Heartbroken Wales have yet to truly move on from the Gareth Bale era

It is almost 12 months to the day that Gareth Bale stood on the pitch at the Cardiff City stadium, wearing a khaki overcoat and chequered shirt, microphone in hand, his voice breaking as he bid farewell to football at the place he enjoyed it the most.

This was the curtain falling on Bale’s story with Wales, one that encompassed the greatest era in Welsh football. Bale’s starring role will be retold for generations. The former Tottenham and Real Madrid winger was the finest player to have worn the shirt, the leading light within a group that managed three successive qualifications for a major tournament — ending a long 58-year wait.

But as a bookend, particularly as his retirement was followed by those of Joe Allen, Chris Gunter and Jonny Williams too, it marked the start of a new chapter, where a new future would need to be forged. It brought unknowns. Would others be able to step into the yawning void to shoulder the responsibility? Could Wales continue to hit the heights that Bale once propelled them to?

Bale, of course, was the master of rising to the occasion, the man for the big moments, the catalyst to success. Transitioning from dependence on those flashes of inspiration was evidently going to take time and, if Tuesday’s gut-wrenching penalty shootout defeat by Poland (Rob Page’s side lost 5-4 on penalties after a 0-0 draw) pointed to anything at all, it indicated that evolution might prove to be painful too.

A year on from Bale’s public goodbye, the Wales he left behind are still fighting for places at major tournaments, powered by a unity on and off the field that has been forged through a decade of unprecedented success — but things are different now.

The comfort of knowing that there was a matchwinner in the ranks, capable of changing a game in an instant, is no more. Qualification is that bit harder.

Wales, Dan James

Dan James saw his penalty saved by Wojciech Szczesny as Wales were beaten (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Pertinently, Wales really needed a Bale moment during their Euro 2024 play-off defeat. For 120 minutes, they and Poland were bogged down in tension, neither willing to give an inch, to risk losing it all when everything was on the line. It was a game destined to be decided by a moment or a set play, or a mistake. Failing that, it needed penalties — for the first time in Welsh men’s football history.

Anxiety stalked the terraces. The Cardiff City cauldron, which had witnessed just one defeat in 15 competitive home games before Tuesday, became a cavern of uncertainty. The thunderous pre-match anthems, a lasting legacy of the Bale-inspired era that has brought Welsh fans and their team closer together, became harder to sustain as the match wore on, with nerves stunting the vocal sinews.

These were the moments where Bale usually made his presence felt. For play-off games, read Austria in March 2022, and then Ukraine in June 2022.

It may seem a simplistic narrative to look back to Bale, particularly when Poland had their own difference-maker in Robert Lewandowski on the field and he failed to inspire his side with a shot on target until the shootout. But if this was the moment where Wales were supposed to step out of the Bale shadow, then it was evident that they fell short. The glimmer of hope witnessed in their 4-1 demolition of Finland on Thursday, a victory lauded for its emphasis on the collective after an era defined by the individual, was felled by a lottery against Poland.

Wales can not yet strike out on their own. For their Euro 2024 hopes, this transition has not happened quickly enough.

“We have to build on what we have done in this campaign,” said Page, Wales’ head coach. “We were one penalty kick away from qualification. Expectations go up because of the success that we have had, qualifying for the Euros (in 2016 and 2020) and the World Cup (in 2022).

“We’re in a transition period, without some of the senior players that helped us achieve some of those Euros and World Cup qualifications. To be where we are right now is pleasing — one penalty kick away from qualification. We will continue to add youth and competition for places, and build on how we’re playing.”

Wales, Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale said goodbye to Wales fans in Cardiff on March 28, 2023 (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

The agony of this defeat, and the margins by which it came, will likely to take centre stage in the coming weeks but once the dust has settled, the key question will be whether Wales should have adapted better in the aftermath of Bale’s retirement.

There is evidently a good generation at centre of this team, of a similar age. There is Harry Wilson, 27, David Brooks, 26, Connor Roberts, 28, Chris Mepham, 26, and Dan James, 26. They are followed by Neco Williams and Brennan Johnson, both 22, Ethan Ampadu is 23. All of these players have multiple international caps and are now playing regularly at club level.

Yet, Wales finished third in a group that included Turkey, Armenia, Croatia and Latvia in qualifying and, ultimately, they passed up more opportunities than are normally available. Their play-off participation was not due to performances in recent months but a bonus of an expanded 24-team Championship, as well as their participation in League A of the 2022-23 Nations League, during which they were in fact relegated. 

The spotlight is likely to be placed on Page, who had previously shaken off questions over his future back in the autumn. Tactically, Wales were more functional against Poland than against Finland, going direct to Kieffer Moore in the absence of David Brooks, who could only manage a cameo against Tuesday’s opponents, which had to be caught short as he had not trained since the previous Thursday due to illness. Brooks was key to their fresh and dynamic feel against Finland. 


Poland celebrate qualifying for Euro 2024 (Geoff Caddick/AFP via Getty Images)

Page was, of course, the first coach to guide Wales to a World Cup since 1964 and expectations have changed, one of the other legacies of the Bale era after qualifications to three of the last four major tournaments.

But in a world without Bale, ensuring the collective is greater than the sum of its parts will be key to Welsh success going forward. For a country of around  three million people, they have to maximise what they have at their disposal. For Euro 2024, Wales did not manage that.

“This team is going somewhere,” said Page. They’re so disappointed that they haven’t qualified. They’re hungry for it. There’s a lot more to come and plenty more good times ahead. We will be bigger and stronger for going through this ­horrible experience.

“We are going somewhere. There is something good happening with this group. We’ve got a really good group and we’re going places.”

(Top photo: David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

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