Forty-five minutes after the final whistle sounded at the Olimpico in Rome on Sunday, the Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward headed out of the away dressing room and slumped, feet crossed, against a post in front of an empty Curva Sud to toast his team’s progress to the last 16 – and Father’s Day – with his 20-month-old son, Albie, via FaceTime. “He was having his bottle and ready to go to bed, bless him, but it is moments like that when you realise why you want to do these things,” says Ward. “I spoke to my father after and it was a case of: ‘As much as I miss you all, I don’t want to come home.’ It was certainly a Father’s Day I won’t forget.”
Ward’s emergence as the Wales No 1 is intriguing in itself – he has not played a league game for four years – but the lack of minutes at club level is a theme that runs throughout a squad reincarnated. In total, the team that started against Switzerland and Turkey made just 185 league starts last season, with the number against Italy dropped to 167 owing to the absence of Kieffer Moore, a regular for Cardiff.
The Wales team that reached the semi-finals in France were at the peak of their powers, particularly Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, but the spine five years ago also consisted of players who were staples at their clubs – think Ashley Williams, Neil Taylor, and even the striker Sam Vokes. This group is rather more peculiar in its makeup.
Only one player in the entire squad – Ethan Ampadu, on loan at Sheffield United from Chelsea – made more than 14 starts in the Premier League last season. Joe Morrell has started all three games at this tournament despite making only five league starts for Luton in the Championship last season. Joe Rodon, who has a dozen starts to his name last season (four of which came for Swansea; the rest for Tottenham), is another example. Daniel James is an increasingly influential component in Wales’s counterattacking system but he made only 11 top-flight starts for Manchester United. Injuries, of course, are a factor, but many of this team have had to patiently play second fiddle. Until now.
“Within the group that is never anything that has concerned us, the minutes at club level,” says Ward. “When we come here on camp, we know what we have. We have a brilliant team bond and spirit that cannot really be touched, very similar in some ways to 2016. We have to be a close-knit group. We’re a small nation. There are countries out there who maybe have more ability but I don’t think there will be many – if any – that have as much heart as we do.”
Only three of the starting lineup against Italy played more than 15 league games for their clubs last season and one of those, Chris Gunter, ended the season as a substitute in League One. Several players arrived on the pre-tournament training camp on the Algarve undercooked but Wales managed to build the fitness of Ben Davies, Joe Allen, Ramsey and Bale, their key quartet. Ramsey has started the past four matches having last completed a match for Juventus in January, while Bale, who has played all but four minutes at Euro 2020, played just one full game for Spurs last season – an FA Cup victory at Wycombe.
Robert Page, the Wales interim manager, has already suggested “the crest on the chest” makes players who have played bit-part roles for their clubs raise their game. “Maybe it is the dragon on the shirt?” says Ward. “Some of the boys like myself who are not getting the minutes we want, we come away with Wales and … I don’t know if it’s the camaraderie we have, the team spirit, the will, and the desire to go and do the ‘dirty bits’ for your mate; the fans. I can’t explain it but all I know is we’re extremely proud to wear the dragon on the chest.”
Wales’s players and staff went across to a pocket of supporters stationed high in the top tier of the stadium at full-time in Rome on Sunday to thank them for their efforts and, naturally, the admiration was mutual. Wales have made their mark at this European Championship and the appearance numbers of those involved shows that is a more remarkable feat than it may look.
“We wanted to climb the mountain again and thankfully we’ve managed to do that,” says Ward. “We fancy ourselves against anyone. We know what we’ve got here, and I think we believe in what we are all about – it doesn’t matter who we play, we just try to bring our style of play, our personality and character to the game.”