Dear Welsh national side,
Here we stand again, on the precipice together, within touching distance of a lifelong dream.
The performance – and result – in Cyprus on Thursday evening perfectly encapsulated a surreal qualifying campaign and past couple of years. It had trenchant resolve and esprit de corps all topped off by a sprinkling of Gareth Bale magic, a successful formula that has seen us leapfrog England in the rankings and prompted half of the country to tentatively make their travel arrangements for next summer.
We are now just one small step, one giant leap away from the promised land of a major tournament and with that closeness comes fear, dread. It’s a disorientating splodged palette of emotions that means Israel this Sunday can’t come soon enough.
We’ve been here before of course, just one small step, one giant leap away. In ’77, ’82, ’85, and ’93, a litany of near-misses and heartbreak tested our famously stoic firmness to beyond breaking point. At Anfield we were cheated, against the Soviets and Scots we came up stricken and short, while that Romanian game just meant too much, the occasion sapping the enterprise of Speed, Giggs and Rush and putting lead in their boots. Time and again we knocked at the door then forgot our name and for a near eternity now it’s felt like the cruel work of destiny; that we’re forever fated to be a small and proud nation sprinkled with fantastic talent and packed to the rafters with extraordinary fans that will never get to experience a major tournament moment.
That’s really what it comes down to, what we crave to the point of need; a soul-thumping banshee-wailing moment that can define us in glorious celebration of who we are on an international stage.
The Irish enjoyed several under Jack Charlton while Northern Ireland erupted in uniting joy at Gerry Armstrong drilling home against the Spanish. Archie Gemmill’s mazy run in ’78 meanwhile produced thousands of Scottish sons and daughters nine months hence. The English? They’ve had Nobby dancing, Gazza’s Turin tears, Gazza lifting the ball over Hendry, and Lineker scoring and scoring and scoring.
Now it’s our turn surely? This breath-taking beauty of land inhabited by three million open, funny, gnarly, weird and brilliant people; surely it’s our turn to embrace on the streets of Merthyr Tydfil, Pontypridd and Anglesea in shock and joy, swelled by a collective pride that’s been fit to burst since birth. We’re never going to win the damn thing. We don’t expect to win it even in our wildest dreams. Just give us that moment.
The wait has been tortuous and long, with seasons and generations passing from there to here. The World Cup of 1958 was the last occasion we qualified for a major tournament, a time when wi-fi was the wireless, old ladies ate lard butties, and Tim Howard was signing YTS forms. It was another age. It was an early chapter in a history book. The old guard – those that have avoided the grave or senility – can recall the majesty of John Charles and the extraterrestrial brilliance of a 17 year old Pele in Sweden. For the rest of us that amounts to a lifetime of doldrums, false dawns, and institutionalised valiant failure. Yet we’ve always been there, in body or spirit, for friendly or critical qualifier, in Azerbaijan and Belarus. We’ve never wavered and we’ve got the scars to prove it.
Which brings us to now, to witnessing a time when Gary Speed’s blueprint – his legacy – has been played out with such diligence and excellence by Chris Coleman, Bale and the boys. Should we falter will we ever get so close again? The past shows us we might but the time is now lads and we’ve endured enough. From James to Hughes to Big Nev; from die-hard supporters travelling to foreign lands to our mums switching over from their soaps to cheer us home, we’re endured enough. The time is now.
Should that ‘moment’ occur in France next summer – whether it be a giant-killing, last-minute equaliser, or simply standing toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite – it will have been earned the hard way and all as one. But first we must get there.
So here we stand again, on the precipice together, within touching distance of a lifelong dream. But that dream is made up of more than qualifying, of finally reaching that elusive promised land. Like every single one of my fellow countrymen and countrywomen I have never been anything but immensely proud to be Welsh. For one day – one moment – next summer I want the rest of the world to see why.