Gareth Bale tips Wales’s mix of oldies and young talent to overcome odds

Record goalscorer is relishing senior role and warns that ‘the bookies aren’t always right’ ahead of Slovakia clash

The last time Wales faced Slovakia in Cardiff, at a less than half-empty Millennium Stadium in October 2006, they suffered one of their most humiliating home defeats, yet there was a silver lining amid the wreckage of a 5-1 hammering. A fresh-faced 17-year-old by the name of Gareth Bale marked his third international cap with his first goal for Wales, curling a glorious free-kick into the top corner that afternoon in a sign of what was to come.

Fast forward the best part of 13 years and the tables have turned as Bale prepares to come up against the same opponents on home soil on Sunday as the longest-serving player in the Wales squad, the country’s all-time record goalscorer and, to borrow the Real Madrid forward’s own description of himself, as one of the “oldies”.

Bale smiled as he recalled singing Wonderwall as part of his initiation ceremony back in the days when John Toshack was in charge – “It won’t be coming out again,” he said, laughing – and gave the impression he is enjoying watching the next generation go through the same process that he did, on and off the field.

“The singing’s pretty bad,” said Bale, who turns 30 in July. “But we have got some good youngsters coming through. It’s about us oldies now giving them some advice and helping them along the way. Hopefully then they will provide that bit of freshness, a bit of legs that maybe we had five or six years ago. But don’t count out the oldies.”

The challenge for Ryan Giggs is to harness that exciting young talent, especially in the attacking areas. Harry Wilson (22), Dan James (21), David Brooks (21), Ben Woodburn (19), Rabbi Matondo (18) and Tyler Roberts (20) all point to a bright future, but for Wales it is also about the here and now. Their Euro 2020 qualification campaign gets under way with Slovakia’s visit and Bale’s answer to a question about whether these two nations will be competing for second place in Group E said everything about his own expectations.

“No, we’re going for top spot. I don’t know why we wouldn’t,” Bale replied, dismissing the idea that Croatia, World Cup finalists, are nailed on to run away with the Euro 2020 qualifying group. “We’re always the underdogs and the bookies aren’t always right. We’re going into this campaign looking to win the group and there’s no reason why we can’t.”

The bad news for Wales is they will have to face Slovakia without one of their most influential players. Aaron Ramsey was unable to take part in the final training session and Giggs confirmed the midfielder has returned to Arsenal for treatment on a thigh injury picked up against Rennes in the Europa League. “It’s a big blow for us,” Bale said. “We’ll miss him but it gives someone else a chance to step in.”

In many ways Ramsey’s absence adds to the weight on Bale’s shoulders, given the Arsenal player’s replacement – Roberts, Woodburn or James are all options, depending on the system that Giggs favours – is likely to be a youngster. Bale, however, never seems fazed by that pressure to deliver for his country and often looks liberated in a Wales shirt, almost as if he relishes escaping the unforgiving spotlight that he often performs under for Real Madrid.

There is no getting away from the fact that it has been a difficult season for Madrid and Bale, who has been criticised by some of the club’s supporters. Questions about his club football were off limits in the pre-match press conference, but there was a hint of frustration in the response Bale delivered when one reporter asked about his injuries this season.

“I have only had one injury. I have been fine,” Bale said. “I have been playing, I’ve scored a decent amount of goals. I am ready, I am raring to go.”

Bale and his Wales teammates do not need to look far for inspiration when it comes to this qualifying campaign. Slovakia were their opening opponents at Euro 2016, when Bale scored with another free-kick on a beautiful summer afternoon in Bordeaux that ended with Wales winning 2-1 and laying the foundations for a run to the semi-finals in what was their first major tournament since 1958. The challenge now is to experience more of the same.

“Everybody knows how difficult it is to qualify, we have only done it twice in our history,” Bale said. “All the youngsters know what it means, what it takes to do it. We have watched videos of the last qualifying campaign to relive what it was like.

“We know it’s going to be difficult, we know it’s a hard group. But we are all ready and prepared to give everything on that pitch for the jersey. We will do all we can.”


Stuart James

The GuardianTramp

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