Is there life after Bale?

The struggle to qualify for Euro 2024 in Germany has kicked off, and in Group D Cymru have made as good a start as anyone could possibly have hoped for, drawing 1-1 in Croatia then winning 1-0 against Latvia in Cardiff.

The unlikely draw in front of a capacity crowd at Stadion Poljud in Split, where Cymru had not played previously, was a real shock. Croatia are 7th in the FIFA rankings (Cymru 28th) and are an established soccer super-power having been runners-up in the 2018 World Cup and semi-finalists in the 2022 World Cup just three months ago. Moreover they have never lost a European Championship qualifier at home in all the years since their inaugural Euro campaign for the 1996 tournament (Played 33, W27, D6), and Cymru were not just minus the retired Gareth Bale, Joe Allen, Chris Gunter and Jonny Williams but were also missing two key players, the injured Ben Davies and Brennan Johnson. I was completely resigned to a defeat and merely praying it wasn’t a thrashing, so was fairly satisfied as the match went into injury time with Croatia only 1-0 up. Then Bangor boy Nathan Broadhead of Ipswich Town snaffled an equaliser with Cymru’s first shot on target in the 93rd minute on his international debut having just come on as substitute. My reaction was everything my poor neighbours have come to expect over the years: a cacophonous fusion of dreadful bellowing, weird croaking noises, foul profanities and the screaming abdabs. WHAT A RESULT!

Broadhead, incidentally, is the 12th player to win a Welsh cap while with Ipswich. The first was Billy Reed (1928-2003), a resourceful winger from Ynyshir in the Rhondda Fach who won two caps in 1954 when Ipswich, then as now, were in England’s third tier.

Even though they looked frazzled and stretched to their very limits, central defenders Joe Rodon and Chris Mepham get my vote as joint men-of-the-match. They never lost concentration and performed with steely resolve to keep out the talented Croatian attack coordinated by the classy creative guile of incredible 37-year-old midfield maestro Luka Modrić. New captain Aaron Ramsey also impressed as a leader imparting confidence and self-belief, a wise head ensuring the team never lost its shape and unity of purpose. Oh yes, it was a tremendous result – however Cymru are still yet to beat Croatia; the head-to-head record is now P7, W0, D3, L4, Goals F5-A11.

The draw took Cymru’s winless run to nine games, a statistic that sends an unpleasant shudder through me from tip of toe to crown of cranium. Although the record for the longest sequence without a win (12) was some way off (it has happened three times: from March 1896 to February 1900, May 1968 to April 1970 and March 2000 to September 2001), I was beginning to worry. Then, mercifully, the Latvia match came to our rescue and the bad run was over.

A sold-out crowd at the Cardiff City Stadium saw Cymru dominate the match and deservedly win thanks to a prodigious header from Kieffer Moore, his 10th international goal in his 33rd appearance. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to deliver a killer cross, winger Dan James got it spot-on just before half-time and Moore soared to plant an unstoppable downward header into the bottom corner. A second goal to calm nerves didn’t happen but Latvia, 133rd in the world rankings, never really looked like thwarting us. There is no such thing as an easy game in international football. Stand-out performers were marauding full-back Neco Williams and maturing midfielder Harry Wilson, with Ramsey again the essential thread knitting everything together. This was Cymru’s second meeting with Latvia, the only previous encounter being a 2-0 win in a Riga friendly all of 19 years ago. The head-to-head is thus: P2, W2, D0, L0, Goals F3-A0.

Hey, we’re top of Group D! Dare we dream that Cymru might qualify for the Euros for a third consecutive time? Steady on, Hoss! As Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976) said when asked 200 years after the event what he thought the impact of the French Revolution was: “It’s too soon to tell”. Likewise, it’s much too soon to plan a trip to Germany in 2024. Let’s take this one tentative step at a time, sweet Mephistopheles. Next up: Armenia at home and Turkey away in June…