What a magnificent achievement! Wales have qualified for the European championships for the second time running! Following the sensations of 2016, tiny, impoverished Wales will again rub shoulders with the super-rich aristocrats of the game: it wasn’t a freakish one-off anomaly! Having failed to qualify for the first 14 Euro tournaments since the inaugural competition in 1960 (13 failures actually – Wales didn’t enter in 1960 – for the full gory story of those barren decades see http://tinyurl.com/poogw48), two consecutive qualifications have suddenly turned up after that interminable wait: it’s rather like Cardiff’s bus service!
Most praise and plaudits must go to gaffer Ryan Giggs, who has drawn on all the immense football knowledge he must have accrued playing at the top-level for over 20 years to outfox opposition and instil the winning habit. In his first proper managerial job he looks a natural – even down to displaying the classic tight-lipped remoteness and slightly menacing air of authority of great managers of yore, old mentor Alex Ferguson being the textbook example. In both the 2-0 wins against Azerbaijan and Hungary Wales never looked like losing, despite the pressure of knowing only wins would suffice. This self-belief and team ethic must have come from Giggs, especially considering the rag-bag mix of players at his disposal could not have acquired such confidence from their chequered range of fairly ordinary club careers. You’ve either got that magic managerial touch or you haven’t – and Ryan Giggs, it is clear, has it in spades. Any remaining anti-Giggs trolls should be reminded that his brilliant overseeing of Wales’ participation in next year’s thrilling multi-hosted, 12-venue Euros amounts to only the third time out of 33 in total that Wales have qualified for anything (two Europeans in 15 attempts plus one World Cup in 18 attempts). This means that, after a mere 19 games in charge, he has already joined Jimmy Murphy (1910-1989) and Chris Coleman in the select pantheon of Wales’ managers. And something tells me he’s only just warming up.
After the superbly dominant win in Baku, bringing the head-to-head record against Azerbaijan to P8, W7, D1, L0, Goals F15-A2, Wales were the last of the 20 automatic qualifiers to secure qualification with a fabulous win over old adversaries Hungary at the Cardiff City Stadium. Over 30,000 were there to experience the historic night – not only for sport in Cardiff and for Welsh football but also for Welsh nationhood itself. It featured a dazzling performance by Aaron Ramsey and decisive flashes of stellar talent from Gareth Bale, underlining how important it is that they (plus much-missed David Brooks) are fit and raring to go next summer. By then, Gareth might well be grinning mischievously behind a Draig Goch emblazoned ‘WALES. GOLF. TOTTINGHAM. IN THAT ORDER’…
The gripping ongoing saga of Wales/Hungary matches, going back 61 years to the World Cup finals in Sweden, has now reached P12, W6, D2, L4, Goals F17-A15. Heartbroken Hungary still have an outside chance to qualify; they are one of 16 teams that now go into taxing play-offs to determine the last four qualifiers – a torture Wales have mercifully avoided. We will know who Wales face by the end of the month when the draw for the final tournament is held. Whichever way the cards fall, Wales are going to be in a full-blown ‘Group of Death’ because seeding places us in ‘pot 4’ and thus sure to meet three shit-hot opponents. In a worse-case scenario we could be drawn in a group with Belgium, France and Portugal, and even in the best-case scenario it would be Ukraine, Russia and the Czech Republic. The one thing I’m praying for, down on bended knee to the supreme being that doesn’t exist, is that we do not end up in England’s group.
What should be emphasised is this: of the 20 automatic qualifiers, Wales with a population of 3.1 million is the smallest by some margin (Croatia with 4.1 million is the next smallest). And with only four of the 16 play-off contenders smaller than Wales (Iceland, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and North Macedonia) and none of them likely to proceed much further, it looks like Wales will be the ultimate underdogs of Euro 2020, punching well above our weight and far outside our comfort zone. How fitting, how daunting, and how exciting!