Wales and it’s Difficult Second Album

With the dust having settled on a historic European Championships for Wales, Hywel Picken likens the semi-finalists’ upcoming campaign to a band writing that ‘difficult second album’. Will Wales’s Road to Russia hit new heights akin to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan? Or will they suffer a Second Coming style sophomore slump?

In advance of Euro 2016 there was little expectation. Only hope that we could earn European-wide respect. The hope that ‘Baleo’ could step out of Cristiano’s sizable shadow; that ‘Rambo’ would deliver match-winning performances; and that ‘wee Joe’ could truly establish himself as the Welsh Xavi.

It isn’t just that these things happened. It was the emphatic manner in which they happened.

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Think Bale, a mixture of elegance and fury, charging at terrified defenders or Ramsey breaking beautifully from a midfield that was anchored with majesty by Allen. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey cemented themselves among the European footballing elite.

Elsewhere, Chester and a one-legged Ledley were playing above themselves. Ash, Davies and Taylor assured and confident. Gunter, Collins and Hennessey ever-reliable. Vokes and Hal rotating, contributing, making the difference.

And Chris Coleman finally exorcised his Coventry demons and earned the respect of the masses.

Heroes every last one of them.

Do you remember the fume post Sweden friendly? Wales and Coleman had been Zlataned and Twitter melted down as Wales supporters split into two factions. There were those that suggested that Coleman was out of his depth, that the side was too negative, that the squad choices were naïve. Even Coleman admitted that the defeat had been a “slap in the face”. The (now often unspoken) questions over Cookie remained – was he capable of doing us justice on the biggest stage?

But then the tournament…

Slovakia was a see-saw affair but a dream start. England were largely dominant despite needing a last-gasp winner but against Russia it clicked and we were magnificent. The finest performance I have ever seen from a Welsh team (I’m 33). Northern Ireland were gritty but we were gnarly and overcame. All roads led Lille and Belgium and, bar the opening 20 minutes, we were the better side. Class, guile and sheer force-of-will were the order of the day and the shell-shocked Belgians had no answer. Alas, Portugal was a bridge too far. We huffed and puffed but, lacking in Ramsey’s creativity and power, we struggled to impose ourselves on an organised outfit.

Even so…Wales – group winners and giant-killers. Semi-finalists. A footballing nation reborn after years of ugly, barren, harrowing misfortune and mismanagement. Yorath’s missed penalty, Jordan’s handball, Bodin hitting the bar…not forgotten…but no longer grievously mourned. Moving on.

So where does this leave Coleman, Roberts and co in terms of public perception? Surely, with their place in Welsh folklore secure, they can relax and set about the task of qualifying for a World Cup in comfort, confident in the knowledge that their jobs are safe and their country is content?

I doubt it.

When I bought my tournament ticket for Euro 2016 in August 2014, it was very much in hope, as it had been when purchasing every TT since 2003. Yes we had good players, but we had had good players before. Chiefly, the doubts surrounded Coleman. Was he capable? Could we trust him? He had achieved very little since Fulham, we had suffered some terrible beatings since he had taken charge in 2012 and, worst of all for many, he just wasn’t Gary Speed.

Fast-forward to August 2016. Just two short years have passed and Cookie’s stock has never been higher among the footballing public. Once a laughing stock, Coleman is now being linked to Premier League jobs. In reality though, does this mean the pressure is off? I’d argue it is only just beginning. Next Monday Welsh fans will turn up at Cardiff City Stadium expecting us to trounce Moldova. Following that at least 4 points will be anticipated from the games against Austria and Georgia. Serbia then arrive in November for a crucial game that will signpost our destination (just as the draw in Belgium did in November 2014). By then we will have played three of our five home games and I would argue that anything less than 7 points would see us face an uphill struggle for qualification.

Because…this is the Difficult Second Album. You know, the one that defines bands. The one that sees you taken seriously. If it goes the other way the best one can expect is a critical shrug of the shoulders, at worst laughed out of town with snide derision. For every Radiator by Super Furry Animals there is the The Stone Roses’ Second Coming (not that bad, but not that good either). For every The Bends or Nevermind there’s Room On Fire  by The Strokes. The idea that 33,000 people will walk into the stadium on Monday in hope is laughable. Hope is a distant memory, expectation is the order of the day; and with expectation come a number of challenges.

Wales will now be expected to take the game to teams, to dominate and to entertain. Rearguard actions and scrappy draws against sides perceived to be weaker than us will not be tolerated by some. Setting the team up to nick a draw in Serbia/Ireland/Austria won’t be enough. Cardiff City Stadium will no longer be solely populated by loyal die-hards, it will also be populated by consumers. Consumers of a product – the Sky Sports modern football model that demands instant gratification. A football where one draw or one defeat causes a fanbase to go into meltdown.

Chris Coleman is in the big leagues again. If Wales qualify and are successful – he will have established a legacy that will allow him, if he chooses to stay, future patience from fans and media alike. If he fails, in a group that has no footballing superpowers, he will surely resign and the nation will rue an opportunity missed and Coleman’s reputation will take a significant (if not terminal) blow.

Is this fair? Probably not. After all, an injury to Bale, Ramsey or Allen could impact hugely on the productivity of this group. As could a poor refereeing decision, a deflected goal or the emergence of a superstar at one of our group rivals. As John Toshack once said of his Wales squad – “I couldn’t just go and buy players ready made. I had to use what I had got.”

But since when has football been fair? Ramsey and Jonny Williams are already out of the Moldova game, Ramsey having been forced into playing by Wenger, who had decided that others such as Giroud were not ready. Is this Coleman’s fault? Absolutely not – he cannot legislate for Wenger’s actions but, ultimately, very few will remember come October 2017 if we have failed to qualify.

Football, like music, is a cut-throat business. Business is booming currently but consumers are fickle. Gaining initial success is the easy bit. Maintaining it sorts the men from the boys.

Ymlaen.

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