Skip to content
Home > Fate Deals Daniel James A Cruel Hand But Now Rob Page Faces Tough Questions Over Wales’ Future

Fate Deals Daniel James A Cruel Hand But Now Rob Page Faces Tough Questions Over Wales’ Future

Never before have Wales experienced the excruciating realities of a penalty shootout. Never before has their fate been decided by one kick of the ball, 12 yards from goal, with an entire nation watching. It can be a beautiful way to win a game but, as Wales learned here, it can also be the most brutal way to lose it.

In the end, it was Daniel James who felt the pain of defeat, the pain that comes with missing the decisive effort. Poland scored five out of five, Wales scored four and then James failed on their fifth. Wojciech Szczesny dived right, saved low, and guaranteed Poland a place in this summer’s European Championship.

For a little while, James stood alone as white-shirted Poland players streamed around him in celebration. Soon his team-mates arrived, as crestfallen and broken as him, as the realisation set in that the dream of a third successive European Championship had died in front of their eyes.

“It is a cruel game,” said Rob Page, the Wales manager. “One kick away from qualifying. It hurts.”

In the coming weeks, there will be uncomfortable questions for Page and the entire Wales setup to answer. Can they truly thrive in the post-Gareth Bale era? Can this new crop of players ever match the standards set by the previous generation? The immediate aftermath of such a gruelling loss, though, was not the time for a post-mortem.

After the shootout there was mainly sorrow and disappointment, but mixed within the anguish was considerable pride in the effort that had taken Wales to that point. The home crowd sang for their players, even after the game had been lost. The national anthem at the end was a statement of support, as well as a show of respect to a group of men who had battled so breathlessly for more than two hours.

“Look how far we have come,” said Page. “There is something good happening with this group. This team is going somewhere. They are hungry for it. There is a lot more to come.”

In truth, Wales had not done enough during normal time or extra time to win the game. They had chances, but only half-chances, and that was also true of Poland. Attacking, flowing football was not the winner on a night defined by tension and angst rather than any genuine quality in the final third.

Within around 10 minutes of kick-off it had become clear that extra time was looming. And within around 10 seconds of extra time it had become clear that penalties would be required. It was that kind of night, and the pressures of the shootout must have weighed on the players long before the final whistle sounded.

Perhaps that pressure proved too much for James, taking the fifth penalty for Wales in front of the ‘Red Wall’ of home supporters. Before him, there had been successful efforts by Ben Davies, Kieffer Moore, Harry Wilson and Neco Williams.

“It is a difficult one to take,” said Davies. “We put everything into the game but in the end it wasn’t to be. It was a good performance but in the end the result is the most important thing and that went against us tonight. There was not much between us. It is an emotional one right now.”

James, the Leeds United winger, did not deserve to be the pivotal figure on the night. Throughout extra time he had scrapped and defended in an unfamiliar role, putting his body on the line as a full-back after Connor Roberts had limped off. But shootouts are football’s most merciless exercise, and this moment will now weigh on James for weeks to come.

“We rallied around Daniel James, he had the bravery to take that penalty,” said Page. “I am so proud of that.”

Over the course of the night, this was an occasion that showcased the best and worst of the current Wales team. Their defensive organisation and spirit was enormously impressive, as Chris Mepham, Joe Rodon and Davies totally eradicated the threat of the great Robert Lewandowski. Ethan Ampadu and Jordan James never stopped running and fighting in midfield.

At the other end of the field, however, a lack of attacking precision and class was once again a problem. A long-term issue for Wales has been an inability to play through teams, with Page instead building a side that either plays in front of the opposition or attempts to run in behind them. Almost all of their chances came from set pieces or crosses, with Moore going closest to finding a winning goal.

As the match progressed, Poland took control despite the formidable atmosphere that had been created here. The Wales home support never holds back during the national anthem but, even by their usual high standards, it had been a pre-match rendition that rattled the bones and stirred the soul.

These are the occasions that have generally brought the best out of Wales in recent years, although the excitement soon turned to anxiety in the stands. Before long, that apprehension had become the central feature of the entire occasion. Everywhere you looked, in the stands and on the pitch, nervousness ruled.

Never more so than during the shootout, at the moment of truth. Poland, led by Lewandowski, were deadly with their efforts. Wales, simply, were not. That is football. That is the brutality of penalties.

Wales lose in penalty shoot-out: As it happened…