Wales have done incredible things in recent years. A revival instigated by the late, great Gary Speed has been ably carried by multiple managers, but largely the same team, through multiple tournaments. There was that stunning run to the Euro 2016 semi final, qualification for the Euro 2020 followed by another appearance in the knockout stage and now the team is preparing for a first World Cup since 1958.
The team 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 all along. Gareth Bale, Wayne Hennessey, Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies have been a crucial part of establishing Wales as a competitive nation at international level. But the 2022 World Cup could prove to be a watershed as far as the Class of 2016 are concerned.
A historic return to international football’s greatest stage certainly feels like an appropriate way for Wales’ heroes of the last few years to bow out. Bale is still unplayable on his day, but at 33 years of age and with a history of injuries, he needs to be carefully managed in order to have those days. He is yet to play 90 minutes for Los Angeles FC and has started just two of his 11 games in the MLS. Hennessey is 35, which is young for a goalkeeper, but seems to be winding down. He currently serves as Dean Henderson’s back-up at Nottingham Forest, having performed a similar role for Burnley and Crystal Palace in recent seasons.
Allen is back in the country with Swansea and performing well. But at 32, you would assume Euro 2024 would be his absolute limit if he stays injury free. Ramsey is a year younger but endured a torrid end to his Juventus spell and a poor loan at Rangers last season. He will be hoping his move to Nice this summer ends up rejuvenating his career. 29-year-old Ben Davies will likely still be in situ for a while, being the youngest of the bunch.
The necessary renewal of the Wales set-up is already underway. Injuries to Davies and Allen before Thursday’s game against Belgium, and the likelihood Bale will miss out due to travelling back from an MLS game the day before, offers a glimpse of the future.
Manager Rob Page has several youngsters in his side that could have a big bearing on the future of the team. Teenagers Luke Harris of Fulham and Jordan James of Birmingham City will join up with the senior squad for the first time. Nottingham Forest talisman Brennan Johnson has 13 caps already at the age of just 21. Spezia’s Ethan Ampadu and Forest’s Neco Williams have 57 caps between them, vast experience for two players under 23 years of age.
Rabbi Matondo, Matt Smith, Dylan Levitt, Sorba Thomas and Ben Cabango are all in this age bracket too. Page has so many young, hungry players to choose from. While once the loss of Allen, Ramsey and the rest would have seemed fatal, it now feels like a natural part of the growth of this side.
There is perhaps one exception. While there is a lot of exciting talent in the Welsh ranks, what they do not have yet is a world class player to replace Gareth Bale. Arguably the greatest Welsh player of all time, there is no apparent successor to his unique talents. Daniel James was touted as a potential elite talent at one point but, for all his pace, he lacks the end product to truly ascend to Bale levels. Tellingly, the latest Wales squad without Bale has 23 international goals between them. Bale himself has 40. He is almost irreplaceable.
Page and his Wales side will eventually have to navigate a world without Bale and the gang. But that world is not as cloudy as it once appeared. There is talent available and the manager is not afraid to give them chances. Wales are living through the most exciting era in their history, and that era looks like lasting a while longer yet.
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