England in the sights of killer Wales

England and Wales come face to face at the Euros next week, and Chris Coleman’s side head into the game against the country with whom they share more than just a border holding no fear… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Saturday 11th June, 2016

Euro 2016 kicks off this weekend, and with the tournament having expanded to 24 teams for this year’s edition countries like Albania, Iceland, and Northern Ireland, who have never participated before, will all be joining the party.

Wales are another side to have qualified for the competition for the first time, and they have been given a tantalising draw for their first major finals appearance in 58 years, being placed in Group B with neigbours England.

The only previous time Wales made it to an international tournament was way back in 1958, when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals of the World Cup by Brazil 1-0 – a 17-year-old Pele scoring his first World Cup goal for the winner – but despite not being regulars on this stage the Dragons are quietly confident of making their mark in France.

The presence of Gareth Bale in the side is of course a key source of that optimism – with any team boosted by having a player with such unique ability in their ranks – but being able to call upon the world’s most expensive footballer isn’t the only reason Chris Coleman’s side fancy their chances of reaching the knockout rounds, with the likes of Swansea City stalwart Ashley Williams and Arsenal star Aaron Ramsey also adding quality to the side.

Twenty-one of Wales’ 23-man squad play their football in England (the two who don’t are Bale, of Real Madrid, and third-choice goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams, of Scottish Premiership side Inverness Caledonian Thistle), adding extra spice to a game which is sure to be played in a fantastic atmosphere.

In fact, nine of Wales’ squad were actually born in England, with captain Ashley Williams, James Chester, Jonathan Williams, David Edwards, George Williams, Andy King, Simon Church, Sam Vokes, and Hal Robson-Kanu all qualifying to play for the Dragons by virtue of a Welsh-born parent or grandparent.

Robson-Kanu perhaps provides the best illustration of the close football links between England and Wales, having played for England’s under-category teams before opting to represent the country of his grandmother’s birth. In 2008 he lined up alongside Ryan Bertrand for England U19s, while the following year he was in the same England U20 team as Jordan Henderson. He will be on the opposite side to that pair in Lens on June 16th, though, now sporting a red dragon instead of the three lions.

As nations who share a border there is of course a rivalry between England and Wales when it comes to sport – especially rugby union, which is hugely popular in Wales – but it is not quite as heated or fierce as those that England share with Scotland, Northern Ireland, or Republic of Ireland.

The recent history of armed conflict in Northern Ireland obviously adds an unwanted edge to England games against the sides from north and south of the Irish border, while a long and bloody past with Scotland – and the fact that, in football terms, the two used to be considered as similar in quality – makes for a heated, often unsavoury, atmosphere when the ‘Auld Enemies’ meet.

Football Channel, 11th June, 2016 (Getty Images)

In general there is less antagonism between England and Wales (except, again, when they clash in rugby) and the tabloid coverage in England has not really developed much beyond light-hearted digs at their ‘Battle of Britain’ opponents (the Sunday Mirror’s headline was “England v. Bale (sorry, we mean Wales)”, for instance).

There is still sure to be a frenzied atmosphere when the teams come head to head for the first time at a major finals, though – the consumption of alcohol has been banned in Lens city centre on the day of the game, for instance – and neither set of fans or players will want to be on the losing side.

In a football sense, however, both sides appear reasonably happy with the draw – especially the fact they play each other on the second matchday.

With more teams in the competition now it is not so difficult to secure progression from the group stages, and four points is likely to be enough to make it the round of 16. If England and Wales can pick up positive results in their opening games against Russia and Slovakia, respectively, then, a draw may suit both when they come head to head.

“I think we’ll get a result against England, I really do,” former Wales striker Craig Bellamy was quoted as saying by Wales Online.

“If their full-backs bomb on and centre-backs come forward, we have players who can expose that. When you’ve got the pace of Gareth Bale you know you can cause problems for anyone.

“My only concern is Slovakia because I’ve watched some of their games and I can see that they typically like to sit in and we don’t have the sort of offence to break them down easily.”

Another Welsh legend, goalkeeper Neville Southall, similarly identified the Slovakia game as the one to be wary of.

“There is a lot of pressure on that one,” Wales’ record cap-holder told The Mirror. “The first game is vital, whether you get a draw or a win – you can’t afford to lose that.

“I’ve forgotten we’re playing England — let’s worry about that game when it comes along. I think everyone outside of Wales expects England to win, and that’s a good position for us to be in – the more pressure on England the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

Pressure was something that another ex-Wales international chose to highlight, suggesting that Bale and co. have nothing to lose.

“Wales is very much looking forward to this as a nation: we’ve waited 58 years,” former Arsenal forward John Hartson told the BBC. “The pressure will be on England who are coming off a terrible World Cup. With Wales, it’s pressure off.”

Indeed, with the bragging rights and a historic win up for grabs Wales will be desperate to beat Roy Hodgson’s men, who know that defeat by their Welsh neighbours would certainly take a long time to live down.


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