Saturday 16 December 2017

No hint of identity crisis for new Welsh hero Woodburn

Wales’ hero Ben Woodburn celebrates after their victory over Austria. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley
Wales’ hero Ben Woodburn celebrates after their victory over Austria. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley

Chris Bascombe

When Ben Woodburn reignited Wales' World Cup hopes on Saturday night, he did so with a debut strike that will have left England lamenting his brilliance as much as Austria.

Woodburn, who scored the only goal in the Group D World Cup qualifier at the City of Cardiff Stadium, is one of several starlets who could have pledged loyalty to the Three Lions instead of the Welsh dragon.

So worried were the English FA about the growing number of English-born youngsters with an ambivalent attitude to the flag of St George, it prompted a change in youth policy.

Three years ago England introduced an U-15 side in an effort to ensure that promising teenagers eligible for dual nationality such as Woodburn did not escape their grasp. However, they still do not host similar get-togethers for younger age groups.

Wales, in contrast, have been inviting U-14s to attend international camps and regional development squads for the last eight years.

This was crucial in eradicating ambiguity where Woodburn was concerned.

The Liverpool prospect was born in England, schooled in England and developed at an English Academy, but he has always considered himself Welsh, his sense of national identity passed from his Swansea-born grandfather.

Opportunity

Those close to the 17-year-old insist he would never have played for England no matter what age the opportunity came.

Wales called Woodburn into their northern regional squad when he was 12, their structure revolutionised under the visionary work of Osian Roberts, their assistant manager and technical director, and Ian Rush, the elite performance director of the Welsh FA Trust.

At the Dragon Park National Development centre in Newport, which opened four years ago, youngsters have Welsh patriotism nurtured as much as football skills. Youngsters must learn and sing their national anthem at each get-together, while legends of Welsh football attend coaching sessions to offer a glimpse of the pathway ahead.

Woodburn's idol is Aaron Ramsey, one of the first and most successful to come through the system.

By the time England made enquiries to see if Woodburn would switch at U-16 level, the teenager's response was one of bewilderment as much as refusal, even though he was brought up in Chester and his accent has an unmistakable hint of Liverpudlian.

Woodburn is not the only one England have looked at. Tyler Roberts of West Bromwich Albion (born in Gloucester) and Chelsea's Ethan Ampadu (born in Exeter) are also eligible for both countries, but the togetherness within the Welsh set-up has helped resist advances.

Ampadu, son of Dublin-born former Arsenal player Kwame Ampadu, who is now coaching the Gunners' U-18s, is also eligible for Ireland.

Coleman correctly highlighted how Woodburn's winner against Austria was the first senior return on years of youth investment. He never doubted the teenager would remain in a Welsh jersey.

"We've had to do no more extra work with Ben's family," assured Coleman. "He's always declared himself Welsh to play for Wales. He's always been with our younger teams through the age groups. We've seen him coming through.

"I never thought it was going to go any other way. We're in a privileged position because we've spoken to his family.

"Osian Roberts has done a lot of communication, not with just Ben but a lot of our youngsters. As I have myself, but that's our jobs."

Woodburn proved he was ready to debut, his winner on 74 minutes bruising the net and probably changing his life - certainly in terms of his profile in his homeland, where his name echoed around Cardiff's bars into the early hours.

"He came to Portugal with us before we played Serbia and he was outstanding - as were young Harry (Wilson) and Ethan Ampadu. These boys are good," said Coleman.

"If I thought he was going to be out of his depth I wouldn't put him through that. It wouldn't be fair on him. I felt he had something to offer because I've seen a lot of him. Thankfully for us it worked out."

Woodburn was granted a standing ovation on his return to the Welsh dressing-room. It was not just the goal that impressed but his composure during a frantic, nervous finale. He would have claimed an assist had Hal Robson-Kanu taken advantage of a sumptuous pass.

"It was a dream come true," said the youngster, who revealed his initiation into the Wales squad involved singing the Ben E King classic Stand By Me.

Woodburn, who has made nine appearances for Liverpool since making his debut last November, added: "The manager and the players have been great with me. They have treated me just like one of them and it has been easy to bond with everybody.

"Obviously it is nerve-racking coming in to any squad, but the players really welcomed me and helped me to feel at home."

As for his goal, he said: "The ball came out of the air and I took it down and tried to get it out my feet as quick as I could, and then luckily when I hit it, it went in.

"Hopefully this is just the start and to qualify for the World Cup would be another dream."

Coleman must now consider whether to start Woodburn in that jersey against Moldova tomorrow, with the Welsh now in a position where three more victories will guarantee them a minimum of second spot. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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