“Don’t cross that f*cking ball, Christopher!”
Six words that preceded the moment of a lifetime in Welsh football. Six words that came from the mouth of Chris Coleman, stood there in disbelief that his right wing back Chris Gunter had found himself in the Belgian final third in the 85th minute of a European Championship quarter final, unwilling to shield the ball in the corner to run down the clock.
Gunter did cross the ball, and in a sense, Coleman had got what he’d deserved. It was not an act of disobedience, but an illustration of the belief the then-Welsh coach had managed to instil in a group of players who’d lived through international disappointment so many times before. It was his compliment to his leader’s methods.
Now Wales’ most capped player, Gunter was one man in generations of Welsh people who had grown up watching their football teams fail, time after time, to reach a major competition. He’d seen Coleman come close, and he’d watched on as a narrow home defeat to Russia meant Wales missed out on Euro 2004 at the play-off stage. Mark Hughes never managed it, nor Ian Rush. They’re not the only big names either.
You’d have had to have dial back 58 years, to the days of John Charles, to find a time like this.
And while Pelé made sure Wales’ World Cup dreams ended at the last eight in 1958, Gunter’s cross made them come true. His sweep of the right foot saw the ball meet the head of the towering Sam Vokes, who – while he never scored many – sent a delightful glancing header beyond Thibaut Courtois to confirm it; Wales were toppling Belgium again, and Wales were going to the semi finals of the European Championship.
Perhaps it’s not quite a major achievement for countries capable of winning competitions like this one. But for a nation of three million, captivated by a football team who’d risen through disappointment and the heartbreak of losing their mentor, the great Gary Speed, it was the achievement. No Welsh fan will ever forget that feeling of ecstasy, nor will they forget it’s football – not only rugby – that’s able to provide it.
Coleman was the man ultimately responsible for the journey, but Speed had forged the path. Cookie, as he is affectionately known, had taken control of the national team – foundations built by Speed – in January 2012, just two months after his close friend’s passing.
“No one wants to be here, least of all me, if I’m honest,” he admitted on appointment. “On the one hand it’s probably the proudest moment of my career to get the opportunity to lead my country. However, to be given that opportunity because of a circumstance no-one could have foreseen, makes it bittersweet.”
The group of young players Speed had assembled endured tough moments in Coleman’s early months – the lowest coming in a 6-1 defeat away to Serbia – but began to peak for the qualifying stages of Euro 2016.
After gathering momentum with wins in Andorra and Israel, the tide had completely changed by June 2015, on a night where ?Gareth Bale’s 25th minute goal beat the Belgian Red Devils for the first time. You can trace back to that evening as being the moment where Welsh fans – and the players themselves – really believed.
The tournament itself was a fairytale. Tough-to-swallow defeat to England aside, Wales played with a freedom and determination that they could make an impact in France. Slovakia were beaten, Russia outclassed and Northern Ireland edged out in the last 16. It was on a night in Lille where Belgium would meet Wales again.
Being stubborn and hard to break down was Coleman’s first focus. So falling behind to a Radja Nainggolan thunderbolt after just 13 minutes was not the ideal beginning. And when Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are looking to take their moment on the international stage, rallying back can seem a daunting prospect. Good thing, then, that ?De Bruyne left his post on a corner and allowed Ashley Williams to equalise.
Nainggolan’s may have been a stunner, Vokes’ the moment of realisation, but neither are the goal that’s really remembered. That honour sits with Hal Robson-Kanu.
Going in to Euro 2016, Robson-Kanu – without a club at the time following his release by Reading – could boast only two goals in 30 international appearances for Wales, but he was the man Coleman had decided would lead the line from the first whistle. And while it was his goal that edged the opening match with Slovakia, a European Championship quarter final was quite the removal from the usual for a player who has only recently passed 50 senior career goals – at the age of 30, having played primarily as a forward or winger for the duration.
But Robson-Kanu was the embodiment of Coleman’s team. His heart, effort and willingness to work for his teammates was key to the team functioning, and to the creation of space and time for the likes of Bale and Aaron Ramsey to exploit. So you’d have considered it something of a surprise to see Robson-Kanu himself seize a moment like this.
“‘Just watch this for a Cruyff turn! If that was Messi, they’d be talking about it for years! Just watch this. See ya later Meunier! See ya later…Denayer! See ya later Fellaini!'”
– Robbie Savage
It’s not difficult to send Robbie Savage giddy – you might suggest it’s his resting state – but his reaction to Robson-Kanu cutting the Belgian defence to ribbons spoke for thousands watching in the stadium and millions back home. Sheer delirium, pure nonsense, absolutely wonderful. He even backed it up with a ‘go and wake your kids up, something special is happening!’ post-Vokes decider.
Never were Wales meant to beat a collection of the world’s greatest footballers in a major competition. Never were Wales meant to reach the semi-finals of a European Championship, and never was Hal Robson-Kanu meant to be the one to send them there. But years of cultivating belief in a tight-knit group of friends, who just so happened to be footballers too, led to this moment. It led to this glorious victory that no Welshman will ever forget.
“He saw us grow up, and what we’ve achieved today. He’s always in the back of our minds. When we achieve something, we think about him,” were the words of Ashley Williams in reference to Speed prior to the semi-final, which Wales lost to Portugal.
Coleman had taken the personal heartbreak for himself, his team and his country, and turned it around as an inspiration to achieve something truly great. To create a moment like never before.
“Don’t be afraid to have dreams.”
Six words from the mouth of Chris Coleman, who on one night, had changed Welsh football forever.