From rock bottom to a brand new era - The full story of Wales' return to football's greatest stage

Since Rob Page’s men beat Ukraine in the play-off finals on 5 June, the fantasy of a World Cup has started to become a reality for fans across the country. Credit: ITV Wales
  • By ITV Wales Journalist Saihaj Jaspal

When Wales take on the USA on Monday 21 November, it will be the first time since 1958 the Dragons have featured on the biggest stage of all.

For most in Wales, the World Cup is a distant memory. For many, it’s something that has only ever existed as fantasy.

But since Rob Page’s men beat Ukraine in the play-off final on 5 June, that fantasy has started to become a reality for fans across the country.

It all came down to one game on a summer’s night of high emotion and drama in Cardiff. But in truth, Wales’ journey to the World Cup has been 64 years in the making - and at one point, it felt like it might never happen.

Decades of hurt

Years of disappointment, near-misses and false hope plagued the nation for so long.

There was a pointless qualifying campaign for the 1970 World Cup.

A controversial penalty against Scotland then denied Cymru a place at the '78 World Cup.

In the 90s, under coach Terry Yorath, glimmers of hope tempted the nation to dream.

Cymru were able to build momentum and collect impressive results.

A controversial penalty awarded to Scotland ruined Wales' chances of reaching the 1978 World Cup. Credit: PA

In August 1993 the Welsh team reached their highest ever World ranking at the time, placing 27th.

This rise culminated in an impressive qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup.

A win was needed to send Wales to their first World Cup since 1958. With the scores at 1-1 in the late stages of the game, a penalty was awarded to Wales.

The nation held its breath...

Paul Bodin stepped up and smashed the crossbar.

It was heartbreak for Wales once again as Romania went on to win.

Just like Scotland in '77, Wales fell at the final hurdle. Scars were left as a hurt nation wondered if they’d ever see the Dragon on the world stage.

The BBC abandoned coverage of England's game in San Marino to show events in Cardiff live as Bodin missed that fateful penalty Credit: PA

Paul Corkrey is a lifelong Wales fan who’s followed the Dragons through the despair of missed opportunities.

He was there on that “devastating” night in Cardiff and said after that, “There was no expectation, it just became a joke.”

The fifty-six-year-old from Treharris said, to make things worse, fans became disillusioned and club rivalries triggered infighting at national games.

Paul Corkrey,(left), 56, FSA Cymru fan embassy coordinator, has been going to watch Wales for more than 20 years. Credit: Paul Corkrey

Most surprising was the inability of iconic players like Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs to lead their country to a major tournament.

Former Wales striker Robert Earnshaw made his debut for his country in 2002 and was part of a series of unsuccessful attempts to make it to a World Cup.

“We had a good team, great players, but we almost did it. Then you have that for 64 years,” said Earnshaw.

A distant memory

It was hard to believe at this point, but times weren't always as dire.

The 1958 World Cup in Sweden was the pinnacle of a golden age of Welsh football.

Greats such as Ivor Allchurch and John Charles led Cymru to the quarter-finals of the tournament, where they were drawn against a rising Brazil team. 

The Welsh team at the 1958 World Squad lining up to face Mexico in a group game. Credit: PA

After a tough affair, Brazil ended up proving too good for Wales as they were narrowly beaten 1-0.

The goal scorer was none other than a 17-year-old Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, otherwise known as Pele. He became the youngest goal-scorer in World Cup history.

There was some consolation as Brazil would go on to win the competition with Pele scoring a hat-trick in the semi-final and two goals in the final.

17 year-old Pele scored his first World Cup goal to knock Wales out of the tournament. Credit: PA

The World Cup was not always the prestigious global event it is today - at least, not in Wales.

On the journey home from their impressive campaign in Sweden, there were no crowds or open-top bus parades waiting to greet the stars of '58.

Instead, they were confronted by a ticket inspector at Swansea train station who was curious as to where the group had been on holiday.

From rock bottom to a new era

After a miserable defeat to Finland in 2009, the players were jeered off the pitch as the team found itself at rock bottom. In September 2010, John Toshack left the Wales managerial job.

