History was made in 2022 as Cymru ended a 64-year wait to qualify for the World Cup Finals and captain Gareth Bale became the record appearance holder for the Cymru men’s team.
However, the World Cup dream would end at the group stage in Qatar with a draw and two defeats, while relegation from the UEFA Nations League was another negative from what should have been a year to remember. But there were positives for the future too, with Brennan Johnson and Rubin Colwill both scoring their first international goals. Here’s a look back at the last year.
UEFA Nations League
A congested international calendar meant that Cymru would play four UEFA Nations League games in June and the final two games in September. With the June fixtures combined with the World Cup Play-Off Final against Ukraine, Rob Page had to give preference to reaching Qatar and his side would eventually suffer relegation from League A as a result. Although Cymru would not win a single game, there were encouraging individual performances as Page rotated his starting line-up to cope with the demands of an intense summer of football.
The opening match of the UEFA Nations League took place in Poland and it was the home side that claimed a 2-1 victory despite a spirited performance from an experimental Cymru side just days before the match against Ukraine. Rhys Norrington-Davies thought he had earned his side a point against the Netherlands at the Cardiff City Stadium a week later with his injury-time equaliser, but the visitors still had time to find a winner as Wout Weghorst ended Cymru’s undefeated run of home games.
Belgium were the next team to visit the Cardiff City Stadium a few days later and it was Brennan Johnson who was the hero for Cymru has he came off the bench to score his first international goal in an encouraging 1-1 draw. Johnson was again on target along with captain Gareth Bale in the Netherlands a few days later but another injury-time winner, this time from Memphis Depay, ensured that the home side would take maximum points despite a resilient display from Page’s side to round off a hectic fortnight of football.
The final two games in the competition took place in September and it was an impressive individual performance from Kevin De Bruyne played a key role in Belgium claiming a 2-1 victory with Kieffer Moore scoring the consolation goal. A 1-0 defeat to Poland in Cardiff the following week would confirm relegation. “We all hate losing games of football,” said Page after the match. “We don’t like the fact that we’ve been relegated from the top division. Our players are not playing week in, week out and we’ve had a lot of injuries. To compete at this level, in this league, we need all our players fit and playing at their best, and we haven’t had that.”
World Cup Play-Offs
The year began for Cymru in March with a special night in Cardiff as two superb goals from Gareth Bale proved to be the difference in the 2-1 win over Austria in the World Cup Play-Off Semi-Final. “It means everything,” said Aaron Ramsey to Sky Sports after the match. “We are game away from a World Cup. We have come a long way since the early days and this would be the icing on the cake, to qualify. We know there is still a bit of work to be done but we can enjoy tonight.” An incredible atmosphere helped Cymru over the line to setup a deciding match against Scotland or Ukraine in the capital in June.
Rubin Colwill would score his first international goal a few days later as Cymru played out a 1-1 draw with the Czech Republic in Cardiff in a match that saw Wayne Hennessey make his 100th appearance for his country. “The important game for us is done,” said Page before the friendly. “Thankfully we got the positive result. This gives me an opportunity to see some of the fringe players. It gives us an opportunity to use it as an exercise to give them minutes, have a look at them at this level and expose them to international football ahead of a big month in June.”
A 3-1 win for Ukraine over Scotland in June meant that they would head to Cardiff for an emotionally-charged World Cup Play-Off Final. Bale was again the hero as Cymru made history and ended a 64-year wait to qualify for the World Cup with a 1-0 victory on another incredible night. “It’s so nice for everybody involved,” said Page. “We’re very, very proud. The lads work hard on camp and it’s really intense. There are high demands on them and the staff and this is a long camp. We have to enjoy moments like that.”
For the first time since 1958, Cymru would compete on the world stage in November having been drawn alongside England, Iran and the United States in Group B. All three group games for Page’s side would take place at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium as the Red Wall made their way to Qatar to witness history in the making. A late penalty from Bale would earn the side a point in the opening match against the United States after a difficult opening half, and Page would make changes for the second match against Iran as Kieffer Moore came into the starting line-up.
Bale became the most-capped Welshman in Cymru history as he made his 110th appearance. However, a red card for Hennessey and two goals from Iran deep into injury-time resulted in a frustrating 2-0 defeat for Page’s side, and the tournament would come to a disappointing end with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat to England in the final group match. “We will learn from things that have happened,” said Page after the loss. “But overall we’re proud of getting to the World Cup. To get here was a massive achievement but we’re disappointed because we haven’t really shown our true colours. That’s the most frustrating thing for me.”
Having signed a new four-year contract prior to the World Cup, Page will now look to the future with the EURO 2024 qualifiers kicking-off in March 2023. Cymru have been drawn against Croatia, Armenia, Turkey and Latvia in Group D and will be confident of reaching a third consecutive EURO finals despite their World Cup disappointment. “There is no bigger honour than coaching your National Team and I can’t wait for the challenge the next four years will bring,” said Page. “This is an exciting time for Welsh football and I hope we can continue our success by qualifying for more major tournaments in the future.”