How Wales’ early investment in youth is paying off

Brennan Johnson and Ethan Ampadu

Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey were still at the height of their powers when Wales decided to make another significant investment in youth. Rather than revel in the glorious present, the national set-up did what it could to prepare for a time when Bale, the once-in-a-lifetime star, could no longer shine so brightly.

With a population of just three million people, Wales knew they were not in a position to wait around for top players to emerge. Instead, they focused on finding and then developing young talent themselves – just as John Toshack, manager between 2004 and 2010, had done with the likes of Bale, Ramsey and Joe Allen a generation earlier.

The model is relatively straightforward, but it is bold: get the players in early, show them what it is like to represent Wales and then do everything possible to accelerate their development.

The end result, now that Wales have entered the post-Bale era, is a team full of players with an incredible amount of experience for their age. The average age of the outfield starters in their thrashing of Finland last week was 25, but the average number of caps for those players was 43.

When it comes to international football, these are players who started remarkably young. Eight of Thursday’s line-up made their Wales debuts before the age of 21, while six of them did so as teenagers. Wales saw the talent in the likes of Ethan Ampadu, Neco Williams, Harry Wilson and Brennan Johnson, and they gave that talent a chance as soon as possible.

Ethan Ampadu
Ethan Ampadu, who is leading Leeds' promotion charge, has 50 caps and is still only 23 - David Davies/PA Wire

While it is a new generation at the forefront of Welsh football, this week is therefore not necessarily a new experience for these players. The likes of Ampadu, Wilson and David Brooks have been in the international fold for years, as important members of a squad that once revolved around Bale and Ramsey. Now, everything revolves around them.

On Tuesday night, this generation faces its most significant test yet. Victory over Poland would guarantee a place at the European Championship, and a fourth major tournament out of five for Wales. Defeat would provide only disappointment and unwanted questions about whether this crop will ever be able to match the feats of the previous stars.

“It is important we keep introducing young players,” said manager Rob Page. “Now we’re on this path, we’re only going to grow better for having these experiences with young players.”

For the likes of Ampadu (aged 23, 50 caps) and Wilson (27, 53 caps), there is now an expectation to lead. Against Finland, they appeared to delight in that responsibility. Ampadu dominated the midfield, lunging into tackles, and Wilson sparkled in the spaces where Bale used to operate.

Neco Williams (22, 37 caps) also shone again, while Jordan James (19, nine caps) provided more evidence that he will be a mainstay of this side for years.

Part of the Welsh strategy, as the national set-up first started to build this current generation, was to look beyond its borders. Of their squad for the 2022 World Cup, nine had been born in England. In many cases it required the Welsh FA to dig into the family histories of these players, before offering them a fast-track route to the international stage.

To be clear, Wales have not been handing out international careers like leaflets. There are plenty of talented youngsters who were given a chance but then faded away. Wales might offer a ticket for the train, if you will, but it is then down to the player to stay on board. The likes of Ben Woodburn, Tyler Roberts and Rabbi Matondo have not kicked on as hoped.

Page’s core players, young but experienced, are the ones who came in early, learned from the likes of Bale and Ramsey, and are now taking over. If they can succeed against Robert Lewandowski’s Poland, it will be a triumph of their footballing ability – and also of long-term planning.

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