UEFA EURO 2016 will live long in the memory of Wales supporters. Enthused by the brilliance of Gareth Bale and led by inspirational captain Ashley Williams, the Dragons defied the odds by valiantly storming to their first ever semi-finals of a continental tournament, bowing out in the last four at the hands of eventual winners Portugal.
One of the most iconic moments of their incredible journey was skipper Williams heading home the crucial equalising goal in the quarter-finals against Belgium – then ranked third in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – on the way to a historic 3-1 victory in Villeneuve-d'Ascq. After finding the net, a delirious Williams, a doubt before the game due to a shoulder injury, immediately ran to the touchline to embrace manager Chris Coleman, substitutes and the coaching staff, while the rest of his team-mates on the pitch followed.
It was a moment that perfectly captured the incredible synergy and bond amongst the squad and certainly reflected the inspiring Welsh slogan emblazoned on the chest of the national team’s jersey: Goarau Chwarae Cyd Chwarae (Together, Stronger).
“We were on the big stage and it was nice that everyone got to see what our team spirit was like – we are normal guys doing what everyone would do if they won a quarter-final at a major tournament,”* Wales defender Williams told FIFA.com*.“We enjoyed it and never took it too seriously. We didn’t put pressure on ourselves at all. There’s a film out about it, so it will be nice to watch it back. It features all the memories and the bits that people didn’t see, like being around the camp and spending time with the lads.”
That documentary film, Don’t Take Me Home, was released on 3 March and charts Wales’ EURO 2016 heroics. The premiere was attended by manager Chris Coleman, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, Williams and other key members of that Welsh side who made fans from Llandudno to Cardiff, and thousands watching in France, believe anything was possible.
“It’s a summer we’ll never forget in terms of what happened there and then how good it felt to come back and see how important it was for all the Welsh people,” Williams said.
We were on the big stage and it was nice that everyone got to see what our team spirit was like – we are normal guys doing what everyone would do if they won a quarter-final at a major tournament
*World Cup dreams
*Russia 2018 would mark 60 years since Wales’ only appearance at the FIFA World Cup™ where, as at EURO 2016, they also left their mark. A side led by Juventus’ John Charles advanced to Sweden 1958's quarter-finals against the odds, before succumbing at the hands of soon-to-be champions Brazil due to a solitary goal from Pele.
After a semi-final finish at the European Championship, expectations are naturally greater for Wales to end their world finals hiatus.
“There is [more expectation to qualify] and you can see that when we play teams in terms of how they set up differently,” said Williams. “There are different challenges and we have to change the way we play a little bit because now teams are seeing us as a bit of a scalp. Opponents give us more respect than they used to. It’s something that we’ve not come across before and something that we’ve got to manage and deal with as a team.”
Chris Coleman’s men currently find themselves third in UEFA’s Group D with six points after four games behind leaders Republic of Ireland (ten) and Serbia (8). While still unbeaten, three successive draws mean Wales are chasing both nations in the current automatic and play-off place positions, but their Russia 2018 prospects are far from over. “The qualifying campaign hasn’t gone great so far for us but we’ve got a chance, and whilst we’ve got that chance we will keep pushing on, try to get some form and consistency in the last part of it.”
A Celtic derby*
*Wales make the short trip across the Irish Sea to face table-toppers Republic of Ireland in their next World Cup qualifier in Dublin on 24 March. A victory against Martin O’Neill’s men would leave Group D wide open at the summit at the halfway point, while a loss would leave Wales trailing by seven points with five games remaining.
The crucial match will have added spice for captain Williams, whose opposing skipper for the day will be none other than fellow Everton defender Seamus Coleman.
“It’s going to be a good game. They are always good games anyhow, they are like derby matches,” said Williams, who joined the Goodison Park side ahead of the 2016/17 English Premier League season. “With Seamus being the other captain, we’ve started to chat about it and had a bit of banter. I’m sure it will get more intense in the run up to the game.”