The most extraordinary aspect of Wales’ qualification for the World Cup is how little top-flight football their first-choice team has played this season.
Wayne Hennessey and Danny Ward, the two goalkeepers vying to be No 1, played 270 Premier League minutes between them. Joe Rodon played 86 minutes for Tottenham. Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale started 10 combined matches in Serie A, La Liga and the Scottish Premiership.
This is not easy, and it is Wales’ greatest achievement. Between Austria in the semi-final and Ukraine in the playoff final, some of Robert Page’s most important cogs were barely part of a machine at all. That speaks of their ability to sprint from a standing start, but also of the remarkable connection between players, country and supporters that has platformed this journey.
You can wince at every cliche; they care not. They’re all true here. The Red Wall in the Canton Stand, where Cardiff, Swansea, Newport County and Wrexham are one, is one of sport’s most electrifying sights and sounds. When Dafydd Iwan hits the final notes of Yma o Hyd it is as if an entire country grasps hold of its own history, its own identity, and in a single second transforms it into precious fuel.
For all the sprinkling of Bale’s magic dust, now occasional rather than constant and somehow even more conspicuous as a result, it is the glue around him and Ramsey that has made this squad successful. Bale only started half of the pre-playoff qualifiers and only scored three times. To witness his free-kick against Austria was to watch sporting history be written in real time, but that is not what brought Wales to that point. Look at the matches: five victories by a single goal and three draws.
In each of them, Wales needed the unheralded and the often unfancied to defend their country’s dream. In each of them, history offered reason for doubt and fear. Until 2015, Wales’ modern history had been a statue to unrequited ambition, sculpted by a team of master craftsmen led by Paul Bodin, who missed the penalty that could have taken them to USA 94. This is for them as much as the Class of 2022.
And so Ben Davies is the emblem of this squad, certainly more than Ramsey and arguably more than Bale too. He is the only member of the squad who is a regular in a top-flight league in a successful team and under a world-class coach. He is emphatically humble to the point of shyness, like a south Walian James Milner. Like Milner, nobody close to him doubts his impact – time and again Davies has peaked for Wales. In his weary, teary post-match interview, he expressed surprise each time the World Cup was mentioned as if he could not believe it.
We must ask ourselves how Wales might fare in Qatar, if only because a nation woke on Monday doing the same. They have a relatively gentle group stage draw, and would surely have picked England from the top seeds; better the devil you know and have pushed so hard before. Finishing second in Group B would leave a ludicrously hard likely route through the competition: Netherlands and Argentina and then Spain, Germany or Brazil. Wales might be in Doha for a good time rather than a long time. But who cares when you have waited so long for the good times.
That lack of first-team football may become a factor, if only because it will surely sway summer plans. Rodon must seek regular minutes at Spurs or push for a move. Ramsey and Bale must pick their next clubs wisely. Ethan Ampadu must decide whether Serie B is the right environment for his career progression. Is Dan James still an auxiliary striker at Leeds? Danny Ward must surely leave Leicester if he is not first choice. Brennan Johnson may prefer to sign a new contract at Nottingham Forest and start every week in the Premier League. There is still the unhelpful issue of the managerial position; Ryan Giggs’ trial has been delayed until August due to a lack of court space.
But these are questions for when hangovers subside and raucous celebration finally gives way to glowing contentment. And they are questions that should not bother the Red Wall for now. The best bit of overdue promotion or qualification is always the build-up: the rush for tickets, the scrimping and saving, the sticker albums (one for collecting, one kept pristine for posterity, the opposition scouting until you are familiar with Iran’s 4-1-4-1, the reams of articles and player profiles that you will read as if you have been tasked with the exercise by the FAW itself.
They wept happy tears on Sunday evening because it wasn’t always like this and the size of their country dictates that it may not be like this forever. It is patronising to conclude that it doesn’t matter how Wales perform in Qatar, but it’s also largely true. The clock has reset; agonising history has become a glorious present. Their superstar is going to the World Cup. The glue around him – Davies chief among it – is getting its just reward.