Rambo’s First Blood

Leon Barton recalls the 2008 Wales under 21 play-off matches against England and the first suggestion Aaron Ramsey might become the midfield general Wales had lacked for over half a century.

Leaving aside two-legged knockout ties, it‘s not often the fans of the losing team come away from a game happier than the fans of the winning team. I can only think of one occasion I was in attendance when that was the case. Being at the San Siro on 20 October 2010 meant I was lucky enough to witness the birth of Gareth Bale as a global football superstar. His hat-trick for a Spurs team reduced to ten men after eleven minutes was not enough to get any kind of result following an imperious first half in which Inter Milan had racked up four unanswered goals. But as I began the descent down the steep stairwells from the San Siro‘s top tiers, surrounded by both home and away supporters (thousands of Spurs fans had traveled to Milan ticketless in order to snap up the much cheaper tickets available in the city) there was little doubt which set seemed the happier.

The Italians looked aghast that their team of hardened serial winners had come so close to blowing a huge lead against such unheralded opponents, whilst the Spurs fans were all smiles. There was a sense that the momentum gained by that that extraordinary second half one man show, together with the return of experienced playmaker Rafael Van Der Vaart, would lead to a much better overall showing when facing the European champions again a few weeks later. It was a feeling that was to prove justified as Spurs won a memorable match 3-1 at White Hart Lane. Both teams progressed to the Champions League knockout stage though, so neither tie was do or die.

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Even more rare is the occasion where the fans of the team who have lost a tie seem happier than the fans of the team who progressed at their expense. This proved to be the case on the night of 14 October 2008, when England‘s under 21’s made it to the following year’s under 21 European Championship in Sweden, having defeated their Welsh equivalents 5-4 on aggregate after the second leg ended 2-2 at Villa Park.

Both teams had topped their respective groups to reach the knockout stage. With only seven places up for grabs in order to join the hosts Sweden, qualification was an arduous process but one that England were well used to, with Wales perhaps just seen as another stone to step on before facing the big fish at the tournament. For their smaller neighbours however topping a group containing the likes of France, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania was already an unprecedented achievement for Welsh intermediate football. The 10,000 crowd at Ninian Park for the first leg of the play off was in stark contrast to the 700 who saw the victory over France at the same venue a year earlier, and testament to the way the Welsh youngsters had turned the heads of their countrymen and women.

The first leg had finished 3-2 to the visitors but there was plenty to admire in a Wales performance full of spirit and energy and the team was still very much in the tie as they headed to Birmingham for the second leg. There was even talk of thousands of Welsh fans travelling to Scandinavia for the 2009 European Championships. That might seem absurd for u21 football, but by this point the wait to see a Welsh football team play in a tournament had been 50 years; such a long drought means being grateful for even the smallest drops. In the end, any such discussion proved academic as the English youngsters went through. They performed well in the tournament too, going all the way before a Mesut Özil- inspired Germany thrashed them 4-0 in the final.

Results are how football is measured, but for the Welsh fans in attendance the final score seemed to take a back seat at Villa Park that night. It was the moments we witnessed that seemed to matter most. And one in particular – in the 24th minute – stood out.

With Wales having conceded a sloppy goal early on in the game to go 4-2 down in the tie, three Welsh goals were needed and there seemed precious little sign that a very young team was capable of getting them. Of course, being under 21 football the England team was of tender years too, but nowhere near as young on average, and Wales gave away a huge deficit in terms of experience. It was an opposition containing hardened English Premier League professionals like Mark Noble, Steven Taylor and James Milner (a man I‘m pretty sure was born aged 27). In contrast, the Wales line up that night was mainly teenagers, with the likes of Darcy Blake and Shaun MacDonald struggling to make an impact at their football league clubs even though they had become key figures over the course of the qualifying campaign.

The stand-out man (or should that be boy?) for Wales was the youngest player on show and it was he who gave Wales hope as the tie, and the entire evening, threatened to fizzle out in the drabbest manner possible.

Although only 17, Aaron Ramsey had already made more of an impression at club level than any of his teammates. In helping his local team Cardiff City to that summer‘s FA Cup final he had made a massive impact, his performance away at EPL Middlesborough in the quarter final in particular had neutrals purring. “How old did you say he was again!?” asked co-commentator Mark Lawrenson during the BBC’s live coverage following another piece of intelligent Ramsey play. He came on against Portsmouth at Wembley (becoming the second youngest player to play in an FA Cup Final), doing more than anyone to try and get Cardiff back into the game. It was to no avail – Pompey winning 1-0 – but the young midfielder had already shown an aptitude for the big occasion.

Straight away in the cup final I could see it…his attitude was: ‘Give me the ball. I‘ll try and make something happen’” Ryan Giggs told Radio Wales later that year.

