What next for Wales? A comprehensive look into the future and the next golden generation by Rory Lewis
Euro 2016. One of the greatest underdog stories in the history of international football, and the undeniable pinnacle of Welsh football. A country of only 3 million inhabitants, one that only five years prior had sat a lowly 112 th in the FIFA World Rankings, reaching the semi-final of one of the most prestigious footballing competitions out there. A 2-0 loss to Portugal did little to dampen the national spirit, with the Welsh national anthem ringing around the Stade de Lyon after full time, the 23-man squad of warriors applauding their proud compatriots in the stands.
Over five years later, that ‘golden generation’ is preparing for its last dance – the 2022 World Cup. Wales look likely to progress to the World Cup playoffs and would be faced with two one-legged ties to determine qualification for Qatar, a feat that in itself would mark a magnificent crowning glory for a nation that has only qualified for three major tournaments in its history (the 1958 World Cup, Euro 2016 and Euro 2020). Players such as Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, and Joe Allen, some of the last remaining heroes of Euro 2016, will likely see the upcoming World Cup as their last chance to play on the highest level for Wales.
The Next Generation
Several of the most promising Welsh footballers of this next generation have already hit the limelight, with Daniel James having made big-money moves to Manchester United and Leeds, David Brooks the subject of attention from a number of Premier League suitors after dazzling displays for Bournemouth, Ethan Ampadu and Neco Williams breaking through at two of the biggest sides in the country, and Harry Wilson and Joe Rodon both having made significant transfers to London. In this article, however, I’ll focus on younger, lesser-known players, whose potentials have yet to be realised.
Ben Cabango (Swansea City)
With a WhoScored.com average rating of 7.12 over the course of the 2020/21 Championship campaign, Ben Cabango ranked as the 16 th best performer in the league, and the youngest in the top 20. The 21-year-old is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joe Rodon as the next highly talented centre-back from Swansea City, and if the aforementioned stats are anything to go by, he’s well on his way to achieving that. His crowning strength is his aerial ability, most clearly evident in the two legs of the 2020/21 Playoff semi-final against Barnsley, in which Ben Cabango and his equally promising defensive partner Marc Guehi were entirely dominant against Valerin Ismael’s high intensity, long-ball focused setup and Daryl Dike’s physicality. This aerial ability has also proved useful in the opposition box, with Cabango having scored 6 times across his blossoming Swansea career. The main criticism of Cabango’s game is his passing ability, seeing him miss out on the Wales first team to more technically gifted players in Joe Rodon, Chris Mepham and Ethan Ampadu, however this facet of his game is likely to see improvement under new Swansea City manager Russell Martin who will demand his defenders to play short passes and possession football, as seen in his time as MK Dons boss when his side had the third highest average possession share in Europe, behind only Manchester City and Barcelona.
Brennan Johnson (Nottingham Forest)
The 20-year-old had a sensational breakout season on loan at Lincoln in League One last year, racking up 14 goals and 14 assists for the Imps as they stormed into the playoffs, eventually losing to Blackpool in the final. At 5’11, Johnson does not lack in physicality, allowing him to hold off defenders while making his trademark bursts at the heart of the opposition defence. His skill in dribbling saw him win a remarkable 8 penalties during the 2020/21 season, with shades of Jack Grealish and Wilfried Zaha in his ability to draw fouls. Brennan Johnson has also been touted as a possible number 9 at Nottingham Forest with their lack of quality in the striker position, unsurprisingly due to his magnificent finishing ability and his eye for goal, managing 2.5 shots a game for Lincoln. He was linked with newly promoted Brentford throughout the summer, but a move failed to materialise – but it surely won’t be too long before this talent reaches the Premier League.
Rubin Colwill (Cardiff City)
“He just blew us all away” were the words of Wales boss Robert Page on selecting the uncapped Rubin Colwill in his 26-man Euro 2020 squad – a shock selection given the 19-year-old had only managed 191 minutes of senior professional football in his career at that point, but one based on the huge impact Colwill had during the pre-tournament training camp. Rubin Colwill is a physical attacking midfielder who can also operate on both flanks – a similar mould of player to his fellow Cardiff academy graduate Aaron Ramsey, and potentially his direct replacement in the Wales setup for the future. While he is still very much a young prospect, his highly professional attitude, combined with standing at a height of 6’1 and having an excellent ability to read the game and pick out a pass show him to be a player operating well beyond his years. The 2021/22 season will be a crucial one in his career as he looks to break into the first team at Cardiff and continue his already exciting development.
Dylan Levitt (Manchester United)
With 10 Wales caps to his name by the age of 20, the central midfielder is clearly highly rated within the national setup. The 2020/21 season was a testing one for the prospect at club level – he struggled with the physicality of League One while on loan at Charlton Athletic, before joining Croatian side Istra on loan in January in an attempt to make the Welsh squad for the summer; a move that proved successful, and earnt him praise from the staff at Manchester United for his willingness to fight for first-team senior football and step outside of his comfort zone. On the pitch, however, ‘fight’ is the one element of Levitt’s game that he currently lacks – his technical skill is as good as anybody at his age grade, with exceptional vision combined with unbelievable passing ability. This makes Dylan Levitt a brilliant weapon against weaker international sides playing a low block against the Welsh with his eye for a defence-splitting, game-changing pass, but it is yet to be seen whether he will develop the physicality to compete at the highest level that his technical ability deserves.
My opinion is that the Welsh side will take a different form upon the retirement of Gareth Bale, and of other members of the legendary Euro 2016 side – the squad will lack the superstar that it has boasted over the course of the past decade, their talisman, their ‘Galactico.’ For all the ability in the squad, it has time and time again been one man’s job to save the day – most recently in Wales’ narrow 3-2 win over Belarus, courtesy of a Gareth Bale hat-trick, including a 93 rd minute winner. And while there will likely be no new ‘superstar,’ in this coming generation, or possibly ever, for Wales at the same level as Gareth Bale, what the Welsh national team does now possess is a wealth of top-quality, young talent across all positions.
Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United have all recently developed, or relied upon, the youth of Wales. And, as with those that have gone before them, the newest generation of talent is packed throughout the EFL, ready to make their own ascents to prominence. The future of Wales should be greeted with a sense of optimism – there has never been a more skilled and abundant generation of players in the country’s history than those who are currently climbing to the top. Whether they will reach the heights set during the summer of 2016 is yet to be seen, but there is no doubt that Welsh football is free from the shackles of failure that held it back until so recently, but what now feels like a distant memory.