It has been a challenging year for Cymru with 2023 seeing a string of high-profile retirements, but positive performances against Croatia and Türkiye in Cardiff and home draws for the EURO play-offs mean that Rob Page and his squad can head into 2024 with plenty of belief.
Gareth Bale is no stranger to making headlines and in January he surprised the football world by announcing his retirement from the professional game. “My journey on the international stage is one that has changed not only my life but who I am,” said the Cymru captain. “The fortune of being Welsh and being selected to play for and captain Wales, has given me something incomparable to anything else I’ve experienced.”
Joe Allen, Chris Gunter and Jonny Williams would also follow Bale in bringing their international careers to a close ahead of the start of EURO 2024 qualifying, while Aaron Ramsey was appointed as the new captain of the side as Page marked the start of a new era by drawing a line under the past. “We’ve reset and reframed,” explained Page in March “We’ve brought in new additions to the backroom staff as well and they will add a lot of value. I knew we would have this evolution. In the past I’ve inherited teams and philosophies, but this is a fresh start.”
Gunter was one of those added to the new-look senior coaching staff together with Eric Ramsey replacing Kit Symons and Nick Davies joining as Head of Performance, although Ramsey would step down for personal reasons later in the year and be replaced by Jack Lester as assistant coach. “The changes give us an opportunity to build on our success by drip feeding new players into the squad at the right times,” said Page. “Hopefully in the next twelve months we’ll then have the next batch of players to represent Wales at the top level.”
The new campaign began in dramatic fashion as Cymru claimed a valuable point against Croatia in Split. A goal from Andrej Kramarić looked as if it would be enough to claim maximum points for the home side, but Nathan Broadhead came off the bench for his senior debut and scored the equaliser deep into injury-time. The manner of the goal was significant in relation to Page marking the start of a new era for his side, and the momentum continued in Cardiff a few days later. Kieffer Moore scored the only goal of the game against Latvia in a match that also saw Oli Cooper come off the bench for his senior international debut.
Despite the positive start to the campaign, it would prove to be a difficult summer for Page and his squad as Armenia came to Cardiff in June and claimed a shock 4-2 victory with Moore being shown a red card. Daniel James and Harry Wilson scored the Cymru goals on a frustrating night in the capital, and there was little to take from the reaction in Samsun three days later as Page’s side suffered a 2-0 defeat to Türkiye. Danny Ward saved a penalty but Joe Morrell was sent off, leaving Cymru with it all to do to salvage the campaign.
“Now we’re going through a transitional period,” said captain Ramsey ahead of the September international challenge match against Korea Republic. “We’ve lost some big players, and it was always going to be difficult. We’ve lost some staff as well and that has been a bit of a change. We’ve been in this position before and we all know there’s a good group. There’s a lot of potential in this team, a lot of players playing at the highest level and exciting young talented players as well.”
A 0-0 draw against the Korea Republic in Cardiff was followed by a must-win match against Latvia in Riga, and Cymru produced as a penalty from Ramsey and an injury-time goal from substitute David Brooks on his return to action earned three crucial points in a 2-0 victory. “It’s been a long three years to get to the point where I can put the Wales shirt back on properly and to top it off with a goal is real nice,” said Brooks to Sgorio after the match.
A very different looking Cymru captained by Ben Davies took to the field in Wrexham for an international challenge match against Gibraltar in October. Davies opened the scoring and further goals from Broadhead and a double from Moore completed the 4-0 win, but it was the performances of some of the debutants including Charlie Savage, Joe Low, Liam Cullen and Regan Poole that made headlines and offered an optimistic glance into the future of the Cymru national team.
But while some teenagers offer hope for the future, Jordan James is one who is very much for the present day. Making his debut as an 18-year old substitute against Croatia on the opening match of the campaign, the Birmingham City midfielder has now established himself in the starting line-up with a string of commanding performances that show a maturity beyond his years. His progression has been one of the highlights of 2023 and a lot more is expected from him next year with Page continuing to heap praise on his consistency and presence in such a key area of the field.
Meanwhile, Connor Roberts and Harry Wilson made their own appearance milestones in 2023 as they both reached the 50 cap mark, with Wilson’s being particularly memorable. Taking to the field 10 years to the day since his record-breaking senior international debut, Wilson made his 50th Cymru appearance and scored both goals in the resounding 2-1 win over Croatia in Cardiff in October. It was an emotional night as Page and his players put negative headlines to one side and gave themselves the head-to-head advantage over Croatia.
“We’re after two wins and we’ve proven that we can compete against the top sides in Europe,” said Page ahead of the final two group games. “As long as we keep those standards, irrespective of who we’re up against, the results will take care of themselves.” Although two victories from the final two games would have guaranteed Cymru a place at EURO 2024, a frustrating 1-1 draw against Armenia in Yerevan would take matters out of their own hands as Türkiye arrived in Cardiff for the final match.
Neco Williams opened the scoring with a well-taken finish but the visitors, who had already qualified for the finals in Germany, replied through Yusuf Yazıcı to share the points in another 1-1 draw. Elsewhere, Croatia’s 1-0 win over Armenia confirmed their place at EURO with Cymru left to compete in the play-offs. Despite the disappointment of missing out on an automatic qualification place, Cymru were handed a home tie against Finland in March next year, and should they progress, a home decider against Poland or Estonia for that coveted spot.
“We’re pleased with it overall,” said Page following the play-off draw. “I think it’s really important for us to get the home draw for the final, so we’re potentially two wins at home away from another major tournament which is a great achievement. We’ve got that momentum, we’re six games unbeaten. There’s a young group in there now that have qualified for major tournaments. They’ve got that hunger to do it and they will be ready for it in March.”
Should Cymru make it through to Germany, a formidable challenge in the form of the Netherlands, Austria and France awaits in Group D following the draw that was made in Hamburg earlier this month. Qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup was achieved by Page and his squad through play-off success and his players have the big game experience to take on this next challenge, but the support of the Red Wall in Cardiff will again be crucial when the competitive action returns. Together we are Stronger.