Making something happen when nothing appears to be happening is a rare and precious skill. What was so memorable about Ramsey‘s goal to level the game at Villa Park was that it was so unexpected. He was thirty yards out, the ball was on his weaker left foot, his team was being outplayed by much physically stronger opponents and he had a highly rated goalkeeper in Joe Hart to beat. Often, when space opens up for a player with a view of goal in the opposition half, the crowd will encourage a shot, even in a semi-ironic manner. But there were no cries of ‘Shooooooot!‘ amongst the Wales fans, many of whom (like myself) were level with Ramsey when the ball bounced at his feet. Even the Setanta Sports commentator, busy explaining the state of play in the tie, doesn’t appear to countenance that he might be about to have a pop. It was only with the ball flying through the air towards goal that I realised it might actually go in and a sharp intake of breath from the England fans in attendance can be heard on the TV footage, giving away just how unexpected it was.

Five minutes later, Ramsey turned provider, running at England‘s lumbering central defence before slipping an inch perfect pass through to Simon Church who lifted the ball over Joe Hart to score his third of the tie making the score 1-2 on the night, 4-4 on aggregate. Still another goal needed but the momentum was with Wales now. Disbelief and delirium reigned in the small Welsh corner of Villa Park where we were housed. There can‘t be too many under 21 matches in history that have been subject to a pitch invasion, but some simply could not contain their glee and left their seats to join the players celebrating on the pitch. A touch silly yes, but the delirium can be explained by the sheer lack of anything to celebrate in Welsh senior football for so long. Two senior England- Wales matches had been played in recent years (2004 at Old Trafford, 2005 at the Millennium Stadium) where our players had not even laid a glove on their superstar opponents, but here, at last, were Welsh youngsters at least prepared to have a go at their larger neighbours, hinting at the the promise of a brighter footballing future to come.

The momentum was abruptly halted when England equalised through an own goal from Sam Vokes following a corner, the Welsh deficiencies at set piece defending exposed once again. And despite the home team being reduced to ten men in the second half following a crude challenge from Tom Huddlestone, the extra English experience showed as they were able to see out the tie, Vokes blowing the best chance to send the game into extra time when blasting against the post late on.
So Wales failed again at the final hurdle, whilst England went to a tournament where progress was halted by one of world football‘s big guns…so far, so to script, right? On the surface perhaps but it did not feel that way to the Welsh fans.

If you‘re looking for the places where the seeds of Wales‘s success at Euro 2016 were sown, then that particular u21 campaign
provides the fertile, rich soil. As well as Ramsey, Vokes and Church, the likes of Joe Allen, Andy King, Wayne Hennessey, Gareth Bale, Chris Gunter and Dave Edwards took to the field at various times during those 2007-08 u21 qualifiers. All played in France last summer. The Welsh at Villa Park stood to applaud our young players, while the England fans slunk away, seemingly a little embarrassed to have qualified at Wales‘s expense.

It was the memory of that giddy spell between Ramsey‘s unexpected strike and the pitch invasion following Church‘s goal which lingered in our heads as we walked the streets of Aston following the game. Sentiment such as ‘load of shite, wasn‘t it?’ from those with Brummie accents provided a stark contrast to the buzz amongst the Welsh fans. Could these youngsters be different? The ones to end the qualification drought at senior level? And, in particular, could Aaron Ramsey be the goalscoring playmaker Wales lacked for so long?

In a previous blog written for Podcast Pêl-droed, and eventually published by the Guardian via In Bed With Maradona, I dissected the football career of Jason Koumas, with particular focus on his international exploits. He was a player as infuriating as he was entertaining – a mercurial maverick with absurd ability but none of the mental fortitude required to be true success at the highest level. The piece was generally well received – for which I was grateful – but there was some criticism that I‘d singled out a player for underachieving when he still had a decent career. Fair enough, but interestingly, none of the criticism from fellow Wales fans was along those lines and I attribute that to us anointing Koumas as the ‘chosen one’ early on – the midfield magician Wales had so sorely lacked.

“I think we missed a genuine playmaker like Ivor Allchurch who was probably the last ‘midfield general’ back in the 1950s and 1960s. Myself, Brian Flynn, John Mahoney and later Peter Nicholas were all pretty similar. We ran about and gave people a good whack every now and then and we had plenty of hwyl – spirit – but we never had the one player like Graeme Souness, who dictated the pace of a match in the middle of the park”

These are the words of former Wales captain Terry Yorath in his autobiography Hard Man, Hard Knocks. By the time the 20th century had ended, two decades since Yorath last played for Wales, we were still waiting for such a player. We had witnessed some very good midfielders in that time, but not one who could be described as a playmaker. The great Gary Speed was a wonderful footballer – a genuine leader, brave, superb in the air and with the intelligence to play a number of roles, but he lacked the ball-playing ability to dictate the game against strong opposition. This is not meant as a criticism – I loved watching Speed play – but even friend, mentor and former Leeds teammate Gordon Strachan stated that what made Speed effective was that he made up with attitude what he lacked in skill.