Despite his pedigree, John Toshack enjoyed little success as manager of Wales. 18 players retired from International duty during his tenure. Credit: PA

In December 2010 the FAW decided that a major shake-up was needed as another manager had failed to take Wales to the summit of world football.

In came Welsh legend Gary Speed to lead Wales into a new era.

Speed was clear about his goal from the get-go. He wanted to revolutionise the make-up and culture of the national team.

In December 2010 the FAW appointed Gary Speed as manager. He went on to revolutionise the way the national team operated. Credit: PA

Former Cardiff City striker Earnshaw was a senior member of the national team when Speed came in. He told me the first thing his ex-teammate said to a few of the experienced members of the squad:

“Remember 2003, when we just missed out on qualifying for the 2004 Euros?

“We got so close against Russia but the reason we lost and the reason we didn’t make it is because we weren’t good enough."

At the time, Speed explained to Earnshaw and the rest of his squad: “So now, we're going to do things better and be the best prepared team in the world.”

When Speed (right) became manager, he told Earnshaw (right) that Wales were going to be the best prepared team in the world. Credit: PA

Speed inherited a young and talented squad, many of whom were given a chance by Toshack.

The likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen were young in their careers, but the potential was there for all to see.

Lewin Nyatanga played for Wales 34 times from 2006-11. He was once Wales’ youngest ever player until Bale broke his record.

Nyatanga watched a young Gareth Bale begin to make strides in his international career. Credit: PA

He recalled something changing in former team-mate Bale that made everyone take notice:

“In his second year at Tottenham, there was some crazy shift. It was weird, it was like okay this is a different person now. It went from us thinking he’s extremely talented, to okay, we’ve got a world class player on our hands.”

Together, stronger

Before a ball was kicked, Speed laid out the blueprint for what was to be a complete restructuring of Welsh football.

“The foundations were laid then, for what we see today.” Earnshaw said Speed paid attention to every minor detail, from efficiency of travel and hotel standards to in-depth video analysis.

“Speed had the understanding,” explained the former striker. “Knowledge and foresight to look at everything that was happening with Wales’s international setup and dive into every little part.

“The foundations were laid then, for what we see today.”

A symbolic tale from Speed’s time as Wales manager highlights the emphasis he placed on the Welsh national identity and the culture of the team.

According to Earnshaw, Speed paid attention to every minor detail from efficiency of travel and hotel standards to in-depth video analysis. Credit: PA

Nyatanga recalled a unique afternoon on one of Speed’s first training camps.

“I can remember everyone meeting in the afternoon in a conference room and going through the national anthem.

“Everyone singing it, everyone having it written out on a piece of paper.

 “We then had to go and take it back to our rooms and it was very very clear that come match-day everyone was expected to sing, no exceptions.”

For all of the changes Speed made to the structure of the national team, it took some time for them to be seen on the pitch. 

After a couple of losses in August 2011, Wales fell to their lowest ever world ranking of 117th.

However, unlike in previous eras, the players knew this was no false dawn. Something was different this time.

In the next two months, after three wins out of four, Wales rose an impressive seventy-two places to 45th. 

Speed’s revolution was taking shape and the Dragon was slowly starting to spread its wings. A new era had truly begun.

Emerging from a shadow

Gary Speed was 42 years-old when he took his own life. Credit: PA

But on Sunday November 27 2011 Gary Speed was found dead at his family home in Cheshire, having taken his own life.

The news sent shockwaves around the country. All thoughts of football evaporated.

Above all else, people came together to mourn the loss of a father, son and husband.

Earnshaw spoke of the shock he felt when he saw the news:

“The first reaction was disbelief. Sad, numb, completely numb. I was in a state of shock.

“He was a team-mate for me, a manager, and also a friend of mine. He was one of the guys I always looked up to, a great person.”

The nation mourned the passing of a great, a professional adored in the game by so many.

The FAW took the next steps to build on the foundations Speed had laid and hired Chris Coleman as manager.

Chris Coleman became the first manager to lose his first five games and there were calls for him to resign after a 6-1 loss to Serbia. Credit: PA

In a footballing context, Wales struggled and Coleman endured a disastrous start to his tenure.

