Wales finally reaping their just reward

Patient hard work by the Welsh FA and the top clubs is finally bearing fruit

Gareth Bale celebrates after scoring the opening goal against Belgium in the European Championship Group B clash in Cardiff. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty

Gareth Bale celebrates after scoring the opening goal against Belgium in the European Championship Group B clash in Cardiff. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty

 

In another sign of the remarkable recent rise of Welsh football, Premier League outfit Swansea City are to establish coaching centres in Dublin, Belfast and Cork in a bid to improve their recruitment of young players in Ireland, an area they believe is being increasingly overlooked by the big British clubs.

“We see Ireland as an area that has a lot of potential for us,” says Martin Evans, head of recruitment at City’s youth academy. The big clubs are increasingly looking to Africa and other far off places and tending to neglect Ireland a bit. We feel there’s potential for us to work there, there’s talent and it’s a good fit, there’s that Celtic connection. We’ve brought a few lads over from Ireland recently and they’re happy to come to us.”

Where they go is the club’s €8 million Landore academy where the aim to produce more young prospects like Ben Davies and Joe Allen, players who brought in around €30m between them when they went to Tottenham and Liverpool respectively.

Swansea, whose last accounts show a turnover of around €130 million, are keen to unearth new talent wherever they can but the emphasis, says Evans, is on producing local players with most of the club’s existing 15 development centres located in South Wales.

“That’s the philosophy,” he says. “Only a couple of the regulars in the senior squad are Welsh but that’s why the club is spending all the money, we want to produce our own lads and retain a local flavour to the team.”

Inevitably there is a real benefit to the national side which also includes a significant number of graduates from the academy of Swansea’s great rivals, Cardiff City. Players like Aaron Ramsey, Chris Gunter and Joe Ledley came through the ranks at City who some time back unveiled plans to develop a facility of their own on a 40 -acre site at the Vale of Glamorgan.

National team

“The players are coming through together and that’s a good thing. We used to lose a few to the big English clubs but that’s rare now really. Here at Swansea we have Category One status now which means that the teams will be playing against the very best sides, the Arsenals and Chelseas, all the way up from the age of nine.

“We have a great facility and well-qualified coaches so why would anyone go to England really when they can get the football education they need here at home.”

It is, of course, a stark contrast with Ireland where the FAI continues to wrestle with the competition and conflict that exists between underage clubs after which it can only hope for the best in many cases as the brightest prospects head to England.

The Welsh FA’s turnover is roughly a third of the Irish association but it is under nothing like the financial pressure.

“We are not an organisation that needs to generate a profit,” said CEO Jonathan Forde when announcing a loss of around €50,000 on a turnover of €12.1 million last year.

Still, with the support of various funding bodies it opened a €6.5 training centre in Newport a couple of years back (the Irish team trained there on their last visit) which is used as a base for the Under-21s and various other sides and there is a programme too to install 4G artificial pitches at every Welsh Premier League club.

It is the senior side, though, that made the headlines this week after Chris Coleman’s side made it to number 10 in the Fifa world rankings and claimed a top seeding for the next World Cup qualifiers having been seeded sixth along with the likes of Andorra, San Marino and Liechtenstein when the draw for the 2014 preliminary stages was made back in 2011.

Back then, their low point was a world ranking of 117 but there were still those who believed that they had something special in the making.

John Toshack had told The Irish Times almost a decade ago he envied the array of talent available to Steve Staunton but “we have to pick ourselves up and work hard at bringing through some of the younger lads”.

He did just that while taking a fair bit of stick from sceptics amongst the press and supporters over his repeated declarations that Wales simply had no option but to forget about results in the short term so as to build something bigger and better for the future.

“His manner didn’t always help matters,” says Chris Wathan, Football Correspondent at the Western Mail and WalesOnline. “He was bloody minded at times and comfortable enough in his own skin that he didn’t care what others thought of him. He set about lowering expectations but when the fans didn’t appreciate being told when the team was going to Liechtenstein that it might be difficult and they didn’t like the fact the team didn’t win many games under him.

Every minute

Brian FlynnGareth Bale

“Okay, Bale is exceptional,” he says, “but there was only something like two of the players that played against Israel (or the recent win against Belgium) who didn’t get their first cap from Toshack. What you have now is a group of players who are still only approaching their peak but have played together for a long time, are friends and enjoy being part of the same team.”

Coleman acknowledged as much this week when he talked about the enthusiasm with which the players show up for every training camp and game.

Evans, as it happens, was manager of the group at U-15 and U-16 levels and he also feels Toshack is belatedly getting some of the credit due to him.

But Wathan suggests the former Liverpool striker’s successors have each contributed something to the table with Gary Speed adding the professionalism of a modern-day Premier league club and Coleman a certain defensive ruggedness.

The association has played its part too. When times were bad, they moved friendly games from the huge Millennium Stadium to Cardiff City’s much smaller home but when the players said that they preferred the 33,000 capacity ground, not least because of the better playing surface, they stuck with it for the qualifiers. Huge work has been done too on ensuring that relations with clubs are good and the players, says Wathan, have responded to it all.

“There was always a sense that this, this generation of players, was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed and there were times when some people had doubts about whether Coleman was going to be able to deliver on the team’s potential.

“But at the end of the last campaign they players made it clear they believed in him and the results this time around have been outstanding. Bale’s a huge part of that, of course, but it’s not about him the way Portugal is about Ronaldo. It’s still very much a team effort. But it’s a boom time for Welsh football, that’s for sure.”

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