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Euros: No more Gareth Bale... but Wales dare to dream again

If ever there was a time for Wales to qualify for a first European Championships, it was in 2015. 

The tournament had been expanded to 24 teams, Wales had a reasonable qualifying draw, but most importantly had the best group of players they’d ever had.

The likes of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen in midfield, Ashley Williams skippering the side, and a bona fide superstar in Gareth Bale.

Bale’s supporting cast were no mere band of merry men, but it wouldn’t be unfair to say that this was the Gareth Bale era for Wales.

A series of memorable performances from Bale took them to Euro 2016, and while the influence of Bale and Ramsey was diminished four years later, the Dragons still had enough to get out of a group containing Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary – the latter of which topped a group at Euro 2016 that contained eventual winners Portugal.

But while Wales were enjoying their golden years, it was hard not to notice the sun was setting on them. The awkward conversation about what happens next was becoming harder to avoid. 

Wales had had quality players at their disposal in years past from Ian Rush to Mark Hughes to Ryan Giggs, but never enough to get them over the line.

And after the adventures of Euro 2016 and Euro 2020, it was impossible not to wonder when they’d next appear at a tournament Finals.

With Bale retiring and Ramsey’s best years behind him, Wales didn’t even have a gentle draw to call upon; in order to qualify they’d have to finish above at least one of Turkey and Croatia.

Their first game was perhaps the toughest of the campaign. Their first game since Bale’s retirement would see Wales travel to Croatia to take on a team with the likes of Josko Gvardiol, Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Perisic, Marcelo Brozovic and of course, Luka Modric; on top of that, Wales no longer had their big brother around, ready to get them out of trouble when things got dicey. 

And Croatia’s home record in European Championship Qualifiers was as good as it got – zero defeats in their previous 35 games. Wales simply weren’t going to go to Split and win. 

As it happened, it felt like they had.

There’s no denying who the better team was on the night, and if anyone was going to take all three points it would be the hosts, but in the third minute of injury time, Nathan Broadhead – on his Wales debut – poked home to secure an invaluable point.

A routine home win over Latvia followed before a huge setback that would bring the Dragons back down to eath.

Taking the lead through Dan James at home to Armenia, the visitors would take a 3-1 lead before running out 4-2 winners. What should’ve been a straightforward win cast huge doubt on Wales’s Euros hopes.

They had the chance to make amends in Turkey a few days later but were downed 2-0, with wonderkid Arda Guler scoring the second.

Wales only had one Qualifier at the next international break and did what was needed with a 2-0 win in Latvia, but faced a crunch clash with Croatia a month later.

Three points behind their opponents – who only had games with Latvia and Armenia to come – this was a must-win for Rob Page’s men.

Like something from Bale’s heyday, Wales were masterful. Croatia deserved to win in Split, no doubt, but equally, Wales deserved to win in Cardiff. This was no smash-and-grab – Page’s side were on top and Harry Wilson gave the hosts the lead after half-time, doubling it on the hour.

Mario Pasalic would pull one back for the visitors but that’s as far as the fightback went. Wales were suddenly second in the table – level on points with Croatia, but importantly ahead on the head-to-head.

The hugely disappointing draw in Armenia meant qualification was out of Wales's hands and Croatia's home win against Armenia sends the Dragons to the play-offs.

Estonia and Poland will be in the first semi-final, with Wales hosting Finland in the second. Get through that and it'll likely be a 90-minute shootout at home to Poland for a place at next year's Euros.  

Over the course of eight years, the Gareth Bale era fostered a belief and a spirit that Wales had never quite had before. 

Bale may be gone, but the belief and spirit are still there.

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