What a match! What an atmosphere! What a performance! What a thriller! What a result! And what an outcome: WALES HAVE QUALIFIED FOR THE WORLD CUP!!
Hear me: WALES HAVE QUALIFIED FOR THE WORLD CUP!!
Repeat: WALES HAVE QUALIFIED FOR THE WORLD CUP!!
I’m in a daze. I still can’t believe it. I can’t stop crying. I can’t stop laughing. This does not compute. Am I dreaming? Have I lost grip on reality? I’m imagining it, surely? Where are those fucking Ibuprofen?
We demolished a bottle of scotch and countless cans of cheap lager in 90 minutes flat. Oh, the headache! Oh, the dehydration! I’m only just starting to come round from the mother of all hangovers and my vocal chords will probably never recover. Luckily my poor long-suffering next-door neighbour is used to me and well able to withstand my full-throated, foundation-shaking, out of control yelling – especially since his quadruple by-pass! I must try to eat something today, even if it’s only a water-biscuit with a thin smearing of non-animal rennet – I should be able to hold that down! I must get cracking booking my tickets and hotel reservations for Qatar in November – who cares that they throw people like me off the top of high buildings!
Calm down…deep breathing…go easy on the exclamation marks…ommmmm…
OK, let’s do a little sober analysis. Here are some statements that can now be made:
1~Gareth Bale is indisputably Wales’ greatest-ever footballer. He’s so good that, as he nears the end of his extraordinary career, he can win games when completely unfit and having barely kicked a ball in anger for six months. His fearsome reputation as a match-winner is now quite enough to preoccupy and intimidate opponents without him having to do much at all. Just look at the goal against Ukraine, when the mere fact of him taking a free-kick in a dangerous area caused Ukraine captain Andriy Yarmolenko to panic, intervene desperately, and thereby unnecessarily divert the swinging, dipping ball past his own goalkeeper. Few players in football’s annals (Maradona? Pele?) have been able to exert such hypnotic power. As an og this one didn’t add to his record goals tally (38), but yet again he delivered the decisive moment when it was needed on the biggest possible stage. He has been the difference that has taken Wales, previously a synonym for perennial also-ran, downtrodden Cinderella, doomed loser and easy-meat sitting-duck, to two consecutive Euros and now the WORLD CUP. Nobody has ever achieved more in the red shirt of Cymru. Cardiff Council should be commissioning his statue pronto.
2~To a man the whole team were superb against a shit-hot Ukraine side, hyper-motivated by the barbaric Russian invasion that is slaughtering numberless thousands and flattening whole cities. Special mention must be made of Ben Davies, magnificent in defence, Neco Williams, irresistible on the left flank, Joe Rodon, a tower of strength at the back, and most of all man-of-the-match Wayne Hennessey who gave the performance of his life in goal, making save after save in the pouring rain, culminating in a miraculous mid-air stretch to claw away substitute Artem Dovbyk’s goal-bound header seven minutes from the end. File it in the catalogue of unforgettable Welsh World Cup scenarios along with Ivor’s volley, Pele’s turn, Jordan’s handball, Stein’s heart-attack, fused Vetch Field floodlights, Bodin’s penalty and Russian cheating.
3~Rob Page must now be ranked as the greatest Welsh manager of all. The simple fact that he has led Wales to the World Cup is reason enough. In 18 previous attempts to qualify stretching back to 1950, only Jimmy Murphy (1910-1989), another Rhondda boy, achieved anything comparable – and that was only thanks to outrageous luck after Wales had actually been eliminated in the qualification process for Sweden 1958, but allowed back in after the drawing of lots (see Wales and the World Cup for details). Considering Page had very little experience of management (Port Vale for two years, Northampton Town for one year, Wales U21 for two years) before the suspension of Ryan Giggs in 2020 unexpectedly thrust him into the job, his achievement is even more incredible. In the Ukraine match he showed his superb tactical nous and judgement under pressure yet again – in his team selection, his timing of substitutions and his touch-line instructions and inspirations. The FAW have rightly acted swiftly to confirm him in the job and take us to Qatar – no matter what happens at Giggs’ court case in August.
4~Some stats (I love my stats). This was our first ever win over Ukraine and the head-to-head record now stands at P4, W1, D2, L1, Goals F3-A3. Our all-time record of unbeaten home games has been extended to 17. Wales are the 30th country confirmed to contest the 2022 World Cup (the 31st and 32nd, the last two, will be the winners of the Australia v Peru and Costa Rica v New Zealand inter-confederation play-offs next week) and will be the smallest country by both population and size at the tournament, other than hosts Qatar who didn’t have to qualify – Qatar is 4,500 sq miles in size with a population of 3 million compared to Wales’ 8,000 sq miles and population of 3.1 million. PS: I don’t think I’ve mentioned that we’re in a group containing three monstrous foes: Iran, USA and England…
There’s just a couple of points I want to make before I pass out in a crumpled heap. Firstly, let’s not forget the Nations League, which normally would be important in itself but now of course has been reduced to a useful way to give young prospects and second-stringers experience of top-level international football in preparation for Qatar. The tournament is well under way. Wales are in the A League, Group 4, along with Belgium, Netherlands and Poland and began last week, on the night Ukraine beat Scotland in the play-off semi-final in Glasgow, with a 2-1 defeat in Poland. Page rightly didn’t risk any of Wales’ key men but nevertheless it was an impressive showing by Wales’ reserve team in front of 35,000 at the Tarczynski Arena in Wroclaw. Jonny Williams fired in a lovely goal in the 52nd minute to put Wales ahead but Poland substitutes Kaminski and Swiderski scored in the 72nd and 85th minutes to snatch an undeserved win. No matter; it augured well for the post-Bale future that will inevitably come. The game saw Chris Gunter increase his all-time record caps total to 108 and brought the head-to-head record against Poland – who we hadn’t met for 13 years and have now not defeated for a scary 49 years – to P9, W1, D2, L6, Goals F6-A12. Nations League action continues tomorrow in Cardiff against Netherlands. Who will Rob Page select? And can we keep the unbeaten home run going against our ultimate bogey-team, the side against which we have our worst record of all (played 8, lost 8)?
Finally, there might be a dedicated, veteran reader of this blog somewhere who can recall a pledge I made more than a decade ago to walk naked down Clifton Street eating a pot noodle while singing I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly should Wales ever qualify for a World Cup. Let me reassure that nutter I am a man of my word and the event will be happening this summer (in the wee small hours when the weather warms up, I’ll video it). Meanwhile, make do with this: