2016 — The Year of the Dragon

Looking back at the greatest year in Welsh football since 1958

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Credit: Sky Sports

2016. What a year it has been — arguably the most important in Welsh football history.

After an emphatic 2015, in which the whole of Wales was elevated by the national side’s success in our European Championships Qualifying campaign, the year didn’t start with the bang everyone had hoped.

March saw two international friendlies; against Northern Ireland and the Ukraine. Against our fellow Brits, we looked a fraction of the side who had stormed Group B of the qualifying rounds. We were hit by injury, with both Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey missing from the starting line-up, but everyone was disappointed with a 1–1 draw. Simon Church rescued the game for us with a late penalty, slotting past Michael McGovern in the 89th minute after being fouled by Gareth McAuley.

Four days later we were back in action, this time against the Ukraine. It was another audition for some players to make the Euro 2016 squad, although the likes of Tom Lawrence, Simon Church and Emyr Huws failed to impress in Kiev. Joe Allen, the only star man to appear in Kiev, couldn’t carry Wales to a win despite a man of the match performance, with Andriy Yarmolenko grabbing the only goal of the game.

After a 3-month break, we headed into June with the European Championships looming. Failure to win a game in 2016 so far meant that the friendly against Sweden, our only before the tournament started, was incredibly important in preparation for our first major tournament since 1958. To say things didn’t go to plan would be an understatement; Wales were humiliated by their Scandinavian opponents. Gareth Bale was on the bench, but even his introduction couldn’t salvage anything for Chris Coleman’s men. We kept Zlatan Ibrahimovic quiet, but couldn’t prevent his team-mates from scoring three past Wayne Hennessey.

Despite a struggling start to 2016, as a nation we were all excited for Euro 2016 to start. This was our first major tournament for almost 60 years and we weren’t going to let a couple of bad results spoil it.

With the old enemy England and troublemakers Russia looming, we started our Group B journey with a tie against Slovakia in Bordeaux. Gareth Bale (who else?) got us off to a flier, with a dipping free-kick, before Ondrej Duda made the most of some suspect Welsh defending. Then-Reading forward Hal Robson-Kanu made himself an instant hero, grabbing a winner with 9 minutes remaining and sending the Welsh fans into frenzy. It was a dream start to life in France, especially as England drew their opening match against Russia!

Up next was England, the old enemy and the one match every Welshman wanted to win. Gareth Bale broke the deadlock once more with a free-kick in the first-half, but our attempts to absorb England’s heavy pressure failed when Jamie Vardy grabbed an equaliser on 56 minutes. The remainder of the match was tense; with Chris Coleman struggling to get his side out of their own half. Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge got England’s winner with a deft toe-pock past Hennessey’s near post.

With frustration and disappointment prominent amongst the Welsh, it was important to do the job at hand in the final group match against Russia; with a place in the last 16 still up for grabs. A devastating opening 20 minutes saw a prolific Welsh side; Aaron Ramsey (11’) and Neil Taylor (20’) both getting a goal each. Wales were incredible; producing one of the greatest displays of the decade for a Welsh side. Gareth Bale added a third on 67 minutes, but the 3–0 score line flattered Russia.

The round of 16 drew Wales against Northern Ireland; the side who had frustrated Wales in a friendly earlier on in the year, with the match ending 1–1. Wales were the favourites, no doubt about it, and Michael O’Neill’s side’s play demonstrated that. The Northern Irish were negative and solely looked to stifle the Welsh attack; offering little up top themselves. The Red Dragons broke the deadlock on 75 minutes though, with a bit of quality from Gareth Bale forcing an own-goal from Gareth McAuley.

So it was Belgium in the Quarter Finals, a side many feared but Wales did not. We knew that we could beat them, having done so in the Qualifying group. When Radja Nainggolan put the Belgians ahead after just 13 minutes, the confidence faded. The players though, kept faith and soldiered on. Ashley Williams, our soldiering captain, headed past Thibaut Courtois after 30 minutes and the game was on. In the second half, Wales were superb. On 55 minutes, Hal Robson-Kanu produced arguably the goal of the year, and one which earned him a nomination for the FIFA Puskas Award.

With Aaron Ramsey breaking down the right flank in behind the Belgian left-back, he controlled the long-ball and floated a cross into the box. It fell to the feet of Robson-Kanu, who shielded the ball with his back to goal and Thomas Meunier up his backside, and Cruyff-turned himself away from three Belgian defenders and slotted the ball past the goalkeeper. It was a magical moment and one that will live on in Welsh football history forever.

With five minutes left on the clock, Sam Vokes added a third goal with a tremendous header. It was onto the semi-final and Portugal, billed as the Bale v Ronaldo clash.

It ultimately ended in heart-break; with goals from Ronaldo and Nani sinking the battling Welsh ship with two goals in the space of 3 minutes. It was the biggest game in Welsh football history — with a wave of emotions overshadowing the game. Portugal would eventually win the tournament, but the whole of Wales were proud of their team; giving them a hero’s welcome in Cardiff.

September saw the start of the World Cup Qualifying campaign, with Wales drawn against Moldova, Austria, Georgia, the Republic of Ireland and Serbia in Group D. It was against Moldova that Coleman’s men started the campaign and they picked up where they left off. An emphatic 4–0 win, with goals from Vokes, Allen and two from Bale, saw a real celebration for our heroes.

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October and November saw three draws in the qualifying group; a 2–2 away at Austria, 1–1 at home to Georgia and the same result when we hosted Serbia. Coleman will be disappointed to not have taken more points as 2016 comes to an end, but the turnaround for Welsh football has been out of this world.

With four games gone in Group D, we currently sit in 3rd with 4 points separating us and leaders the Republic of Ireland. 2017 looks to be promising, with a tie in Dublin next up for Coleman’s men. There’s also a sense of excitement amongst Welsh fans, with talented youngsters such as Danny Ward, Ben Woodburn and Ethan Ampadu all making their mark and pushing forward for Coleman’s side.

2016, though, was the year of the Dragon. A history-making major tournament, Puskas Award nomination and a sixth place finish for Gareth Bale in the FIFA Ballon D’Or has really put Wales on the map.

By Scott Salter

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