“Dream. Don’t be afraid to have dreams. Four years ago I was as far away from this as you could imagine. I’m enjoying it, it’s great and we deserve it. If you work hard enough and you’re not afraid to dream then you’re not afraid to fail.”
The words of Wales manager Chris Coleman after what can easily be described as the greatest night yet in the history of Welsh football.
Having booked their place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 with a win over Northern Ireland, Coleman’s team put their opponents Belgium to the sword in the most incredible of fashions, clawing their way back from being a goal behind to record a tremendous 3-1 win over a team ranked second in the world.
It was the same nearly a year ago in Cardiff, when Gareth Bale pounced on a poor back header from Radja Naingollan (more from him later) to score the only goal of the game, a win that put Wales three points clear at the top of their qualification group as they aimed to reach a major tournament for the first time since 1958.
This time around, while the opposition were the same (as was their ranking position), the stakes were far greater than even the most optimist Welsh fan could have predicted 12 months ago. It was winner-takes-all – for the victors a place in the semi-finals of the European Championship against a Portugal side who, 24 hours earlier, has beaten Poland on penalties in a dull and lifeless encounter.
For Wales, this was their biggest game so far (arguably the biggest in their history), against opponents who they hadn’t lost to in their last three encounters – could plucky Wales sear their name in the history books, defy the odds and take their place in the final four of Euro 2016?
The answer, a breathless 90 minutes later, was a resounding yes, delivering a performance that astounded both fans and neutrals alike, overpowering Belgium with that much-vaunted pride and passion brimming to the fore.
The early exchanges indicated the magnitude of this fixture, both teams taking a while to bed into the game, but it was Belgium who sharpened up quickest, nearly taking the lead when a series of shots were kept out by the hands of Wayne Hennessey and the legs and flailing limbs of defenders.
If it served warning of the attacking potency of this Belgium team, then the warning was heeded, as Wales soon settled into the game – but they were to fall behind when that man Naingollan redeemed himself for his error last June. Picking the ball up 25 yards from goal, he delivered a shot of such venom and accuracy that Hennessy could only help it on its way to the back of the net.
It was the first time in this tournament (aside from that late England winner) that Wales had gone behind, but while you may have expected the Belgians to go for the jugular, they instead sat back a little – and then paid the price.
A corner kick on the half hour mark for Wales was whipped in and found the head of captain Ashley Williams, who powered it home to level the scores and suddenly the impetus was with Wales. The remainder of the half was a frantic affair, but with the sides going into the break level, it was Wales who were the more ascendant of the two teams.
Belgium had no doubt relished the half-time whistle as a chance to regroup, and they were quick to put the Welsh team under pressure as the second half began; however, it was to be Wales who would grab the next goal.
A break down the right from Aaron Ramsey saw the midfielder centre the ball for Hal Robson Kanu, and with three defenders around him Kanu was up against it. However, with a Cruyff-esque turn, he managed to leave the defenders for dead, side-footing the ball past Courtois in the Belgian goal to give Wales the lead – a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Belgium tried to get themselves back in the game, but passes were going long, balls not finding feet – the more they tried, the less likely they looked like scoring.
It was a shock then when, with Welsh backs against the wall, and with five minutes remaining, Chris Gunter broke down the right and crossed the ball into the box. His pacey delivery was met by the head of substitute Sam Vokes, who glided the ball over the despairing hand of Courtois to ease the pressure and unleash the celebrations.
It was a deserved win for Coleman’s team, a performance easily the equal of, if not surpassing, their 3-0 rout of Russia in the final qualifying game. It didn’t come without cost however, with Ramsey and Ben Davies picking up bookings that meant they were suspended for the encounter with Portugal; losses certainly, with both players having covered themselves in glory with their performances thus far, but with James Collins and Jonny Williams likely to come in to deputise, one that can be managed.
Win or lose against the Ronaldo-led Portugese, it has been a phenomenal summer for this Welsh squad – having began the tournament with hopes of simply getting out of the group, having dealt with the disappointment of conceding that late goal against England, this group of players and management have, again and again, shown just how strong the team spirit and work ethic is among them all.
When the pressure was on against Russia they responded superbly, and since then have raised their game when they have needed to. The semi-final against Portugal will be, for many, the biggest game they have ever been involved in, yet there is no sign that this squad will succumb to pressure or nerves.
As Chris Coleman said, “If you’re not afraid to dream then you’re not afraid to fail” – and this group has made a nation of dreamers this summer.