Roy Hodgson avoids Gareth Bale’s bait and focuses on crunch Wales match
Gareth Bale included, was good enough to get into Roy Hodgson’s team. Imagine the accusations of arrogance if Rooney declared Wales did not play with the same national pride. And then, when the opposition manager questioned the need for those type of comments, if Rooney had grinned knowingly and made it clear he was perfectly happy to have burrowed his way under the opposition’s skin. Or to quote Bale: “It’s good that they bit.”t is not difficult to imagine the reaction if England’s most important player – say, Wayne Rooney – had ushered in this match by boldly announcing that none of the Wales players,
Someone can always be counted on to crank up hostilities before these occasions and, as Rooney noted, goodness knows what England’s players might have encountered had Craig Bellamy still been around. Bellamy, Rooney recalled, was the only player in all his Premier League years who deliberately set out to wind up the opposition. “Maybe Jon Walters a bit, too,” England’s captain said.
“They’re the only two who would speak to players and try to intimidate players. I’ve played against Ashley Williams many times, and many of the others Welsh players, and never had it in the Premier League. So I doubt it will happen now.”
That was the point when he was asked to explain Bellamy’s “verbals” in detail and Hodgson, sensing his player might talk himself into trouble, came out with a stage whisper. “Do not go down that route,” came the message.
This has been the theme from England’s camp this week: say nothing disrespectful, avoid anything potentially inflammatory and, above all, don’t get too sucked in by the headlines generated by the opposition’s star player. Jack Wilshere temporarily strayed off-message when he cheerfully announced the two sides did not like each other but that was an exception, and it has been unexpected, to say the least, that Bale has led the mischief-making.
It has certainly been a break from the norm when, at the risk of sounding slightly cruel, Bale’s interviews are notable usually for the speed at which they descend into blandness. The world’s most expensive footballer has seemed delighted, triumphant even, to have drawn a response and Hodgson could be forgiven for suspecting it has been a strategic attempt to make the occasion even spikier than might normally be expected.
The theory – or at least the suspicion – is that it is deliberate and Hodgson, in turn, has recommended his players avoid the mud-slinging. The England manager has been irritated by Bale’s remarks, whatever he says about rising above it, and admitted he and his players “would be very ashamed” if they fell into the trap.
The truth, however, is very different from how Bale presents it when a combined England-Wales XI would, by common consensus, feature only one Welsh player: Bale himself. Chris Coleman’s side are confident, emboldened by their own togetherness and giving the impression they are enjoying themselves, in a way that is seldom seen of England sides in tournaments. Wales have the added incentive of qualifying for the knockout rounds if they follow up their win against Slovakia with another victory. They will be strong in the tackle, quick to the ball and willing to give absolutely everything, as might be expected of a nation playing their biggest game since the 1958 World Cup. And yet, which impartial observer could realistically agree that, individually, they have the better players?
This is what should encourage Hodgson to think of the possibilities if his own team play anywhere near the point of maximum expression. England’s defence has been considered vulnerable in this tournament, yet Joe Hart is a superior goalkeeper to Wayne Hennessey and Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill operate at the level of Manchester United and Chelsea. Wales have two centre-backs, James Chester and Ashley Williams, who play for West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City respectively and a third, Ben Davies, who is Danny Rose’s understudy as left-back at Tottenham Hotspur.
Bale has the ability to trouble the world’s most accomplished defences but it is also worth considering the other players who are officially listed alongside the Real Madrid player as forwards. Hal Robson-Kanu’s winner against Slovakia in Bordeaux was his third goal in 32 caps. David Cotterill plays for Birmingham City, Sam Vokes is at Burnley and Simon Church could not get into the MK Dons side last season that finished second from bottom of the Championship. Church eventually left on loan for Aberdeen but, as it stands, will begin next season in League One.
That Robson-Kanu does not have a club at the moment, having ended his long association with Reading last season, makes his goal last Saturday one of the more endearing stories of the tournament. Yet the Wales squad has plenty of unlikely heroes. Jonny Williams was on loan at MK Dons when they went down to England’s third division. Chris Gunter plays for Reading. Dave Edwards, once Joe Hart’s landlord in their days at Shrewsbury Town, is on the books at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wales have a back-up goalkeeper, Owain Fon Williams, who earns his living at Inverness Caledonian Thistle and a reserve winger, George Williams, who has his own Milton Keynes links, starting his career in the same youth team as Dele Alli. Williams is nicknamed “Georginho” and finished last season at Gillingham, on loan from Fulham.
Equally Hodgson merely has to remind his players of last season’s Premier League title race to recall what can happen when a talented side with an unbreakable spirit is written off, or patronised, or not taken seriously enough. Leicester City have shown how reckless it would be for England to regard Wales as anything but highly motivated, dangerous opponents.
England have fallen into that trap before. Every time England have taken on the Republic of Ireland in the past 30 years they have been billed as the more likely winner. This includes Euro 1988, the 1990 World Cup, a couple of qualifiers for the European Championship in 1992 and the friendlies of recent years. Every time “You’ll never beat the Irish” has been the soundtrack.
Is it true, as Bale says, that Wales have more passion for their shirt? The only time to answer that will be the end of the match but one certainty is that Coleman’s players will be extremely pumped up.
“The spirit is brilliant,” Coleman said. “The camp is prepared. Belgium were third in the world when we played them and we got over that massive hurdle. That was the turning point for this team, when we realised we could be a threat up against anybody. We know the threat we carry now. On our day we feel we can beat anybody, whether it’s England or anyone else.”