It was a year that started with hope ahead of a new qualification campaign as Ryan Giggs prepared to lead his side to UEFA EURO 2020, and while hopes and dreams dipped during a difficult summer for the young side, success followed as 2019 closed with a string of results to ensure Cymru would once again reach the finals of a major tournament.
Built on Welsh Spirit
Check out this interactive online experience of Football in Wales during 2019:
The UEFA Nations League offered Giggs a platform during the latter end of 2018 to turn his vision for his Cymru side into reality, and the pathway system provided the foundations for a young and talented team that would eventually end the qualifying campaign undefeated in the final five games.
2019 will be remembered as the year that Giggs answered his critics, and the focus now turns to the challenge of taking on Europe’s elite next summer.
The qualifying campaign brought personnel changes on and off the field. Osian Roberts departed for Morocco and was replaced by Rob Page on Giggs’ coaching staff, while the emergence of Kieffer Moore in attack proved to be the missing piece in the puzzle as the Wigan Athletic striker provided the attacking outlet needed, and finished the campaign as Cymru’s joint top-scorer with Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey.
Making the switch from Arsenal to Juventus during the course of the qualifying campaign, continued injury problems made Ramsey a stranger to the Cymru camp, but his contribution in the final match, and his first start, proved decisive.
It was make-or-break for Cymru at the business end of the campaign, but the side produced when it mattered. Here’s a look back on another memorable and successful year for Cymru, and the people that made it possible.
WOODBURN WOOS WREXHAM
Ashley Williams captained an experimental Cymru side as senior international football returned to the Racecourse for the first time since 2008 for the visit of Trinidad & Tobago. Lee Evans, George Thomas, Ryan Hedges and Tyler Roberts were all handed places in the starting line-up for the international friendly in March, but it was Ben Woodburn who gave the north Wales fans reason to cheer as he scored the only goal of the game on the 90th minute.
JAMES SINKS SLOVAKIA
The serious business began in Cardiff a few days later as the EURO 2020 qualifying campaign opened against Slovakia. On a warm afternoon in the capital, Daniel James made a huge impression on his first competitive start for his country by opening the scoring during the early exchanges with a fine strike. With the red wall firmly behind the team from the anthem to the final whistle, James’ goal proved to be the difference on the day. The 1-0 victory providing the perfect start to the campaign.
“A lot has been made about playing younger players,” said Giggs after the win. “But they're all playing regular for their clubs and playing well. It's not just about young and old, and they can both learn from each other, I've been in both camps. We have got talented young players but we can't do it without the experienced players, and it's not easy leaving those experienced players out, not easy at all.
"Slovakia didn't show any sort of fatigue despite their quick turnaround. It was nervy at the end, we didn't really punish Slovakia enough in the first half, and you do wonder if that will come back to haunt you. We'll learn from today. With the attacking talent that we've got we're always going to create chances. A couple of times we could have kept the ball better and made better decisions.”
Croatia reached the 2018 World Cup final, and boasted the best player in the world at the time in Luka Modrić, as Cymru travelled to Osijek in June for the next match of the campaign. It was never likely to be anything but a difficult test, and while the hosts had struggled to repeat the form that had taken them all the way in Russia the summer before, Giggs was more than aware of the challenge his side would face. However, with confidence at a premium from the opening day victory over Slovakia, optimism was high in the Cymru camp.
An own goal from James Lawrence and a strike from Ivan Perišić eventually proved decisive. David Brooks had shown a maturity above his years for club and country since his elevation to senior football, and while his efforts were awarded with a goal in the final 15 minutes, it was nothing more than a consolation strike. A trip to Budapest a few days later offered the chance for redemption, but the summer was set to go from bad to worse as Cymru slipped to a second defeat.
The performance in Budapest was publicly criticised by Giggs, but in hindsight, the late winner from Máté Pátkai may have proved key in forcing a reaction from his squad for the remainder of the campaign. Cymru failed to perform to the level expected on the night, and the defeat left qualification very much in the balance, despite the opening day victory.
“In both games you have to take your chances at this level,” explained a frustrated Giggs as he reflected on the double defeat. “If you don't, this is what happens. Soft goals we gave away in both games. Again, you can't do that as this level. We pride ourselves on our defending as a team, making sure that first of all we are hard to beat - that was the bedrock of the success over the last three or four years, making sure we don't concede goals.”
NO MARGIN FOR ERROR
Cymru returned to Cardiff for a double-header in September, starting with the visit of Azerbaijan for what had now become a crucial match in the qualifying campaign. Not for the first time, and not for the last time either, Gareth Bale was the hero for Cymru as he scored the winning goal in the 2-1 victory. It may not have been a memorable performance against the bottom seeds, but the importance of the result could not be understated.
