Wales have done amazing things in recent years. A revival instigated by the late Gary Speed has been ably carried by multiple managers, but largely the same team, across multiple tournaments. There was that stunning journey to the semi-final of Euro 2016, qualification for Euro 2020 followed by another appearance in the knockout stage and now the team is preparing for a first Cup of the world since 1958.
The squad that secured qualification against Ukraine in the World Cup play-offs in June was largely made up of names that have been part of this journey from the start. Gareth Bale, Wayne Hennessey, Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies have played crucial roles in establishing Wales as an internationally competitive nation. But the 2022 World Cup could prove to be a watershed moment when it comes to the 2016 promotion.
A historic return to international football’s biggest stage seems like a fitting way for Welsh heroes of recent years to bow out. Bale is still unplayable in his days, but at 33 and with an injury history, he needs to be managed carefully to have those days. He has yet to play 90 minutes for Los Angeles FC and has started just two of his 11 MLS games. Hennessey is 35, which is young for a goalkeeper, but he appears to be on the decline. He is currently Dean Henderson’s replacement at Nottingham Forest, having played a similar role for Burnley and Crystal Palace in recent seasons.
Allen is back home with Swansea and doing well. But at 32, we can think that Euro 2024 will be his absolute limit if he does not get injured. Ramsey is a year younger but enjoyed a torrid end to the season at Juventus and a lackluster loan spell at Rangers last season. He hopes that his transfer to Nice this summer will allow him to rejuvenate his career. Ben Davies, 29, will likely be around for a while, being the youngest of the bunch.
The necessary renewal of the Welsh squad is already underway. Davies and Allen’s injuries ahead of Thursday’s game against Belgium, and the likelihood of Bale missing out due to returning from an MLS game the day before, provide a glimpse of the future.
Manager Rob Page has several youngsters in his squad who could have a big influence on the team’s future. Teenagers Luke Harris from Fulham and Jordan James from Birmingham City will join the senior team for the first time. Nottingham Forest star player Brennan Johnson already has 13 caps at the age of just 21. Ethan Ampadu (Spezia) and Neco Williams (Forest) have 57 caps between them, which is a lot of experience for two players under 23.
Rabbi Matondo, Matt Smith, Dylan Levitt, Sorba Thomas and Ben Cabango are all in this age bracket as well. Page has so many hungry young players to choose from. Where once the loss of Allen, Ramsey and the others might have seemed fatal, now it seems to be integral to the growth of this team.
There may be an exception. While there is plenty of talent in the Welsh ranks, a world-class player is still missing to replace Gareth Bale. Arguably the greatest Welsh player of all time, there is no apparent successor to his unique talent. Daniel James was touted as a potential elite talent at one point but, despite his speed, he lacks the end product to reach Bale’s level. Interestingly, the last Wales side without Bale have 23 international goals alone. Bale himself has 40. He is almost irreplaceable.
Page and his Welsh team will one day have to navigate a world without Bale and his gang. But this world is not as murky as it seems. There are talents available and the manager is not afraid to give them chances. Wales is living through the most exciting times in its history, and those times seem to last for a while yet.
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