Wales have finally done it – the tiny European nation has qualified for their first major international tournament since the 1958 World Cup that was held in Sweden. Chris Coleman and his men did a remarkable job in the qualifying stages, leading the nation to its maiden European Championship appearance at the 14th attempt.
In the 1958 tournament almost a full six decades ago, the Welsh navigated a tough qualifying group much to the ilk of their Euro 2016 draw – the team qualified against the odds after facing the hosts Sweden, world-beaters Hungary and Mexico.
After beating the Hungarians in a play-off to reach the quarter-finals after finishing the group level on points, the Welsh we defeated by Brazil with a young Pelé resigning them to a 1-0 defeat. The defeat was not one to be ashamed by as the Brazilians went on to lift the title with a 5-2 victory over the hosts in Stockholm.
Having been out of the international elite for so long, the Welsh are somewhat of an unknown quantity at this summer’s finals so we caught up with Scott Salter to find out more about his countrymen.
After a solid qualifying campaign where Wales finished second behind Belgium to reach the finals, what do you think of the team’s chances in Euro 2016?
It’s a difficult one to judge, to be honest with you. First of all, I think all Wales fans are just delighted to be there – anything else will be a bonus! This is the first major competition we’ve qualified for since the 1958 World Cup, so this is a major learning curve for all involved.
I think we’ll perform better than expected, though. In qualifying, we drew with and beat Belgium, who I think it’s fair to say are better than all teams in our group, so the evidence suggests we can deal with these types of sides.
Will we win the whole thing? Probably not. This squad, though, are passionate about playing for Wales and will do everything they can for the cause. I predict we’ll qualify from the group, but go out in the first knock-out round.
Apart from Gareth Bale who almost single-handedly dragged them through at times, who were the stand-out players during the qualifying process?
I think it’s harsh to say that Gareth Bale single-handedly dragged us through qualifying, to be fair. There’s no doubt he was our most influential player, scoring seven goals, but you’ve got to remember that he is a superstar compared to most of the other players in the squad. Yes he scored, but his team mates played to his strengths and did all of the dirty work, allowing Bale to keep himself available to produce the special moments.
It’s hard to pick out stand-out players as it was such a team effort from all involved. I think Hal Robson-Kanu deserves a mention, as he ran himself into the ground playing up front alongside Bale and became a cult hero. Ashley Williams was solid in defence and is a true leader, whilst Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey were always influential in centre midfield.
Wales have been handed a difficult group alongside England, Russia and Slovakia. How do you see the group going?
I think we’ll beat Slovakia and Russia, whilst the England game is hard to predict. It all depends on how Roy Hodgson lines up his England side. If, as I predict he will, goes with the tried and trusted players – such as Wayne Rooney – it will play into our hands. The play will be slow and England will look to control the game, which suits us. We’re better on the break, which I think will catch that England side out. If Hodgson elects to field the inexperienced, higher tempo players such as Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy, then I think we may struggle.
As many readers will not know the team’s style, what kind of tactics do you expect the team to employ during the finals?
In almost every game, Coleman elected to field a conservative looking tactical system. On paper, it looked defensive, but it perfectly played to our strengths.
Expect Wales to line up with three centre backs, flanked by two full backs. In midfield, we’re likely to field a central three (most likely Ledley, Allen and Ramsey) leaving Bale and Hal Robson-Kanu as a front two. Formation wise it will be a 5-3-2.
Tactically, the side will sit deep and invite the opposition onto them. In Hennessy, a central back three, two fairly conservative full-backs and a defensive midfielder, Wales will prove hard to break down.
When the Welsh side win the ball, expect the transition to be fast to a counter attack. In midfield, Ramsey and Allen are both to transition from defence to attack, whilst the pace of Bale and Robson-Kanu enables a quick ball in behind.
Where Wales can struggle is against teams who sit back. Against Andorra in the last qualifying match, Wales were all over them but lacked that cutting edge to break them down, despite a 2-0 win.
