The magical improvisation of Hal Robson-Kanu capped off a monumental summer in the history of Welsh football as they reached the Euro 2016 semi-finals.
Qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since the 1958 World Cup, excitement ahead of Wales’ first European Championship campaign was palpable.
You can only imagine the scenes of utter delirium when the Dragons scorched the big boys in the competition and booked their place in the final four.
Wales had exceeded almost everyone’s expectations by reaching the quarter-final stage of the competition, let alone the semis. If critics expected their run to grind to a halt, they were left red-faced when the Welsh masterminded a giant-killing against a hotly-favoured Belgium.
The Belgians were one of the favourites for the tournament, awash with Premier League stars in the shape of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois. Two of Wales’ starters were plying their trade in the Championship, of which one was seeking a new club during the tournament after being released by Reading.
That individual just so happened to be Robson-Kanu; Belgium’s conqueror in Lille.
Drawn in a group with England, Slovakia and Russia, the Welsh masses travelled across the English Channel with minimal expectation, savouring the experience of seeing their nation was competing in a major competition.
Some dreamt of a goal, others of a famous win. They got both in the opening match against Slovakia in Bordeaux. Robson-Kanu made the headlines with his winning strike on that night. He could have probably packed his bags then and returned home, content with his contribution.
Gareth Bale was the poster boy of Wales’ charge. You can never detract from his phenomenal achievements at Real Madrid but when Bale pulled on his nation’s jersey, he was a different beast. His enthusiasm for the cause was infectious and his limitless talent inspired Wales to new heights.
Up next was England and Bale relished the magnitude of the occasion. Scorer of a sublime free-kick in the first half, Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions fought back to claim a dramatic victory as Daniel Sturridge found the net deep in injury time.
It was a cruel blow but Wales were to have the last laugh in the group stage. Defeating Russia in comprehensive fashion, their celebrations at the full-time whistle were enhanced by news of England’s goalless draw against Slovakia. Progressing as group winners, a round of 16 tie with fellow home nation Northern Ireland awaited them in Paris.
In a match that consisted of little quality, the onus was on Bale to carve an opening. Probing the Northern Irish defence, Aaron Ramsey played a pass into the path of Bale out wide and his wicked cross left Gareth McAuley with little option other than to bundle the ball into his own net.
It wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination but Wales didn’t care; they’d secured their ticket to the quarter-finals.
Wales had recent experience of facing Marc Wilmots’ outfit, inflicting Belgium’s only defeat of the Euro 2016 qualification phase with a 1-0 win in Cardiff.
Replicating a victory of that ilk in the knockout stage of a major tournament posed an entirely different challenge. Yet Wales had thrived on the underdog status and headed into the contest knowing the pressure was on Belgium to deliver.
So it came as little surprise that when Radja Nainggolan broke the deadlock with a thunderous 25-yard strike after 16 minutes, Wales were not fazed by the occasion.
A gripping end-to-end contest ensued and their attacking endeavour was rewarded when captain Ashley Williams headed in from a corner.
Belgium raced out of the blocks in the second half but Coleman’s side were able to weather several spells of intense Belgian pressure.
Their resilience bore fruit on 55 minutes. Ramsey, the key orchestrator in Wales’ Euro 2016 journey, scampered towards the Belgium goal, latching onto a long ball from Bale. His dinked pass found the feet of Robson-Kanu, who was able to control with his back to goal.
It was at this precise moment where it felt like time had stood still.
Deceiving Thomas Meunier with a stunning Cruyff turn, Robson-Kanu removed three defenders from his path with sublime simplicity.
Now he just had Courtois to beat. With minimal hesitation, he curled his effort into the bottom left corner and sent the contingent of Welsh supporters behind the goal into a frenzy.
All the pre-match talk was on how Bale could be the decisive figure in this contest and yet it turned out to be the man who was without a club, unattached following his release from Reading.
It was the pinnacle of Robson-Kanu’s career.
The tie was not done and dusted, however. Belgium, with their raft of creators and technicians, continued to exert pressure and yet the Wales defence took it in their stride.
With five minutes to go, they sealed their progression to the semi-finals as substitute Sam Vokes powered in a header from Chris Gunter’s cross.
It was the greatest win in Welsh football history.
They may have failed to recreate the underdog triumph against Portugal in the semi-finals but Wales’ historic run had captured the hearts of a nation and finally put the country on the international football map.
As for Robson-Kanu, his goal was later nominated for the FIFA Puskas Award and his performances at Euro 2016 resulted in a move to Premier League side West Bromwich Albion, where he remained for five years before being released.
To Win Outright