Chris Coleman raised his brows, big dark eyes wide, and blew out his cheeks as if he could not quite believe this, then immediately looked at his watch.
There was something urgent, almost desperate about the way he did so. “We’re in a fantastic position,” the Wales manager had said before this game; now, they really were. Exactly where they wanted to be, another piece of history to grasp on to and never let go. It was easy to imagine what he might be thinking: end it, end it now. The scoreboard brought good news: Wales 1-0 Russia. His watch did not. Eleven minutes past nine. Still 79 minutes to go, Chris.
If it felt like a long time to hang on, there was a solution: do not hang on. So Wales did not. Joe Allen had talked of his determination to leave here with no regrets and there would be none; there was not even any suffering, barely any nerves. The fans were in superb voice, this stadium a valley around which the sound rolled. They did not stop but the volume did rise just nine minutes later, when Gareth Bale’s run created the second for Neil Taylor.
Two-nil. Seventy minutes to go now, Chris. This time he hugged his assistant Osian Roberts, then turned and raised his fists to the stands behind. These were becoming 70 minutes to embrace, not endure. They might have thought it too good to be true had that truth not been reinforced with every pass, every run, every shot, every minute on Coleman’s watch, every moment to be savoured.
As the Wales players headed back into position after the second goal, Coleman gestured to them to play the ball. To carry on what they were doing, in other words. This was no smash and grab, this was domination. When the olés briefly began early in the second half, they did not feel premature; if anything, they felt overdue. And yet nor was it just control; there was intent and incision in every move, dynamism and a sense of adventure that they were enjoying. None more so than Bale.
Wales were 2-0 up and it really should have been more, the space opening up and red shirts gratefully pouring through. At times, it felt like they were all at it, one after the other, a stampede, although it was Bale who led the charge, tearing at them. Russia were frightened and he knew it. The way they set up was an invitation he accepted, to the right, to the left and through the middle. Distance covered stats are one thing, distance covered with the ball another. It’s hard to imagine any player at this tournament racking up the kind of numbers Bale did here.
Despite goals against England and Slovakia, Bale had often been a peripheral figure before Monday night. “Ultimately, if we’re not keeping the ball it is difficult to do what I do best,” he admitted. “But I’d take playing rubbish every single game if it meant going as far as we can. It’s all about the team getting to the next round.”
“I can do better,” he had said. Here, he did brilliantly, his first shot after 59 seconds, cutting in from the left, a prelude to what was to come. A lovely crossfield pass to Taylor followed, then another shot blocked after Aaron Ramsey had dashed across the front of the area, all before the opening goal. Already, this felt different and when the second came it began with him receiving in the centre circle and setting off on another run, even if the final “assist” to Neil Taylor actually came from Roman Shirokov.
And so it went on. And on. And on. A 60-yard run saw Bale stepping away from two challenges to create a chance from which Sam Vokes should have scored. Another run and he dipped the shoulder, cut inside and struck from 20 yards. Next time, he ran and fed Ramsey’s blocked shot. Only the goal resisted him; Russia’s defenders could not. Still Bale kept coming, at ever more regular intervals. On 45, 54 and 57 he rattled off shots, all on the run.
Then the inevitable happened and Gareth Bale became Euro 2016’s leading scorer, taking Ramsey’s pass and finishing with the outside of his foot. It was not long before Coleman was waving at fans. This was fun. Shortly after that he withdrew Bale, who departed to a standing ovation patting his heart. His goal had been Wales’s 17th shot. His first shot and theirs too had come with 89 minutes still to go on Coleman’s watch. Eight-nine minutes to enjoy.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010