Sunday, 12 June 2016

From the Wales anthem to the performance this was a day to remember against Slovakia

if anyone had assumed Wales were simply here to have a good time, that the limit of their ambition was to allow their fans to flourish a banner reading Ffestiniog at an international football tournament for the first time in 58 years, how they were disabused here in Bordeaux.

With this perfect winning start, Chris Coleman’s team have made a huge step to qualify for the next stage. And that tournament feeling, the one Coleman admitted he was beginning to relish, now looks likely to go on deep into the second fortnight.

From the moment this stadium filled with a spine tingling communal rendition of Land of My Fathers, it was hard to imagine how this could be anything other than Wales’s day.

They may have been up against a team apparently straight from Hollywood hard man casting, all neck tattoos and Mohican coiffure, but Wales, demonstrating industrial strength mettle, never flinched.

From Danny Ward coming in at the last moment in goal, through the indomitable James Chester and Ben Davies to the brilliant man of the match Joe Allen, the Welsh were way more than “horrible and ruthless” as their manager Chris Coleman had instructed them to be. They were magnificent.

“You have experiences in football when you think you’ll not be able to top that,” said Coleman. “When we beat Belgium [in qualification], I thought that. But when you heard the national anthem sang before kick off like that, that was incredible. And we knew then we had to deliver. The support we had deserved nothing less than three points.”

At the core of the Welsh team, bawling out his delight in a square-mouthed howl of triumph at the final whistle, was Gareth Bale. The double Champions League winner gave the game its one glittering moment of excellence. But it was his work throughout that marked him out as a special talent: this is a genius who is never embarrassed to do the grunt work.

“Some of his best moments were at the end of the game,” said Coleman. “When he was heading the ball out of play to waste time, anything for the three points for the win for Wales. It’s never about Gareth Bale, it’s always about Wales. His passion, how much he feeds off our supporters, he understands what is needed. Three million Welsh people love him to bits and he deserves that.”

The tone of celtic determination was set as early as the fifth minute. Marek Hamsik, the Slovak equivalent of Bale, but with more ink work, sauntered through the Welsh defence as if it were made up entirely of traffic cones.

He shot past Ward and for a moment it looked as if the stand-in keeper’s first task on his competitive debut would be to pick the ball out of the net. But somehow Davies made an incredible, scrambled recovery clearance.

That seemed to charge the Welsh, remind them of the need to impose themselves on the game, not to be undermined by the newness of their surroundings.

Within seconds of that reprieve, Aaron Ramsey and Bale were exchanging back-flick one-twos and Allen was spraying a fifty yard precision pass out to Chris Gunter on the wing. These were a team determined to leave their mark.

And inevitably it was Bale who gave the first serious signal of intent. His glorious intervention came after just ten minutes. Following a forceful surge by Chester out of defence, Jonathan Williams was fouled some 25 yards from the Slovakia goal.

Bale stood over the ball, working out his angles, his legs wide apart as if he had been schooled by the same body language expert who advises George Osborne and Theresa May on their speech-making position.

In the wall in front of him there was much jostling as red-shirted Welshmen tried to open up a space through which he might shoot. And Bale did just that. Striking the ball with a precise beauty, he dipped it round the wall and past the leaden-footed Slovak goalkeeper Matus Kozacik into the back of the net.

But what was so noteworthy about this performance was that Wales did not crumble when Slovakia inevitably hit back. Indeed, the equaliser - smartly taken by the substitute Ondrej Duda to mark the first goal Wales had conceded in tournament football since Pele scored against them in Sweden 58 years ago - seemed to spur the Welsh on.

Ramsey and Allen seized back the midfield advantage, Bale was provoking ever more physical challenges from the Slovak defence, and from the bench came Hal Robson-Kanu. Underlining Wales’s workaday core, the forward is currently what is known in the acting profession as “between jobs”.

His contract concluded at Reading, he has left discussions on his future until the Euros are over. After what he did here, his choice of workplace may have suddenly expanded. Latching on to Ramsey’s determined through ball, his winner may have been as scuffed and scrambled as Bale’s goal had been a work of art, but no matter: it counted.

And it provoked scenes of unhinged delight in the stands. Not to mention in the technical area.

“To concede in the second half and come back in the fashion we did, I thought was very courageous,” beamed a delighted Coleman.

And now come England.

“We need to go about our business in the next game,” the manager suggested. “We don’t fear anybody, if we concentrate on ourselves, if we do what we did today, it will be enough to get us what we need.”

The English have been warned.

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