a victory that enables them to take control of Group B after 90 minutes of football. They face England in Lens on Thursday and all the pressure will be on Roy Hodgson’s players or, to borrow Bale’s expression, the country that likes to “big themselves up before they’ve done anything”.
England have little margin for error after conceding that injury-time equaliser against Russia in Marseille. Wales, on the other hand, have one foot in the last 16 and it was a plane full of happy passengers that touched down at their team base in Dinard, Brittany, on Saturday night to tuck into the birthday cake Coleman had been given on Friday.
A day that started badly when Wayne Hennessey was forced to pull out on the eve of the game with a back spasm, leaving Coleman with no option but to give 22-year-old Ward his first start for his country, could not have finished better. Hal Robson-Kanu’s scuffed left-foot shot will not be among the contenders for goal of the tournament but it is guaranteed to go down as one of the most important in the history of Welsh football.
Ramsey claimed the assist, but it was Joe Ledley’s incisive pass, 12 minutes after coming off the bench and only five weeks to the day since he broke a leg, that set the Arsenal midfielder free. “I am very proud of myself and the medical staff who have looked after me,” Ledley said. “I have to give them a lot of credit because without them I don’t think I would be here today. I have worked hard and it is remarkable what I have achieved. I also have to thank the manager for giving me the opportunity to be here.”
Robson-Kanu was introduced as a substitute two minutes after Ledley and those changes, together with the voices of the Welsh choir, helped to swing the momentum of a game that was slipping away from Wales. Ondrej Duda’s equaliser, after Robert Mak had got away from Ramsey and David Edwards to cut the ball back for the substitute to score with his first touch, came during Slovakia’s best spell of the game and Wales were clinging on. “We found it difficult in the second half, I’m not going to lie,” Ledley said.
The opening 45 minutes was a different story. Although Slovakia started brightly and were unlucky not to take the lead when the outstanding Marek Hamsik saw his shot brilliantly cleared off the line by Ben Davies, Wales looked the more accomplished team in possession. Joe Allen, a calming presence in the centre of the pitch, was using the ball intelligently as Wales grew in confidence after Bale’s superb 28-yard free-kick.
Bale, in truth, has produced better performances in a Wales shirt. At times, in particular in the second half, he was on the fringes of the game, waiting for the ball that never came. Coleman may well decide to deploy him in a slightly deeper role against England, rather than as a No9, so he can have more influence.
Either way, Wales are sure to have plenty to sing about in Lens.
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