Aaron Ramsey’s exit was overshadowed. One of the players of Euro 2016 slipped out of his penultimate game of the 2022 World Cup, and surely any World Cup, amid the chaos caused by Wayne Hennessey’s sending-off. He was sacrificed for a substitute goalkeeper, with Danny Ward’s cameo involving the concession of two goals. The recipient of the first red card in Qatar was hugged by his friend Gareth Bale on his way off.
Wales football would not be at their first World Cup since the 1950s without Hennessey’s heroics against Ukraine, but his tournament is over and, after defeat to Iran, theirs nearly is. “We want to finish the competition on a high,” said manager Robert Page; it seemed realism rather than defeatism, to say their derby with England will be the end even though, mathematically, Wales’ fate was not sealed.
When Ramsey was removed, Bale remained on the pitch. Page’s tactic was to hope against hope a player with the propensity to produce something special out of nothing could turn rescuer again. He couldn’t; indeed he never threatened to. The faith in him stemmed from the evidence of his career, not the preceding 85 minutes.
Bale had looked utterly immobile – unsurprisingly, given he had 28 minutes of club football in two months before twice playing 100 in his country’s colours – and Ramsey a shadow of his former self. It felt a tournament too far for each, the creaking legends, as, in effect, Wales had seemed to be playing with nine men against Iran; but with the caveat the other pair were two of the greatest in their history. The reasons they lasted that long on the pitch was that they were Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey; if club sides cannot be star vehicles these days, sometimes international teams have no choice but to be.
There seems a strict division of responsibilities in Wales’ squad: those with running power, like Dan James, Brennan Johnson and the wing-backs, lack the ability of Bale and Ramsey and vice versa. Hennessey was a reason why Wales’ nine men and two decrepit superstars had preserved parity for as long as they had. “We weren’t in the game at all, even before the sending off,” said Page, in a blunt assessment. “We fell well below the standards we set to qualify. I am not going to sit here with sour grapes and say we deserved anything.”
They didn’t. Page’s first attempt to counter Iran’s superiority involved sending for the speedsters, in James and Johnson. Next he summoned Joe Allen. His task was to be the midfield. All of it, really. Wales were in effect playing 4-1-1-4 with Ramsey almost a fifth forward, Allen in less than splendid isolation, at least 20 yards from a teammate in any direction. It is little wonder he was partly culpable for both goals: Allen is 32 and a hamstring injury meant he had not played for 10 weeks and his comeback was as a one-man midfield. The incoherence of it all was partly explainable: Kieffer Moore was on to add height, James and Johnson pace, Bale and Ramsey because they are Bale and Ramsey.
Or they were Bale and Ramsey, anyway. A chastening defeat had the feel of the end of an era. They may limp on until Euro 2024 – and it is hard to escape the sense Bale would retire from club football if he could not – but their World Cup adventure will end against England. Few have laboured longer for such a chance as Wales’ senior citizens. Bale’s debut came in 2006, Hennessey’s in 2007, Ramsey’s in 2008 and Allen’s in 2009. It amounts to a combined 58 years’ service for a country whose previous World Cup was in 1958. It has made this an improbable odyssey, with Wales reliant on the aged, the injury-prone and the otherwise unused.
“That is the problem, asking players that are not playing for their club to come and give performance after performance,” Page said. Some are in effect part-time footballers now, their heydays long ago. It is little wonder some struggled. “You can carry one or two players on their off days but when the majority of the team are not at it there is only going to be one outcome,” said Page, with admirable honesty. Wales try to carry Bale when out of possession but Ramsey’s ineffectiveness left them with an imbalance in midfield.
Thus far, and despite the high of Bale’s penalty against the United States, the below par have included all the attack-minded players except Moore. Joe Rodon, Ben Davies and Ethan Ampadu have been Wales’ three finest individuals and each has a largely defensive brief. They kept Wales in the game against the United States and held out against Iran. And then one of the Welsh old guard was sent off, another taken off and a third hacked off by Iran’s late goals.
“It is gutting, we are gutted,” said Bale, the repetition underlining his dejection. The dream was that, despite his physical decline, his lack of regular football, the years that have elapsed since his prime, he could somehow propel Wales into the last 16. And now it appears an impossible one.