How Wales rose from 117th to 10th in the FIFA world rankings in just four years
There was a strange type of pessimism, certainly from my point of view, when in December of 2010 Gary Speed was appointed the Wales national team manager. At this point in time, Wales were at a stand-still. Toshack had, to be very truthful, done an absolutely appalling job with the lacklustre, ageing, low-quality squad he had available to him. At the point of Gary Speed's appointment, Wales were at a then record-low of 112th in the world rankings. Something needed to change.
I don't know why I was so pessimistic about Speed's appointment. Maybe it was because of his average job at Sheffield United, where he didn't have much time to change things, or whether it was because of his lack of experience. This was a big job, the whole nation was expecting with players such as Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale coming through the ranks.
It was Wales’ time and he didn't mess about when it came to giving the young players confidence. Aaron Ramsey appointed captain at 20 years of age. Speed's playing days were nothing but success everywhere he went. Captain, leader, friend.
Under Speed, it was the start of something special, but it didn't start off that way whatsoever. Wales attained two defeats of high magnitude, 3-0 vs Republic of Ireland and then a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the arch-nemesis England, they slumped to 117th in the world rankings. Was Speed really the right man for the job? Only time was going to tell, and oh, it did.
The next four games Wales were on fire, playing a very nice and sexy style of football. Winning three and narrowly being defeated against England at Wembley, where I have vivid memories of Rob Earnshaw missing an absolute sitter to level the game. Wales competed at Wembley, and competed to the end. It was a sign of things to come.
Narrowly missing out on the Euros was devastating after what they did in those four games and then in a friendly a fortnight before the incident, winning 4-1 against Finland. What a way to end his reign. Wales were definitely on the up.
As in October 2011, Wales were 45th in the rankings, less than a year after being 117th. And later on in the year, they were awarded the 'Best Movers' award.
Gary Speed’s death hits Wales hard
27 November 2011, Sunday. The date still sends shivers down my spine. Waking up to check the team the Swans were to field that day and in bold letters on the side of the screen 'WELSH NATIONAL TEAM MANAGER, GARY SPEED FOUND DEAD'. I don't know why but I felt like it was untrue. I couldn't comprehend that he was, in fact, dead. I remember a dull 0-0 draw between Swansea and Aston Villa with the majority of the players shaken up. Given being the worst, breaking down on the pitch.
I couldn't put my finger on why, but no one could, not even the ones closest to him. He seemed to be a happy guy with his job and personal life going well, well that's what we all thought. I'll never forget Robbie Savage breaking down on TV. Or Bryn Law. Or anyone who knew him. He was truly loved. And I still wonder to this day, along with everyone else, why?
But, the national team had to go on. And, on the 19th of January, Chris Coleman was appointed the Welsh national team manager, just three months after the tragedy even he had to go through. Coleman was an experienced guy and he had the whole of the World Cup qualifying group to impose himself on the country, with a national hashtag #RioForSpeedo being invented for the late but great, Gary Speed.
His testimonial match against Costa Rica was the one which if I could personally show Speed from up there, I would. The country got together as one and the score line was completely irrelevant. I loved how Coleman took a backseat and let the sentimental value of the match dictate, with his sons and dad giving the players a team-talk. Craig Bellamy was a close friend of Speed's and was captain for that emotional night in Cardiff. By the way, the score was 2-0 Costa Rica.
Wales fail to qualify for the 2014 World Cup
The World Cup qualifying campaign didn't go well and Wales ended it 5th, ahead of Macedonia and behind a rejuvenated Scotland. There were calls for Coleman's contract to be terminated, and I must admit I was one of them. I just did not like him, and couldn't put my finger on why.
I believe I felt this way towards him because in my mind he was 'wrecking' what should've been Gary's team and that should have made the World Cup as they were on course to do it under Speed.
I didn't take into consideration how hard the transition must've been on players, staff and Coleman. There was nothing to dislike about him, he was a Swansea boy from a working-class family and attended a local school. He ticked every box for me, it was just this was Gary's team and we all found it hard to comprehend that he wasn't in charge of it.
The resurgence post the World Cup
Since that qualifying campaign, absolutely everything has been on the up. And I believe that's because of the tactics Coleman has installed on the team. With Wales’ defence not being the strongest point, putting five at the back has really helped Wales to push on. Michael Laudrup was quoted in saying Ben Davies will become a centre-half, and Coleman is helping with his transition by putting him alongside skipper Ashley Williams and James Chester.
Whilst playing the 5-3-2 system Coleman has adopted, it has given the Welsh wizard, and arguably the best Welsh player in history, Gareth Bale a lot of freedom. With Hal Robson-Kanu occupying the main striking role, Bale's job is to stay up there with him without the ball and then to do what he pleases whilst having the ball.
When the team has brilliant technical players such as Ramsey and Joe Allen in midfield it helps Bale get on the ball and produce the magic he has shown in this campaign as his record stands at 5 goals and 2 assists in 6 games, which puts him third in the race for the golden boot across Europe.
The team is resilient and that is a major factor in why Wales have climbed so high up the rankings – 107 places in 3 years. Joe Ledley is the hidden gem in the squad and helps the team tick. He plays just behind Allen and Ramsey in the midfield trio, and without him they both wouldn't be able to do what they're doing by supporting Bale. He's the anchor for the whole squad.
I wouldn’t call what Wales did against Belgium twice 'Parking the bus'. I call it game management. Wales cannot match Belgium player for player. So by putting men behind the ball and being clinical when needed, that shows the sign of a fantastic team.
Can Wales reach Euro 2016?
Wales got a respectable group for Euro 2016, and with the 24 team tournament instead of 16, there was even more optimism that this was going to be Wales’ time. The first time in half a century that they would be qualifying for a major tournament.
They had a scare, to say the least, in Andorra when the team had to be a bailed out by the main man, Bale. But from that result, the Welsh side have gone from strength to strength. Coleman risked and trusted a back five and it has worked a treat with draws against Bosnia and at Belgium, and a win at home against Belgium, the second-ranked team in the world.
The campaign so far has given the small but passionate country of Wales renewed hope and dreams that they can qualify for a major international tournament. And because of that win against Belgium, it will see Wales in pot 1 for the draw for World Cup qualifying which brings optimism, expectation and ambition to their push for the World Cup.
All I can say is, thank you Gary Speed for the rejuvenation of our dying sport. You will never be forgotten.
As of 09 July 2015, Wales are ranked 10th in the FIFA World Rankings.