Hal Robson-Kanu’s timeless Cruyff turn allowed Wales to walk on air at the last European Championship but on Saturday, in the arena renamed in homage to the Dutchman, hopes of another run deep into the competition quickly evaporated.
After Euro 2016, the players discussed making sure appearing at major tournaments became a more regular occurrence and, in that regard, advancing to the knockout stages represented another remarkable feat. Yet that a last-16 exit feels an opportunity missed is a marker of the strides they have made.
Wales will surely rue the way they lost their step after Kasper Dolberg opened the scoring, as a defence that creaked in the Group A opener against Switzerland was painfully exposed. The goalkeeper Danny Ward, whose performances at the tournament were near flawless, made a smart save to deny Dolberg a second before the interval but then the red wall in front of him crumbled. Wales have the third-youngest squad and naivety allowed Denmark to overwhelm and smother without asking questions before inviting a disheartening and – partly self-inflicted – bludgeoning.
“We just weren’t able to create that moment of magic,” Joe Allen said. “Obviously the second goal early in the second half really gave us a mountain to climb. The scoreline looks a lot worse than the way the game played out. We’re proud we’ve been able to get out of the group stage for the second time. The message is clear for the squad: we need to think about World Cup qualification now. We’ve got a young group who have a lot more to give.”
Wales, seemingly spooked by Neco Williams’s poor clearance to tee up Dolberg’s second, turned erratic and even their most consistent performers were rattled. Joe Rodon enjoyed a fine tournament in defence but was off-colour against Denmark, allowing Martin Braithwaite to breeze past him in the buildup to that crucial second goal and the supply line to Kieffer Moore, another major plus from the past few weeks, was cut. Wales’s reliance on Moore is a little disconcerting given their absence of genuine strikers, with Tyler Roberts and Harry Wilson the most obvious attacking alternatives.
After racking up 5,382 air miles, an adventure that started five weeks ago with a training camp at the Vale Resort in Glamorgan ended in Amsterdam, via trips to Baku and Rome. The Wales centurion, Chris Gunter, described the tournament setup as a “joke”.
After the game Robert Page, the interim manager, was reluctant to grumble about the travelling but the mental and physical exertion seemed to show in defeat to Denmark. Late on Aaron Ramsey overcooked a pass and, though Gareth Bale managed to reach it, a weary ball meandered its way into the gloves of Kasper Schmeichel. Glass-half-empty or half-full, it is just three defeats in their past 17 competitive matches, and two of those were against Belgium and Italy.
Where do Wales go from here? Bale has vowed to play on for his country and he is one of a core group of players, including Allen, Ramsey and Chris Gunter, that recognise the 2022 World Cup in Qatar could represent their last chance of playing for their country on the biggest stage of all. An ugly win against Czech Republic in March set them up nicely for a double-header against Belarus and Estonia in September, matches Page is set to oversee.
Ward was probably the pick of the bunch for Wales but players such as Connor Roberts and Joe Morrell continue to thrive for their country. Fifteen of the 26-man squad were under 25 and youngsters such as the Nottingham Forest winger Brennan Johnson and the Swansea defender Brandon Cooper will hope to press their case for inclusion when the season restarts in August.
There is also much excitement around the 19-year-old Cardiff midfielder Rubin Colwill, a wildcard call-up this time, and Ethan Ampadu, whose tournament never really got going; he made substitute appearances against Switzerland and Turkey before a harsh sending-off against Italy. Page said: “To even get to where we’re at is a big achievement with the players that we’ve got, not playing domestic football week in, week out.”
On the eve of the tournament players received a round of rousing well-wishing from Welsh luminaries, including Bonnie Tyler, Geraint Thomas, Gerwyn Price, Sam Warburton and Rhys Ifans. The actor Steffan Rhodri stayed in character as Dave Coaches from Gavin & Stacey but in the same meeting Page made a serious point, underlining the significance of the anthem.
Before kick-off on Saturday, the squad were shown a video montage of school pupils from Port Talbot to Pontypridd, and beyond, singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in playgrounds and classrooms. A jarring last-16 defeat will only strengthen the remarkable bond between the team and the country. “Have a cry,” Gunter said in an Instagram post. “But then smile that we were dining at the top table yet again. And smile even more that we’ll be back, and we’ll be the ones with the full stadium belting out our anthem that we all deserve.”