So by the time Koumas declared for Wales at the age of 21 in 2001, we still lacked the ‘midfield general‘ that Yorath described in his book. Early on in his career you could easily see that Jason Koumas had the potential to be the player we had been waiting for.

“Why haven‘t we got anyone like him?” I thought when Gheorghe Hagi basically destroyed Wales twice to take Romania to the 1994 World Cup at our expense. Hristo Stoichkov for Bulgaria during the campaign to qualify for Euro 96, the young Bastian Schweinsteiger for the Germans in 2007…Welsh fans have become used to seeing our team undone by an opposition string-puller. In 2009, an ageing and very average Finland came to Cardiff for a World Cup qualifier. They were a team who looked unmistakably there for the taking. No matter, 72 year old Jari Litmanen parked his zimmer-frame in the centre circle and basically ‘stood‘ the game (running was beyond him at that point) in a 2-0 victory, in which, tellingly, Wayne Hennessey was Wales’s best player.

Koumas was unable to lay a glove on his opponents and promptly retired from Wales duty, having flattered to deceive for the entirety of his eight year international career and playing in fewer than half of the 75 matches Wales played between his first and last caps. Significantly, it was the first competitive senior game played by the 18 year old Aaron Ramsey and although he made little impact on that occasion, we did not have to wait too long to see that, at long last, the chosen one had arrived; the boy who would be king. He scored his first senior goal with a free kick against Liechtenstein in the October of 2009 but it was a few weeks later, in a friendly fixture versus Scotland that we knew for sure the kid from Caerphilly was real deal. Scoring a lovely goal following a Giggs-like mazy run to make it 3-0 was the icing on the cake, but he‘d been superb up until then anyway, a cut above anyone else on the pitch (including 19 year old left back Gareth Bale). The Scots simply could not contain him, and, as usually happens when Scotland lose against Wales, manager George Burley quickly found himself out of a job.

The excitement of what a Wales team might do in qualifying with a proper playmaker was palpable amongst the fans. A midfielder goalscorer who can open up defences?! Wow, we might actually achieve something now…But that bubble promptly burst a few weeks on, when Ramsey, having started to make an impact in the EPL following his summer move to Arsenal, came out of a challenge with Stoke‘s Ryan Shawcross with his right leg in pieces and set for a significant spell on the sidelines. The fear was that he might never play again, or at least never be the same player he might have been. Welsh fans wallowed in self pity once more – ‘we‘re cursed, we‘ll never qualify..’ the oft-repeated mantra.

We were wrong. Although the goals of Gareth Bale and rock-solid defending of captain Ashley Williams were the twin pillars around which Welsh qualification for Euro 2016 were built, it was Aaron Ramsey who proved Wales’s best player at the tournament itself and was selected in Uefa’s official team of the tounament. A wonderful goal against Russia, crucial assists against Slovakia and Belgium and a general sense that here was a big player enjoying himself on the big stage made him the main man. It was little surprise that a Ramsey-less Wales was unable to make an impact in the semi-final against Portugal, despite the best efforts of Bale. The feeling of what might have been – if only Ramsey had not been suspended – remains strong several months on. Mixed in with the sense of regret is a great deal of pride about the performances in France. There should be – Welsh football reached hitherto unscaled heights in the summer. It‘s no coincidence that these heights were reached by a team with a goal-scoring midfielder, a man capable of magic.

Paul Gascoigne‘s England career of 51 caps may be way shorter than his midfield successors such as David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard (all of who played over 100 internationals). He also did not have anywhere near the same success at club level as the three players just mentioned. Gascoigne did however play in two international semi-finals (World Cup 1990, Euro 96), whereas getting past the quarters proved beyond England’s ‘golden generation’ who emerged in the late 1990‘s. Perhaps, for all the qualities that the English midfield has possessed since Gascoigne’s international career ended, they have lacked a magician? A man capable of turning the tide in tight tournament games?

As a Wales fan, that‘s not for me to speculate on for too long, but I can say for sure that the emergence of Aaron Ramsey – who first blossomed on the international stage during those u21 play offs against England – has made watching Wales a far more pleasurable experience. Together with the two Joe’s, Allen and Ledley (both big fan favourites), Wales currently has probably the greatest central midfield in its history. We may have had far better players in other positions in the past, but recent times have taught us that there’s little point having one of the world‘s best goalkeepers (Neville Southall) or goalscorers (Ian Rush) if your team has such little control of the game in the middle of the park.

Arsenal fans may still be torn about how much he brings to the table (despite Ramsey‘s winner in the 2014 FA Cup Final and his performances that season doing more than any other player to end the Gunners nine year trophy drought) but he’s universally loved in his homeland. And for many of us it‘s been that way ever since Rambo first drew blood, at Villa Park, back in 2008.

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