How did Wales develop their golden generation?

Welsh Sports Journalist of the Year Chris Wathan speaks to Newstalk.Sport's Raf Diallo ahead of Ireland qualifier

Wales, Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Euro 2016

Wales' Gareth Bale (left) celebrates with teammate Aaron Ramsey after seeing his side score their first goal of the game conceded by Northern Ireland's Gareth McAuley (not pictured) during the round of 16 match at the Parc de Princes, Paris. Owen Humphreys/PA Archive/PA Images

When Ireland edged Wales in the first ever international soccer fixture at Croke Park, neither side would go on to qualify for Euro 2008.

The Boys in Green were in the midst of the Steve Staunton era, which as we all remember was as low an ebb for the national team as there had been since the post-Jack Charlton era.

But even in those days, Ireland would still find themselves above the Welsh, who finished two spots behind in the qualifying group.

Fast forward a decade and Wales are coming off the back of their greatest footballing adventure at Euro 2016 and depending on what happens against Ireland in Dublin on Friday could breathe momentum back into their hopes of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1958.

The nation is currently operating on the foundations of that oft-used word, golden generation. For Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ashley Williams, Ben Davies are all playing at clubs at the elite level.

Their ages fall within the mid-20s to early '30s bracket which does make it a generation of sorts. But they also grew together as young players in the darker times as Wales struggled in the qualifying campaigns prior to Euro 2016.

But has the creation of this Welsh golden generation been a result of design or fate?

I put that question to Wales' Sports Journalist of the Year and Wales Online Chief Football Writer, Chris Wathan, author of Together Stronger : The Rise of Welsh Football's Golden Generation which charts the rise of this Welsh group.

You can listen to the full chat with Chris on the audio player:

"You look at this side and you can't deny that there are some talents that you probably won't see the likes of again and obviously the main one in that is Gareth Bale," said Wathan, who explains that for a small nation, coach education in Wales is "fantastic" and the Welsh FA adopted small-sided games and a focus on technique which helps develop technically adept players.

Wathan continues: "And to see so many coming through at the same time is not only a bit of good fortune in terms of the Welsh national team. But it's also a product of almost desperation.

"When John Toshack took over the national team after Mark Hughes' side had come so close to Euro 2004, there was nothing really underneath. It had to go to a level below again and players that were under-21s."

As it happened, ex-Wrexham and Swansea City manager Brian Flynn was in charge of the under-21s between 2004 and 2012 and is a key figure in the rise of this Welsh generation - both in giving them chances underage and identifying those players who could have Welsh heritage.

"Flynn wouldn't necessarily go to Championship or Premier League games. He'd go to the academies and training grounds and shake everyone's hands and if someone had a drop of Welsh blood in him, Brian Flynn knew all about it," says Wathan who picks out the examples of captain Ashley Williams and Hal Robson Kanu as examples of those who it turned out had Welsh grandparentage.  

 

"He liked the look of Williams and thought there was a player there and thought with the name 'Williams', there's half a chance he's got some Welsh blood - and as it happened he did - but nothing to do with his surname, Williams. The Welsh blood came through his mother's side and it so happens he's the captain that leads them into their first major finals."   

Wathan also explains that an element of instilling Welsh culture into the players has also been key.

While there can be an argument about throwing young players in too early - Liverpool teenager Ben Woodburn is currently being talked about in those terms - it had a positive effect for Wales.

"They were able, through a lot of tough times, to grow together. They were in dressing rooms in Azerbaijan when the average age was something like 24 and that was boosted up by one or two players, so a very, very young side who go through these experiences together. Those shared experiences and shared bonds have created something special," Wathan explains. 

He also makes the point that Wales "didn't wait for club sides to validate" the young players, incorporating them into the international setup without hesitation. 

And it doesn't just apply to the players as Mark Hughes, the late Gary Speed and current boss Chris Coleman were all young managers who were given the chance to take the helm of their nation.

"The choice of Coleman was an interesting one as someone who had actually been identified as a potential future Wales manager after early successes at Fulham and yet he'd obviously fallen away," says Wathan of Coleman who stepped in at a difficult time after the passing of his former team-mate Speed.