A disjointed and frustrating year for the men's national team began with the optimism and excitement of competing at EURO 2020, the disappointment of the tournament being postponed, and ended with promotion following a successful UEFA Nations League campaign.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant that Cymru would not kick a ball until September, but the focus on developing and promoting youth through the intermediate ranks was not delayed as another crop of players made their senior internationals debuts in the latter half of the year, and made a positive impression. Here's a look back at some of the key moments of 2020.
EURO 2020 preparations in vain
With the draw for UEFA EURO 2020 pairing Cymru with Italy, Switzerland and Turkey, planing for the tournament began with the announcement of home friendlies against Austria and the United States in March and a visit to the Netherlands on the eve of the finals in June. However, the cancellation of the games was announced either side of news that the EURO finals would be postponed until 2021.
UEFA Nations League draw
Despite March being a difficult month, it did offer hope of a better tomorrow as the draw for the second edition of the UEFA Nations League was made. Cymru were drawn in League B4 alongside the Republic of Ireland, Finland and Bulgaria with the fixtures scheduled to take place on a home and away basis during September, October and November.
The alternative internationals
Manager Mark Jones named his Cymru 'C' squad ahead of the third annual international against England in March with the fixture scheduled to take place at The Oval in Caernarfon later that month. “We’re excited about playing this match at the home of Caernarfon Town,” said the manager. “This will be the third match between Cymru and England in as many seasons and I believe that we’ve assembled a strong squad to give us the best possible chance in the match.” However, the match was cancelled as a result of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Cymru did manage to compete in one UEFA competition during the month of March, as Edward Lewis and Ryan Cameron took responsibly of the controllers in order to represent their country at the UEFA eEURO 2020 tournament following a series of qualifying games. “I was interested to see how my standard was against other players when I took part in the qualifying competition,” said Lewis. “It’s now up to me to try my best.” Cymru failed to make it out of Group H, a group that included eventual winners Italy.
Welcome Matthew Jones
June marked the appointment of former Cymru international Matthew Jones as the manager of the U18 squad ahead of a change to the format of the UEFA U19 Championship competition. “I feel so overwhelmed and so incredibly proud to be part of the international set-up,” said Jones. “It provides me with an opportunity to apply my unique way of working with players, putting the person first before the player and instilling the right principles that are within the Welsh curriculum.”
Intermediate teams in action
Despite qualifying for the Elite round of UEFA U19 qualifying, Rob Edwards' side were denied the opportunity to showcase their talent against Austria, Serbia and Germany in a mini-tournament that was originally scheduled to take place in Cardiff. Following the initial postponement of the competition, it was later cancelled due to the pandemic, limiting the U19 side to just one friendly during 2020 as the squad lost 2-0 to England at St. George's Park in October.
However, Paul Bodin's young U21 side were able to complete their UEFA U21 EURO qualifying campaign. The side returned to action in September and October with away defeats against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium respectively, but registered an impressive 3-0 win over Moldova at Wrexham in November through goals from Terry Taylor, Nathan Broadhead and substitute Momodou Touray. The victory kept Cymru off the bottom of the final group table, but the campaign ended in defeat as Germany claimed a narrow 2-1 victory in Braunschweig on the final day.
In addition to the UEFA Nations League campaign, Cymru also fitted friendly fixtures into the busy international calendar in the second half of the year. The first match took place in October as the side suffered a 3-0 reverse against England at Wembley Stadium, while the United States left the Liberty Stadium in Swansea last month with honours even in a 0-0 draw. Rob Page took charge of the side on an interim basis for the second friendly that served as preparation for the final two decisive Nations League games.
September story – The case for the defence
Striker Kieffer Moore was the hero for Cymru in the opening 1-0 win over Finland in Helsinki at the start of September as the side returned to competitive action. The striker capitalised on a cross from Daniel James with just 10 minutes remaining. "It was a really gritty performance and not our usual flowing football that we're capable of,” said Giggs. “Credit to Finland, they made it difficult for us. It's the kind of game we can learn from but also take a lot of pluses out of because we dug out the result again.”
Liverpool youngster Neco Williams made headlines a few days later as Cymru welcomed Bulgaria to Cardiff. Having made his international debut against Finland, the teenager again came off the bench to score the only goal of the game deep into injury-time in what was an otherwise forgettable fixture. "Being part of this team is like a family,” said Williams after the match. “Everyone is really close and help young lads, and the talent we have is unbelievable. For the younger players to get the opportunity is a great feeling.”
FAWTV: Check out the Cymru 2020 highlights
October stalemate and success
A third clean-sheet of the campaign was kept in the 0-0 draw against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin in October, but it proved to be a disappointing match between the two countries with chances few and far between. The return of Aaron Ramsey from injury offered a welcome boost for Giggs, and the Juventus midfielder was made captain. However, the two teams largely cancelled each other out, but the undefeated run continued ahead of the visit to Bulgaria a few days later.
Another 1-0 win through another late winning goal followed in Sofia, with substitute Jonny Williams coming off the bench to win the match in the 85th minute with a fine finish for what was his first international goal. “I thought we deserved the win,” said Giggs. “I think it would have been a travesty if we hadn't won tonight. It's a really proud moment for such a young team. I'm proud of them because they kept going and played the right way.” However, an injury to goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey would rule him out of the remaining two games.
Page turns to promotion in November double
With Rob Page placed in temporary charge, Cymru went into the final two home games of the Nations League with matters firmly in their own hands ahead of the fixtures against the Republic of Ireland and Finland in Cardiff. Despite still being without the support of the red wall, a goal from David Brooks was sufficient to claim a valuable win over Ireland. Another clean-sheet meant that it was over 700 minutes since the side had last conceded a goal.
But while the perfect defensive record came to an end against Finland as striker Teemu Pukki scored for the visitors, goals from Harry Wilson, Daniel James and Kieffer Moore ensured that the side would achieve promotion to League A as group winners. “It's not just the result, it's the performance I was pleased with as well,” said Page. “I'm really proud of this group. We knew the importance of it before the game and now we get to compete against the best teams in Europe and potentially get a play-off place for the World Cup.”
The road to Qatar
The year ended with the draw for the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign for the finals that will take place in Qatar. Cymru have been drawn in Group E alongside Belgium, the Czech Republic, Belarus and Estonia, with the campaign starting with a double-header against Belgium and the Czech Republic in March 2021, while the remaining games taking place in September, October and November next year. The potential return of the red wall will offer a timely boost for the side, while attentions will also quickly turn to the EURO finals that will take place next summer.
WATCH: FC Cymru reviews Cymru's march to the top of their UEFA Nations League group with The Red Wall.