Wales reached the semi-finals of a major tournament for the first time as they recovered from a goal down to beat Belgium 3-1 at Euro 2016.
After falling behind to Radja Nainggolan’s superb 25-yard strike, Welsh captain Ashley Williams powerfully headed in from a corner to equalise during an exhilarating first half. The game continued to swing from end-to-end in the second half, ten minutes into which Wales took the lead through Hal Robson-Kanu’s sublime finish after an exquisitely executed Cryuff turn.
Following that Belgium intensively tried to engineer an equaliser. However they were unable to do so, as Sam Vokes scored with a fine late header to seal a historic Welsh victory and set-up a semi-final clash against Portugal.
Such a scenario is one which was entirely unimaginable four and a half years ago when Chris Coleman was appointed Wales manager on January 19, 2012, as he succeeded his close friend Gary Speed who tragically died the previous November.
Nightmarish start to Coleman’s reign
Given approximately seven months to prepare for the start of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, Coleman was faced with the unenviable task of trying to galvanise a squad of players devastated by the loss of Speed, whilst being sensitive to their request to maintain the team’s status quo.
Specifically that meant allowing Speed’s former coaches Raymond Verheijen and Osain Roberts to remain heavily involved in managing the team. Given that it was extremely difficult for Coleman to make many significant, if any at all, changes within the Welsh camp for fear of upsetting the team’s players and fans, who revered the work undertaken by Speed.
Subsequently working under intensely testing circumstances, Coleman endured a torturous start to his managerial reign whereby he became the first Welsh manager to lose his first five games in charge. The fifth of those was a humiliating 6-1 defeat against Serbia in Novi Sad, as Wales lost their opening two 2014 World Cup Qualification games.
Acting authoritatively to inspire incredible journey
Following that, in an effort to stem the tide of devastatingly disappointing results, Coleman identified the need to act decisively and began to develop a team on the basis of his beliefs and ideas. One of those was to relieve Aaron Ramsey of the captaincy and reassign that to Ashley Williams.
Initially Wales’ results did not markedly improve, but shoots of recovery were evident in their performances, particularly in their last 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Specifically after beating Macedonia at home 1-0, the Welsh earned a creditable 1-1 draw away to Belgium to give them optimism ahead of the Euro 2016 qualification campaign.
Excellent Euro 2016 endeavours
They began that by winning four and drawing two of their first six games. Two of those were against Belgium, the first of which ended in a 0-0 draw in Brussels, before the Dragons won the return fixture 1-0. That result put Wales three points clear of Belgium at the top of Qualification Group B.
However they surrendered that position to the Belgians, after losing their penultimate qualification game 2-0 away to Bosnia, in what was their first trip back to the Balkans since being ignominiously beaten 6-1 by Serbia. Nevertheless Wales finished second to secure qualification to their first major championship since 1958.
After masterminding that achievement, Coleman has continued to display his wealth of tactical acumen at the finals to guide his team to the tournament’s last four. That is set to be an enthralling contest against Portugal, particularly since Real Madrid team mates Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo will engage in an intriguing duel.
As such from the nightmare Novi Sad scenes, Wales’ journey to the Euro 2016 semi-final has been the stuff of dreams.