Who will be the key players for Wales in the summer?
Gareth Bale is the obvious one, being the World’s most expensive player and all that, but Ramsey and Allen will be equally as key. In defence, Ashley Williams is vital. He’s the captain and we rely on him to organise the defence. When he’s missing, we look a fraction of the side.
The British media are sure to stoke the rivalry flames in the lead up to the England vs. Wales game – how big is the rivalry between the two nations nowadays? Obviously in football but also everyday life.
I think it’ll be huge. There’s definitely a rivalry there and I don’t think that the British media help. Despite being ‘British’ media outlets, there is always a focus on England, which certainly aggravates the other British nations.
I live in England and am subject to Welsh digs almost daily, so personally there’s a huge want to get one over on the old enemy. As the Stereophonics sing in their rugby themed song; “as long as we beat the English, we don’t care.”
Are there any potential star players coming through the youth ranks that we should know about?
Tom Lawrence, on loan at Cardiff from Leicester, is a talent for sure. He’s impressed whenever he’s had a chance and is a positive option up front should Robson-Kanu get injured.
Jonny Williams, nicknamed ‘Joniesta’, is one of the most technically gifted Welsh players I’ve seen in many years. The Crystal Palace player is 22 years old now and has stagnated a bit since first breaking onto the scene, but has plenty of years ahead of him. He’s only small, which counts against him in a physical match, but I think he’s an important addition when we’re trying to control the game and break teams down.
Danny Ward, the Liverpool goalkeeper, is another talent and is held in high regard at Melwood. He’s probably just behind Wayne Hennessy, who had an excellent qualifying campaign, but is definitely the future between the sticks for Wales.
The New Saints have dominated Welsh domestic football in recent years – what is the quality of the league like compared to the English leagues – could The New Saints compete in England?
God no! Sadly, the standard of the Welsh football league is very poor. I don’t think even The New Saints, who as you said have dominated the league, could compete in the National League. Looking back, the most successful Welsh side in history was the Barry Town team of the early noughties. They dominated more than TNS have and even beat Porto in the Champions League (although they lost the first leg 8-0).
How can the Welsh league improve as obviously all the local youngsters move to clubs in the English pyramid – are the Welsh FA running any initiatives to improve the overall standards?
I don’t think the Welsh league will ever be able to stop the most talented youngsters moving to the English pyramid. The facilities will always be better and ultimately it is better for the national side if these players are developing in a professional environment.
There needs to be a lot of money invested into the Welsh league to improve it. Attendances have improved – the 2014/15 season was the second highest average in Welsh Premier League history. Major redevelopments of stadiums and the building of high quality training facilities is needed to improve the standard. Sadly, I don’t see that happening.
With the Premier League increasingly popular among the Welsh youth and quality football being played in Swansea and Cardiff, I don’t think the Welsh Premier League will improve. It’s a shame, because it would result in better development for the Welsh national side too.
Chris Coleman’s contract expires after Euro 2016, does he deserve a new deal?
Absolutely! I don’t think you’ll find a Welshman who doesn’t want Cookie to stay on as our manager. After the death of Gary Speed, who had improved the Welsh side tenfold during his short time in charge, the future looked bleak.
Coleman lost his first two matches 2-0 and followed them up with a 6-1 loss to Serbia. Many, including myself, were calling for his head then. The consensus in Wales after Speed’s death was that his assistants Osian Roberts and Raymond Verheijen should get the job and the chance to continue Speed’s good work. When Coleman was appointed, there was a sense of injustice. This was a man who had a very poor record as a manager, why should he be in charge of our national side?
The manager, though, has turned it around dramatically. From a 6-1 loss at the hands of Serbia to qualification for Euro 2016, it’s incredible. There’s no doubt in my mind that he should be given a long term contract by the Welsh FA.
A big thanks goes out to Scott Salter for agreeing to the interview and answering in such depth. Please be sure to follow him on Twitter for more great stories about world football.