Joe Ledley will not dance in Cardiff.
The Wales midfielder will do so in Ibiza, because his wedding in the Balearic Islands is back on for Saturday after Wales’s Euro 2016 semi-final exit against Portugal. It has been a whirlwind month or so for one of the squad’s cult heroes, whose slick moves were a post-match feature of their victories and, at some point, he will be able to slow the beat down. Ledley has an idea of how the reflections might look. “We’ll go down as legends, hopefully,” he says.
Chris Coleman and his players have written their own scripts during the time of their lives and Ledley’s has been spiced by a peculiar collision course. After last Friday’s 3-1 quarter-final win over Belgium, which felt like the greatest result and, possibly, performance of Welsh football history, the wedding was postponed.
Ledley’s fiancee, Ruby May Ridgeway, sent a tweet after that game. “Outstanding from every single player. This is a dream,” she wrote. What a woman. There appeared to be no thought for her nuptials. The football was all-consuming. This is how it has been for every Wales fan.
The following day, she sent another one. “Can’t quite believe what happened last night. I think I’m still in a state of shock!” Everybody has found themselves a little scrambled at times, as the emotions have swirled and if anyone now deserves the dream day it is surely Ruby May.
“The boys are going back to Wales on Friday to see the fans but I’ve got a wedding to attend,” Ledley said, after the Portugal game on Wednesday, with a nod towards the reception that awaits the squad in Cardiff. “I don’t feel like I need to go back to see what our achievements mean to the supporters. I know, deep down, how much the support from back home meant to me. It just wasn’t meant to be in the end.”
Every Wales player said broadly the same thing in the wake of the defeat and to quote one was to quote them all. The talk was heavy on national pride and admiration for the fans, particularly those who had travelled with them across France to create spine-tingling memories. The scenes, post-Belgium, will never fade.
Neil Taylor, as usual, was the most eloquent. “It is hard to reflect right now but, as the weeks go by, and when we sit on a beach on holiday or something like that, we will reflect and see how much we have learned about our country as a whole and how a sport can bring people together,” the left-back said. “That is the overall message.”
The future of the squad was the other preoccupation. The main themes of the finals and the campaign, which began with a narrow qualifying win away to Andorra in September 2014, have been sacrifice and togetherness.
Gareth Bale has epitomised them with his complete lack of pretension while Ashley Williams’s captaincy has been inspirational. “We wouldn’t swap Gaz for any other player in the world,” Hal Robson-Kanu said. “He shows how invaluable he is with what he does for Madrid but, for us, he brings more than what people see or realise. It is a credit to him.”
It has added up to a sense of belonging at the highest level. Aaron Ramsey, who excelled in midfield, noted how people would have laughed at the notion Wales would reach the semi-finals at their first tournament since 1958. Now, there is simply an acknowledgement of their qualities.
Wales were not cowed on the grandest stage; rather, they thrived. It has been transformative.
“We are hoping this story and the journey we have been on will change Welsh football forever,” Joe Allen said. “It’s hard not to feel sad and disappointed at getting knocked out but the message is clear – it has been a huge success story for Welsh football. I’m honoured to have been a part of it.”
Wales’s exploits must serve as a springboard – to borrow a phrase from Allen – with the benefits being felt, most immediately, in the 2018 World Cup campaign. The other teams in their qualifying group are Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova and Georgia.
“We don’t want this to be a one-off for Welsh football,” Allen said. “We want this to be what inspires us to do it again and again. With the quality we have got in the team and the setup we have got, we are confident we will do that. We weren’t in France to be like tourists. We wanted to make our mark and set the tone for the World Cup. The age of the group will mean we are together for the next few years, at least.”
Ledley said: “The feeling is this is the start of something, rather than the end. We’ve had a taste of it and we want to keep it going. We want to achieve better things and, hopefully, we can do that with the World Cup. That’s the aim. We are a hungry bunch of players.”
The Portugal result continued to rankle. It had felt like one game too many for Wales, with fatigue clearly a factor and Ramsey’s suspension depriving them of vital creativity. Bale shouldered too much of the attacking responsibility.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored the opening goal with a towering header and his shot led to the second, Nani sliding in to divert it past Wayne Hennessey.
“They were two crappy goals,” Ledley said. “To be fair, Ronaldo’s shot was useless for the second. Normally, he hits them from there but he scuffed it for a tap-in. With the header for the first, the guy can leap but, apart from that, he didn’t really do anything in the game.”
Ledley did not sound like a Ronaldo fan. “He’s one of those players who frustrates you,” he said. “He’s never in the game, compared to Gareth, who is always on the ball, always wanting it, always trying to do something. But that’s football. There’s nothing we can do about it, now.”
Ledley spoke of being devastated and his team-mates offered up different words to say the same thing. Those feelings will fade. What Wales have achieved will stand as a monument. They will go down as legends.
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