Eleven years ago Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Wayne Hennessey walked off the pitch at Cardiff City Stadium after a 2-1 friendly defeat by Australia in front of a crowd of 6,373, some of whom resorted to sarcastic cheers. On the face of it, it was hardly the worst result but it was a seventh defeat in eight and, more pertinently, it plunged the team to a record low of 117th in the Fifa rankings, sandwiched between Haiti and Grenada. If it was an unedifying sight for supporters to see Wales slip below Guatemala, the Faroe Islands and Mozambique, it should make qualifying for a first World Cup for 64 years all the more satisfying, if not surreal.
Bale captained Wales to what he called the country’s greatest result against Ukraine, Ramsey went the distance in midfield and the 35-year-old Hennessey, who made two Premier League starts for relegated Burnley in the 2021-22 season, made nine saves – with arguably the best saved for last to deny Artem Dovbyk – in trying conditions. It was fitting that Bale and Hennessey, who have been inseparable since playing together for Wales’ under-21s and will continue their journey on the biggest stage in November, shared the moment, which Robert Page dedicated to the late Gary Speed, who was nine months in the job in August 2011.
Those senior Wales players, as well as Joe Allen and Chris Gunter, the first Welshman to win a century of caps, have, to use Bale’s words, found the final piece of the jigsaw. Page said Wales were reaping the rewards of the professionalism and identity instilled by Speed, who had targeted reaching the 2014 World Cup after taking over from John Toshack. “Gary’s words and his plan was all based around getting to a World Cup,” says the former Wales midfielder Owain Tudur Jones, an unused substitute that day against Australia.
“He had so many goals he wanted to achieve, short term and long term. It has taken a little bit longer than planned but it is almost as if that waiting has made it feel so much better. It is a beautiful thing that there are still players involved in the squad that would have been in those meetings with Tosh originally and certainly with Gary. Those players have been carrying him in their hearts since he passed away.”
It was no surprise that Hennessey and Bale, golf partners for four-balls, roommates and chief pranksters, pitched up together long after the final whistle to put into words the scale of their achievement, with Bale particularly effusive in his praise for Hennessey, describing his display as the “best I’ve ever seen by a goalkeeper”.
“It’s been a crazy journey from where we were to qualify for two European Championships and a World Cup,” Bale says. “It’s literally what dreams are made of, especially for all of us who have been there from the start. We’ve paved the way for the youngsters as well, we’ve welcomed them in and it’s hard to describe what it means to us. We always fight for each other.”
Page believes football has overtaken rugby as the national sport. “When I was growing up in Tylorstown, playing rugby was the thing to do, not football, but I think the tides have turned now and I think football has become our No 1 sport,” says Page, who, like Jimmy Murphy, who led Wales to the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup, grew up in the Rhondda Valley.
“We’ll always be known for rugby, of course, but this is massive, this is monumental what we have done in qualifying for a World Cup. People like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, those senior players, will go down in history.”
Wales put their compassion for Ukraine to one side for almost 98 minutes to reach a second successive major tournament. They are 19 games unbeaten in Cardiff and since their last home defeat, by Denmark in November 2018, when Paul Dummett was at left-back and Tom Lawrence on the left wing, they have conceded seven goals and kept 12 clean sheets on home turf. Their spirit seems unbreakable.
“This togetherness Wales have now was what we were always envious of,” says Tudur Jones. “We would go to places like Montenegro, a new nation and a good team but you would look at them and think: ‘How are these better than us? On paper, we’ve got better players.’ I think that was the goal back in the day, to get that mentality we now see. It doesn’t matter what level they’re playing or if they’re playing regularly; collectively we are better than people expect us to be. It has taken a little while but this is what Tosh wanted, it’s what Gary saw and thought was possible and now we’re seeing they were spot on.”
Neville Southall, Hennessey’s goalkeeping hero growing up in Anglesey, has predicted a baby boom as a result of qualification. The giant hoardings on the exterior of the Cardiff City Stadium advertise the “timeless charm” of Vietnam and the sandy beaches of Malaysia, the country of the Championship club’s owner, Vincent Tan, but there is only one destination on the lips of those with Welsh blood. Most of the Wales squad partied into the early hours of Monday at the Elevens bar in the city centre, which is owned by Bale, who is teetotal. They sang along to Shakira’s Waka Waka, the official World Cup song in 2010, reworking the chorus to: “We’re going to Qatar.”