Tuesday 20 February 2018

The superstar and the unlikely lads - how Wales made history

Gareth Bale and James Collins share a joke during Wales training ahead of their game against Portugal Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Gareth Bale and James Collins share a joke during Wales training ahead of their game against Portugal Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Wales had already achieved something when they arrived in France. Their qualification for Euro 2016 ended a wait for a major tournament appearance that dated back to 1958.

They now stand 90 minutes away from the final, a step which would propel their story to another level.

Chris Coleman will attempt to do so with a side comprising players from different rungs of the football ladder with Gareth Bale the poster boy. Suspensions that rule Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies out of tomorrow's semi-final with Portugal deprive Coleman of two established Premier League performers.

Here are the unlikely lads aiming to make history:

Wayne Hennessey

Age: 29

Born: Bangor, Wales

Current club: Crystal Palace

Previous clubs: Man City, Wolves, Bristol City (loan), Stockport (loan), Yeovil (loan)

Crystal Palace paid Wolves £3m for his services in January 2014 but he only became a regular in their side last season. He was a trainee at Manchester City but failed to make the grade there. Suffered two serious knee injuries at Wolves that could have knocked his career badly off course.

Chris Gunter

Age: 26

Born: Newport, Wales

Current club: Reading

Previous clubs: Cardiff, Spurs, Nottingham Forest

He joined Spurs from Cardiff in 2008 in the same window that Aaron Ramsey joined Arsenal but his career in London failed to kick off. Dropped down to Nottingham Forest and did play a season in the top flight with Reading but he is an established Championship player. He will be missing his brother's wedding in Mexico and so will his parents after Wales' surprise progression to the semis.

Ashley Williams

Age: 31

Born: Wolverhampton, England

Current club: Swansea

Previous clubs: Hednesford Town, Stockport

Williams was a part-time pro in his teens in tandem with a job working in a fairground. He came on Wales' radar when a member of staff came to watch Hennessey play on loan for Stockport. The England-supporting centre-half revealed he had a Welsh grandparent. He duly moved to Swansea and has grown into a top-level defender and inspirational captain of his adopted country.

James Chester

Age: 27

Born: Warrington, England

Current club: West Brom

Previous clubs: Manchester United, Peterborough (loan), Plymouth (loan), Carlisle (loan), Hull

The former United trainee is a good pal of Irish star Robbie Brady and has followed a similar path as he grew in stature by taking the decision to leave Old Trafford. He went to Hull in 2011 and developed a solid reputation; West Brom came calling with £8m when the Tigers suffered relegation. He only chose to declare for Wales two years ago.

James Collins

Age: 32

Born: Newport, Wales

Current club: West Ham

Previous clubs: Cardiff, West Ham, A Villa

It would be quite a story if he gets the nod to deputise for Davies. Collins and Coleman fell out badly three years ago when the manager claiming that the strapping defender had refused a call-up. They met for clear-the-air talks in a Cardiff shopping centre because Coleman felt a private meeting would end in fisticuffs. After turning his second stint at West Ham around, Collins could have a part to play.

Neil Taylor

Age: 27

Born: St Asaph, Wales

Current club: Swansea

Previous clubs: Man City, Wrexham

The Swansea story is intertwined with Wales' rise. Taylor has been a fixture in both sides after joining the Swans in 2010 when they had moved up the ladder to Championship level. Taylor has an Indian mother and was the only British-Asian to feature in the Premier League in 2015/16. He has travelled to India for charity work and to explore why the country does not produce many top footballers.

Joe Allen

Age: 26

Born: Carmarthen, Wales

Current club: Liverpool

Previous clubs: Swansea, Wrexham (loan)

Still coping with the 'Welsh Xavi' label applied to him by Brendan Rodgers, but he was excellent in the quarter final win over Belgium. Allen is a fluent speaker of his native language and was another driving force in Swansea's rise up the divisions. Could be on his way out of Liverpool this summer with reports that the Reds are seeking £14m for him.

Joe Ledley

Age: 29

Born: Cardiff, Wales

Current club: Crystal Palace

Previous clubs: Cardiff, Celtic

He's turned into a bit of cult hero during the tournament by showing off his dance moves in the dressing-room after every victory. The social media videos have caught the attention of the French press. Ledley is not really a showman on the pitch but the industrious midfielder is important to Coleman. It's a bonus he is here after making a swift recovery from a leg fracture.

Jonny Williams

Age: 22

Born: Pembury, England

Current club: Crystal Palace

Previous clubs: Ipswich (loan), Nottingham Forest (loan), MK Dons (loan)

The leading contender to replace Ramsey was nicknamed 'Joniesta' by his mates in the Palace academy because of skills that reminded them of the Barcelona legend. Mick McCarthy is a fan and has brought him to Ipswich for three loan spells. However, Williams made just one outing for Palace this season and finished it with an MK Dons side that was relegated from the Championship.

Gareth Bale

Age: 26

Born: Cardiff, Wales

Current Club: Real Madrid

Previous Clubs: Southampton, Spurs

The outstanding British player of his generation? Bale is certainly presenting a strong case and the qualities he has shown on international duty have seriously enhanced his reputation. He's at home in the Welsh dressing-room, when others in his position might have behaved like a diva. One suspects that leading his country to glory would outrank his two Champions League medals.

Hal Robson-Kanu

Age: 27

Born: Acton, England

Current Club: Unattached

Previous Clubs: Reading, Southend (loan), Swindon (loan)

Released by Reading at the end of the season along with out-of-favour Ireland striker Simon Cox. He scored five goals in his last campaign and didn't get off the mark in the league until February. But his style suits this Welsh team and the one-time English underage international is now a Welsh hero. He even sings the anthem and won't have to sing for his supper with a number of clubs now vying for his services.

The alternatives

Leicester's longest-serving midfielder Andy King is an option. He has already functioned as a squad player in a significant fairytale story.

Fulham right-back Jazz Williams - who kicked off his career with hometown club Swansea - is another option in defence if Coleman wanted to go without Collins and switch Chris Gunter into a central role.

Injury-plagued Burnley attacker Sam Vokes came off the bench to score against Belgium. Another English-born option is David Edwards, a fixture in the Championship with Wolves who deputised for Ledley initially.

Irish Independent

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