'Wales don't like us and we don't like them,' admits England's Jack Wilshere
Jack Wilshere was trying his best to be diplomatic, even laughing off the temptation to offer his true thoughts on Aaron Ramsey’s new platinum blonde hairstyle, but with an England versus Wales encounter looming on the horizon, the Arsenal midfielder finally let his guard slip.
“We know that Wales don’t like us,” Wilshere said. “Do we like them? Not really!
“We know it is going to be a tough game and there are going to be tackles. We know a lot of the players – most of them play in the Premier League and we have all played against them at some point, so most of us know them well. It is going to be like a derby.”
With events in Marseille placing England’s travelling supporters under intense scrutiny ahead of Thursday’s Group B match in Lens – Battle of Britain is perhaps not the most appropriate billing for the first meeting between the two countries at a major tournament – both the Football Association and Football Association of Wales will be acutely aware of the need to avoid incendiary comments from players in the build-up to the game.
Gareth Bale’s remarks last week, before England supporters clashed with Russian fans in Marseille, when the Real Madrid winger accused English players of lacking patriotism like the Welsh do and suggested that England can merely only talk a good game, would have done little to defuse any tensions.
But although Wilshere offered a more light-hearted view of the Welsh, it is clear that England’s players are determined to bounce back from the opening game draw with Russia by imposing themselves on Chris Coleman’s team.
“It is going to be a big game,” Wilshere said. “I have played against them before and we won, so they will be looking for some revenge. But it gives us a chance to show the nation we have got a lot of passion. We are here to win and we are here for business.
“If you put both teams down on paper, we would win the game, but it doesn’t work like that in football and everyone knows that. The Premier League is the perfect example of teams beating better teams, so we have got to prepare right and put the work in, get the recovery from Marseille right and get everyone back training, fit and ready to go on Thursday.”
And Bale’s comments – the suggestion that Wales players care more than those in the England camp?
“I’ve never questioned the passion of one of my team-mates,” Wilshere insisted. “I’ve never been on the pitch and thought, ‘this guy isn’t worried about this.’ We all care. We all know what it means to people back home.
“Especially now, because we are a young squad - it was only a few years ago when people like Dele [Alli] and Raheem [Sterling] were 14 or 15, watching these tournaments, so we all know what it means, and we will be ready when Thursday comes.”
The threat posed by Bale is clear, with the former Tottenham player thriving as Wales’ talisman. But having seen Wayne Rooney intensify competition for places in England’s midfield having been deployed in a deeper role by Roy Hodgson, Wilshere insists that the Manchester United and England captain is capable of delivering the match-winning contribution that Bale has provided for Wales.
“As a midfielder, it hurts me to say, but Wayne plays the position unbelievably,” Wilshere said. “I've said it before: I think he's our best player. I'm open about that.
“I've played with him for years. He can still play up front in my opinion. Against Russia, he was probably our best player. Everything went through him. He's got that range of passing, he understands the game. I love watching him and I love playing with him as well. He understand the game so well. His appreciation of the strikers – he reads their runs when not many people could see the pass. To get that pass right, with the right weight, takes a special player.
“In training, every now and then, when he picks up the ball deep and sprays a long pass and he never gets one wrong. He's always perfect. That's when you can tell he has something special. I would put him right up there. People say he is not as quick as he used to be, but his understanding of the game is incredible.
“Can he still be a match-winner from midfield? I think so. If you think about it, he nearly won it for us on Saturday. He did not catch that chance [that the Russian goalkeeper turned on to the bar] right, but if he arrives late, he is a great finisher and he can put it in from those areas.”
If Wales must shackle Rooney to stop England in Lens, then Hodgson’s team must devise a way to nullify Bale. And Wilshere accepts that the 26-year-old has now become one of world football’s elite players having climbed to a new level since leaving Spurs for Real in 2013.
“I think so,” he said. “Lionel Messi is on a different planet to anyone, but I think Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are up there with the best in the world. He has developed, but even at Tottenham he was world class. He has gone on from there and become a fantastic player. He’s going to be their biggest threat and we have got to stop him getting the ball.
“He is an amazing athlete. He has a great physique and he is powerful when he runs. He can run all day. And then he has just worked in training and worked in the gym.
“To stop him, we need to do what we did the other night. When we lost the ball we have to stop them counter-attacking and have to win the ball back against straight away. We have done that over the last couple of years – we have got better and better at that so we just need to continue doing that.”
If England can successfully contain Bale, they can look forward to claiming the positive result which will breathe new life into their qualification hopes. And from Wilshere’s perspective, enable him to tell Arsenal team-mate Ramsey what he really thinks about his new look.
“I am not even going to comment because I haven’t seen it in real life,” Wilshere said. “I saw him wearing it at dinner and to be fair it suits him. But I will let him know what I think about it when I see him."