There are many abiding images from Monday night in Toulouse but if one of them was guaranteed to go viral it was the sight of Joe Ledley’s latest audition for Strictly Come Dancing.
From raving in Zenica eight months ago to a snake-hips shuffle in Toulouse, the man with one of the finest beards at Euro 2016 has emerged as a cult figure in Wales, dancing his way from Bosnia to France. “I think I’ve started too well,” Ledley said, laughing, when asked about his latest moves. “I’m not sure what I’ve got left!”
Perhaps that is also the question for Wales. Can it really get any better for this group of players than winning Group B, finishing ahead of England, qualifying for the last 16 and hammering Russia on a balmy evening at the Stadium de Toulouse? When Ashley Williams called the players together for their post-match huddle on the pitch, the Wales captain was lost for words for once. In the end he told the players to take everything in and simply enjoy the moment.
Back in the dressing room cans of Carlsberg were cracked open – the first taste of alcohol since arriving in France a fortnight earlier – and a few senior members of the squad approached Chris Coleman to ask if they could enjoy another beer back at the team hotel later. With “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home” still reverberating around the stadium as thousands of Wales supporters basked in one of the national team’s finest ever performances, Coleman was never going to say no. “I didn’t have to say: ‘Don’t be stupid’ or ‘Have a beer and that is it’. They took care of that,” the Wales manager said.
Everything else had been planned well in advance. The players’ families came over to the Russia game, met at the team hotel afterwards and got together again the following day for a barbecue in Toulouse, where Coleman was doing his best to stay away from the tongs and the coals. “The chefs did the food,” he said, smiling. “I don’t trust any of us. I have done a few BBQs myself in my garden but I am not sure I could give the type of burgers I dish up to our lads. Not worth the risk. I don’t think we are insured.”
Beers and a barbecue – a winning combination if ever there was one and, at the same time, evidence of how Wales are getting things right off as well as on the pitch in their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup finals. Coleman, the staff and his players had never spent longer than a fortnight together before and plenty of thought has gone into not only how to break down their opponents but also what the players should do with their spare time back in the tranquil surroundings of Dinard, the seaside town in Brittany where the team are based.
“Cabin fever can set in when you sit in a hotel for a month, so you have to make sure you do things as a group,” said Neil Taylor, who scored the second goal in the 3-0 win over Russia. “I have to say that Wales have got it almost perfect with how they’ve set up the camp, with the games rooms and the chill-out rooms and where we are on the sea. We can walk for a coffee quite easily, we’re not in the mix of everything like some other nations are in a city, so they’ve got it spot on.”
Ian Mitchell, the performance psychologist, has been instrumental in that whole process, right down to setting up various games and quizzes that the players call “court”, primarily because of the consequences of getting things wrong. “There are a few teams and we have a quiz every night and whoever ends up bottom at the end of the week has to do a forfeit,” Sam Vokes explained.
“I have quite a strong team – myself, Aaron Ramsey, Andy King, Joe Ledley, David Cotterill and Simon Church. I don’t know about the brain power but luckily we haven’t come last yet. The forfeit can be a number of things; singing, dancing – Hal [Robson-Kanu] did a dance one night, which was very good.”
Listening to Taylor it appears that there are plenty of laughs but little chance of any of the players appearing on Mastermind in the near future. “We had one the other day: ‘How many manager-of-the-month awards did Sir Alex Ferguson get during his reign at Manchester United?’ I think the answer was 27. The brainiest group of them all – and I won’t name names – went for seven.”
Wales, in short, are winning the psychological battle, finding ways to kill the boredom and maintain the tight bond between the players and staff that carried them through qualifying and gives their “Together Stronger” marketing slogan real substance. “They are not in handcuffs and chained to the hotel bedroom, they can pop out,” Coleman said. “Because it’s not just physical – the mental side of things is the toughest. Doing the same thing becomes mundane, so you’ve got to be careful with that.”
Where Wales hope nothing changes is on the pitch. Coleman said he was able to enjoy the Russia match from the first minute to the last because Wales “were totally in control” and the challenge for the manager and his players now is to reproduce that level of performance against Northern Ireland on Saturday evening at the Parc des Princes.
If Ledley is strutting his stuff again at the final whistle, it will be a sure sign that everything has gone well. “Obviously, my mates back home know the dance moves and what I’m capable of doing,” Ledley said. “I just needed the occasion and Russia was that. But we don’t want the dancing to take away from our performance against Russia. We played some great football and showed the world what we are capable of doing.”
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