Even when the Wales players look in the mirror here, they see evidence of an attempt to locate the spirit of 2016.
Five years ago, the motto was #togetherstronger as they journeyed to a semi-final. This time, the players found the message ‘Goray Chwarae Cyd Chwarae’ (‘the best play is team play‘) attached to the mirrors of their hotel rooms when they arrived on Monday. The words were first stitched into the Wales crest, exactly 70 years ago. ‘A nice little touch when you first get here,’ Joe Allen reflected. ‘A little bit of home. It sums up what we’re about.’
But for the eight remaining members of that squad, there are clearly mixed feelings about dwelling on 2016. That’s because they know that such a golden summer is going to be hard to live up to.
Wales have arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan, looking to emulate the spirt of Euro 2016 in France
The Welsh side enjoyed a golden summer five years ago as they reached the semi-finals
Back then, they found a Brittany base that took the Wales team to heart. Now, they find themselves in the sultry heat of a city in the tournament’s most remote outpost.
Back then, they knew precisely how they would line up — the narrow midfield ‘box’ of Joe Allen, Joe Ledley, Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, in front of a confident back four, making the team secure defensively and confident transitioning into a dynamic counter-attack. Now, even the interim manager Rob Page does not seem sure what his best line-up is.
Where there is Bale, there is hope, though Page has made it an article of faith to stick to a system — with three central defenders, attacking wing backs and a false nine — which makes Wales imbalanced and far less secure.
But there are stark differences between Chris Coleman’s side and Rob Page’s hopefuls
The young Welsh side are far more imbalanced and less secure at the back than in 2016
The midfield also looks far less impenetrable, with one of Joe Morrell (who has not been able to get into the Luton Town team) and 20-year-old Ethan Ampadu (on loan from Chelsea at Sheffield United last season) anchoring it. Defensively, things also looks a pale imitation of 2016 with Joe Rodon and Chris Mepham the likely central partnership — albeit that Tottenham’s Rodon is a rising star.
And then there is the question of whether Ramsey, Page’s preferred false nine, can actually touch the heights again. That is a worry. The best strategic solution looks like the deployment of Bale, Ramsey and Daniel James behind Cardiff’s Kieffer James, a target man of immense physical stature. But Page, very much his own man, seems set against that.
The elephant in the room is Ryan Giggs, who abruptly departed the scene to fight charges of assaulting his former partner and her sister, which he denies. The players’ strategy seems to be avoiding all public discussion of Giggs. When it was put to Allen that such a dynamic could never be easy for a stand-in like Page, he talked about unwelcome ‘distractions’.
Aaron Ramsey has operated at False 9 but looks a shadow of the player from Euro 2016
Wales’ handful of senior players know that it will be tricky to conjure the magic of 2016
But Wales were at this stage five years ago — a few days out from a tournament with no great expectation. The glories of 2016 obscured all memory of the 3-0 warm-up defeat in Sweden, six days before opening game, which left everyone feeling pretty devastated.
And though Giggs might be absent, he has left an indelible mark on the squad by blooding so many young members that the squad bears hardly any resemblance to that of five years ago. Manchester United’s 20-year-old Dylan Levitt and Manchester City’s 21-year-old Matt Smith have not played a single game for those sides yet both offered hints of wonderful passing range in the warm-ups.
Allen is not the only senior player to feel that the squad is creatively far better than in France, because of young players like this. ‘They are fearless. They want to make their mark,’ he said. This just might be the moment for Liverpool wing back Neco Williams, Rodon, Wilson, James or even the wildcard teenage attacking pick, Rubin Colwill. Is it too early for them? Will they, like the Bale/Ramsey/Allen generation blooded by John Toshack, need another five years to reap a dividend? We will know soon enough.
But in Gareth Bale there is hope, and the Welshman will want to remind Europe of his talent
What Wales lack technically they make up for in spirit and unity heading into the tournament
Those with perhaps even more to prove, though, are the 2016 old guard. Neither Ramsey, Allen nor midfielder Jonny Williams have set the world alight since France. Williams, the gifted former Crystal Palace midfielder known to some fans as ‘Joniesta’ at the 2016 tournament, does not even have a club, having just been released by Cardiff City. Even Bale, marginalised by Jose Mourinho and unsure what the future holds, will view a memorable tournament with his beloved Wales as a way of signing his name across the continent once more.
It’s not necessarily the swansong for this quartet. There is a World Cup in Qatar next year, with a promising start to the qualification campaign for Wales. But the old guard know there are no certainties in football. It could be the last chance for the golden generation.
Don’t bet against them seizing it, even with a difficult group ahead and a conceivable round of 16 tie against France or Germany, because what these players feel for Cymru transcends technical or tactical interpretation. ‘We feel more pride and passion than anyone else,’ Bale reflected in 2016. ‘It’s just one of those things. Maybe it’s something to do with the small country thing.’