Belarus arrived in Cardiff for a low-key friendly a few days later. It was another opportunity to experiment with the squad, but it was Daniel James who scored the only goal to make it a successful camp for Giggs and his players. Between his goals against Slovakia and Belarus, James had swapped Swansea City for Manchester United, and had hit the ground running at Old Trafford with a string of impressive performances and goals for his new club.
TWO POINTS GAINED
Kieffer Moore was an unused substitute against Azerbaijan, but showed on his international debut against Belarus that he could bring another dimension to this Cymru side by leading the front line. Giggs, never afraid to make the big calls, rewarded his new recruit as Moore retained his place in the starting line-up for the next crucial match in the campaign away to Slovakia. Scoring on his competitive debut in the 1-1 draw, the towering striker already appeared destined to play a big part in the remainder of the campaign.
"Every game we go into we try to win,” Gareth Bale told the media ahead of the return match against Croatia. “We understand the permutations in the group, but we want to qualify, and that's what we're aiming to do. We haven't been looking at the table too much, our mindset is just to win our remaining three games. We want to get to another major tournament and give it another go. We feel that if we put in a great performance we can beat anybody. You would probably say they are favourites, but that doesn't change anything for us. We still have a plan on how to win the game.”
The home game against Croatia was a fixture highlighted when the qualifying draw was made. With qualification virtually achieved, the visitors had more than recovered from their post-World Cup drop in form, and took the lead inside the opening 10 minutes through Nikola Vlašić. However, the mentality instilled within this Cymru group had markedly changed since the summer of disappointment. In times of trouble, Gareth Bale has regularly produced for his country, and scored the equaliser before half-time. The situation hadn’t changed by the time the final whistle blew.
WATCH: This special episode of FC Cymru takes you on the journey to EURO 2020 through the eyes of The Red Wall.
THE RETURN OF RAMSEY
The stars were starting to align for Cymru in November with two qualifying games remaining. Two victories and the right result between Croatia and Slovakia would guarantee automatic qualification from Group E. Although a play-off place was already assured, it was a situation that Giggs was keen to avoid having seen his side put themselves right back in contention. A long journey to Baku was on the horizon, but for the first time in the campaign, Aaron Ramsey was on the plane.
Ramsey missed the semi-final of EURO 2016 through suspension, and his world-class talent was sorely missed. From his technical ability to his vision, Ramsey has been a pivotal figure for Cymru for the last decade, and such is his value to the rest of the squad his presence alone is worth at least a point. Named on the bench against Azerbaijan, goals from Kieffer Moore and Harry Wilson before half-time made for a comfortable 2-0 win. Ramsey replaced Gareth Bale on the hour, with Giggs’ game management plan for his two stars working to perfection. As per script, Croatia beat Slovakia 3-1 that evening. Qualification was now in Cymru’s own hands.
Making his first start of the campaign, Ramsey scored twice in the 2-0 win over Hungary in Cardiff. The comfortable nature of the victory over a depleted and deflated opponent suggested that qualification for EURO 2020 had been achieved with ease, but this was very much not the case. Undefeated in their final five games, Cymru had reversed the group table after a summer of struggle. Giggs never experienced representing his country at the finals of a major tournament was a player, but his emotions at the final whistle showed how much this opportunity meant to him.
“It's a special, special night for Wales,” said Giggs with qualification assured. “The lads never gave up after the results in the summer. There was no room for error, and the quality that the lads have shown, they deserve it. We've missed Aaron (Ramsey), but players who can make the difference don't grow on trees. It couldn't have worked out better. His composure and quality on the ball, he made the difference. It's right up there as one of the greatest nights of my life.
“Every player that has come in has been brilliant. I achieved a lot as a player, but this is different. Cookie (Chris Coleman) showed the way, and I asked the players who had been there and done it to climb that mountain again, and they've done that. I set out to qualify for a major championship, but also to leave Welsh football in a better state. This is just the beginning, these young players can get better and better with the help of the senior lads.”
BACK TO BAKU
The year ended with the draw for the finals of EURO 2020. With the FAW delegation in position and seated at the ROMEXPO in Bucharest at the end of November, Cymru were placed in Group A alongside Switzerland, Turkey and top seeds Italy. The tournament will open for Cymru against Switzerland in Baku before taking on Turkey at the same location. A visit to Rome and the challenge of Italy will complete the group. Preparations are now well underway with training camps and friendlies being finalised. EURO 2016 will forever hold a special place in Welsh football history, and the challenge now is to make EURO 2020 even better.
Check out BuiltOn.Cymru for a full End of Year Review for 2019 from the Football Association of Wales.