It has not been a bad few days for Neco Williams. Four days on from making his Wales debut, the Wrexham-born teenager popped up to score a stoppage-time winner, heading in after getting his “fringe on the ball”, as he so modestly put it afterwards. The Liverpool defender arrived in the box with purpose as one second-half substitute supplied another. One Williams located another, with Jonny hanging an inviting cross towards the back post for Neco to nod in and condemn Bulgaria to a Nations League defeat.
Williams wheeled away in celebration before a pile-on ensued. Ryan Giggs raised a smile on the touchline and Gareth Bale, who completed 90 minutes for the first time since January, embraced the full-back, who superbly beat Bulgarian winger Spas Delev to head goalwards in the nick of time and earn a youthful Wales a fourth consecutive victory without reply, winning four competitive games in a row for the first time since 2003. Next up? England in a Wembley friendly next month.
Williams will likely come up against Trent Alexander-Arnold, with whom he tasted winning the Premier League at Anfield in June, but things could have played out differently had the Football Association got their way. “England were trying to ring my agent a lot and wanting to speak to me but I’m Welsh, my family is Welsh and for me it was always going to be Wales,” he said. “For sure it will be a great game but with the quality we have in this team, I think we are going to prove to them that we are capable of beating them.”
But, make no mistake, this was a torrid and pedestrian game. If Giggs conceded Thursday’s performance in Finland was gritty as opposed to free flowing, this was stodgy and, at times, a nonevent. Bale had a shot blocked and David Brooks rattled the woodwork on his return to the team but clear-cut chances were at a premium.
Giggs tweaked personnel from midweek, with Matthew Smith of Manchester City and Brooks of Bournemouth replacing Dylan Levitt and Jonny Williams. Bale was withdrawn in Helsinki with one eye on this match and the Wales captain, an increasingly peripheral figure at Real Madrid, for whom he played just 48 minutes across 12 matches after La Liga resumed in June, lasted the distance here. “The last game I was struggling but those 45 minutes did me well and I was happy to get through 90 minutes,” Bale said.
Hal Robson-Kanu – recalled to the Wales squad this month two years on from retiring from international duty – arrived on the hour in place of Kieffer Moore for his first appearance in a Wales shirt for 1,063 days but found the Bulgaria back line equally stubborn. Only occasionally did a lukewarm game hot up, with Brooks stabbing wide on the volley after latching on to an unconvincing backward header by the Bulgaria defender Kristian Dimitrov.
The sound of the supporters singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau from their last game here in November, when a capacity crowd witnessed Aaron Ramsey seal European Championship qualification against Hungary, played over the speakers as the players sang the national anthem but the game itself failed to inspire. Daniel James stung the palms of Georgi Georgiev, the Bulgaria goalkeeper, after a neat give-and-go with Brooks but Neco Williams, who replaced the Swansea right-back Connor Roberts with 25 minutes left, was the unlikely hero. “It wasn’t vintage, but in the end we got what we deserved,” said Giggs.
For Wales,the goal represented another late winner after Moore’s heroics 10 minutes from time in Helsinki. “It’s a good trait to have,” Giggs said. “It wasn’t the flowing football we have produced in the past but I think that is to do with the time of the season, the fitness of the players, the sharpness of the players. We started sluggish, we looked flat. We have had some good clean sheets and when you have clean sheets it always give you a chance.”