He became the first manager to lose his first five games and there were calls for him to resign after a 6-1 loss to Serbia.

However, fortunes began to change for the Dragons as they put together impressive results which led them to their highest ever FIFA ranking of 8th in the world in 2015.

It also meant they went above England for the first time in history.

On the back of this steady momentum, Coleman led his team to somewhere no Welshman had been since Jimmy Murphy and his men in 1958 - a major tournament.

On October 10, 2015, Wales qualified for the European Championships in France and the Red Wall was going with them.

An unexpected journey and a nation united

When Wales qualified for the 2016 Euros, many across the country would have seen progressing from a group including Russia, Slovakia and England as a massive success.

Coleman and his team had other ideas. 

In one of the most surprising runs in recent times, a Bale-led Wales managed to reach the semi-finals of the tournament.

In one of the most surprising runs in recent times, Coleman and his team managed to reach the semi-finals of the tournament. Credit: PA

After topping the group with impressive wins against Slovakia and Russia, Wales stunned Belgium in a famous quarter-final victory 3-1.

To this day, Hal-Robson Kanu’s iconic goal and the scenes of jubilation that ensued are etched into the memories of football supporters across the country.

A nation once disillusioned with the national team had gathered in numbers both at home and in France to support them.

Die-hard Cymru fan, Paul Corkrey believes the tournament was the greatest thing to happen to Welsh football. 

“The peak is France, that’s the zenith of everything. All different people were now supporting Wales at home and in France. 

“It wasn’t 500 lads going away on a jolly, all of a sudden there was a cultural change.”

Players like Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale and Joe Allen are part of a golden generation of players who are pivotal to Wales' success. Credit: PA

When Coleman resigned in 2017, Ryan Giggs was tasked to do what Coleman had done with Speed and carry the torch.

Two years into his tenure, Giggs stepped down due to his arrest on assault charges.

It was an unexpected twist and fans were left worrying that years of growth would fizzle out into nothing.

However, it would be the man no one expected who would go on to write his own page in the Welsh history books.

Rob Page, assistant under Giggs, was initially appointed as caretaker manager. Many were left underwhelmed with the selection and some didn't even know who he was.

Page’s chapter

Rob Page is the current manager of the Welsh team. Credit: PA

As Daffyd Iwan’s Yma o Hyd echoed around a thunderous Cardiff City Stadium on June 5, 2022, Wales were one game away from qualifying for their first World Cup in 64 years.

Rob Page had been in charge of the team for two years. 

He had done well to build on the foundations laid by Speed - and advanced by Coleman - to get Cymru within touching distance of World Cup qualification.

As two heroic goals from Bale put Wales past Austria, Ukraine were the final team standing in their way. 

Captain Gareth Bale is Wales' record goalscorer. He scored 3 times in Cymru's final two World Cup play-off games.

With the backdrop of their country’s war with Russia, the Ukrainians were motivated more than ever.

But a nervy Wales managed to subdue the impressive Ukrainians and a deflected free-kick by Bale put Wales into the lead in the first-half. 

The rest of the game belonged to veteran keeper Wayne Hennessey as he resisted the constant Ukrainian threat against his goal and secured victory for his nation.

Cardiff City Stadium was delirious as Wales finally rid itself of its 64-year World Cup drought.

Dreams to reality

When Cymru play the USA in their first group game of the 2022 World Cup, they will be standing on the shoulders of those before them.

Many believe that before a ball is kicked at this winter’s tournament, Wales have already won.

As Corkrey highlights, a legacy is being created.

“We will get 12 million pounds even if we don’t win a match. We can build grassroots facilities throughout Wales. 

“We need to spend this money wisely so that every kid in Wales who wants to play football can play.”

“Every country in the world, the poorest and richest will be watching the World Cup and guess what, Wales will be there."

Wales’s 64 year journey to the World Cup has been filled with heartache, tragedy and joy.

For those that remember the last time Cymru played at a World Cup, Qatar will be a chance to create new memories. For those that don’t, it will be a chance to stop dreaming and start believing.