Wednesday 28 June 2017

Bale blast ignites Dragons' fire on glorious return to big arena

Wales 2 Slovakia 1

Hal Robson-Kanu celebrates scoring the winning goal for Wales against Slovakia yesterday. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Hal Robson-Kanu celebrates scoring the winning goal for Wales against Slovakia yesterday. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Stuart James

Here he comes. There was a cheer of expectation from the other end of the Stade de Bordeaux, where the Dragons had their den, as Gareth Bale walked across from the left. Jonny Williams had been brought down, a free-kick given, and everyone knew this was his moment. He stood over the ball, 28 yards out. And then, with the clock showing 9.22pm, 21,179 days since the last time Wales had been anywhere like this, it began. Four big steps back, one to the side, a big breath and off Bale set.

Momentarily, Matus Kozacik stepped the wrong way and that moment was enough. The ball flew over the wall and into the net; Bale flew towards the touchline, team-mates in pursuit. They came together, the men from the pitch and the men from the bench, an image reproduced.

Wales' Gareth Bale celebrates scoring the opening goal. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.
Wales' Gareth Bale celebrates scoring the opening goal. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.

There is a photo, the photo, from that night in Nicosia nine months ago when Bale's 82nd-minute goal brought them to within touching distance of this tournament, their first in 58 years. In it, Bale and his team-mates run screaming towards the subs and the staff, soon becoming one. Chris Coleman's assistant coach, Osian Roberts, called that picture the embodiment of "Together Stronger".

Now here they were together again. Twenty men, and those are just the ones squeezed into the frame of the photo, around which there is no border, just more bodies. Roberts is not in it but Martyn Margetson is, the goalkeeper coach. In the middle stands Bale, eyes shut, mouth open, head turned to the sky. To his right, way out of the picture, 25,000 Wales supporters, all in red, are going wild. This shot will surely be even more iconic, this moment yet more meaningful.

Ten years ago, Bale scored his first goal for Wales, aged 17. He looks different now - he was skinny then - and he has come a long way.

So have Wales, and they may go further. They lost 5-1 that night; a decade on they won 2-1. A decade on Bale has been the Premier League's player of the year, the world's most expensive footballer, and twice a European Cup winner with Real Madrid.

Wales's Hal Robson Kanu challenges for the ball with Slovakia's Martin Skrtel. Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP Photo
Wales's Hal Robson Kanu challenges for the ball with Slovakia's Martin Skrtel. Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP Photo

And yet none of that moved him like this occasion. He had talked about Wales having "more pride and passion than England", and this was their first ever European Championship goal; it was the first time they had been at an international tournament since 1958, 21,179 nights ago. The last person to score against them was Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Pele was 17 that day.

Bale had insisted that Wales were not a one-man team, and the point had been made a few minutes earlier when Ben Davies brilliantly cleared off the line to prevent Marek Hamsik scoring a glorious goal. It would be made again when he watched from a distance as Aaron Ramsey found Hal Robson-Kanu for the winner. At the other end, Wales's defence resisted as they do.

Slovakia equalised and threatened to win. But then it happened; this really is no one man team. Ramsey, stumbling, managed to nudge the ball to Robson-Kanu, who scored.

A historic occasion had another historic goal. Welsh football's biggest night in 58 years ended in victory, the final whistle met with a colossal roar.

In the din, Bale leaned back and pumped his fists and they all embraced once more, together stronger. It had all started as loudly, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau belted out in beautiful voice. Land of My Fathers, their anthem runs, land of poets and singers and people of stature.

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