The year started with the optimism as Ryan Giggs was announced as the new manager of the national team.
Gareth Bale and Chris Gunter went to break long-standing individual records for Wales, while the UEFA Nations League offered a new dimension to the international calendar.
The year began with Ryan Giggs being appointed as the successor to Chris Coleman. Giggs represented Wales 64 times as a player and enjoyed an illustrious club career at Manchester United. “I am so proud to have been given the honour of managing the national team,” said Giggs. “The challenges that we have ahead of us with the Nations League and qualification for UEFA EURO 2020 excite me a great deal. I can’t wait to start working with the players as we prepare for those crucial games later in the year.” Meanwhile, the draw for the inaugural UEFA Nations League matched Wales with the Republic of Ireland and Denmark.
With the China Cup tournament already confirmed for March, Wales added another fixture to the international calendar with the announcement that Giggs' side would take on Mexico in California in May. The venue for the match was confirmed as the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the same stadium that hosted the 1994 FIFA World Cup final between Italy and eventual winners Brazil.
In addition to naming his first squad for the China Cup tournament, new manager Ryan Giggs confirmed the appointments of Osian Roberts and Albert Stuivenberg as his assistants, with Tony Strudwick taking up the role as Head of Performance. Meanwhile, midfielder Dave Edwards confirmed his international retirement after a decade of service and 43 caps, which included being a part of the UEFA EURO 2016 squad.
The China Cup began in spectacular style as a hat-trick from Gareth Bale headlined an emphatic 6-0 win over the hosts. The goals moved Bale above Ian Rush in the all-time goalscoring charts, and were accompanied by a brace from Sam Vokes and a first international goal for Harry Wilson. However, a goal from Edison Cavani handed Uruguay a 1-0 victory over Wales in the final of the competition.
With a feel-good factor surrounding the national team after a positive display in China, Wales announced two friendlies for the latter end of the year at home to Spain and away to Albania. The fixtures would take place around the competitive UEFA Nations League fixtures scheduled for October and November respectively.
Ryan Giggs took his Wales squad to Wrexham for an open training session at the Racecourse ahead of the friendly against Mexico in California.
The match in Pasadena would end 0-0 but offered Giggs the opportunity to continue his policy and commitment of introducing new players from the intermediate ranks to the senior squad. One player not included was Simon Church, who announced his retirement from the professional game having made 38 appearances for his country during his career. It was also confirmed that Wales would return to the Principality Stadium later in the year for the friendly match against Spain.
With the new season underway, international football returned with the start of the UEFA Nations League, and with it Ryan Giggs announcing his first competitive squad for the fixtures against the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff and Denmark in Aarhus. “I think if you go through all the groups and all the pots, they'll be really competitive,” said Giggs about the new competition. “It's great for a manager, it's a new concept, a new start, it will take a bit for the players and the fans to get their head around. But I think once they do, they'll really enjoy it.”
However, there was an end to one story as Hal Robson-Kanu confirmed that he was stepping down from international football. The striker made headlines around the world with his famous goal in the victory over Belgium in the quarter-finals of EURO 2016, and also scored the winning goal in the opening match of the tournament against Slovakia. A cult hero to the red wall, Robson-Kanu will forever be remembered for his role in some of our most famous international moments.
The opening match of the UEFA Nations League could not have gone any better for Giggs and his Wales team as goals from Tom Lawrence, Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Connor Roberts earned Wales an incredible 4-1 against the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff in the manager's first home match. But it was the performance and the immediate impression made by the young players still finding their feet in the senior international game that proved as memorable as the result.
However, the side were brought back down a few days later as a brace from Christian Eriksen earned Denmark a 2-0 win in Aarhus. The Danish players had been on strike prior to the match due to an internal dispute with their national association over image rights, but had put their differences aside for their opening Nations League match. Gareth Bale captained Wales for the first time in the absence of Ashley Williams, but couldn't lead his side to victory.
Over 50,000 fans were in attendance at the Principality Stadium for the visit of Spain, and they were treated to a master-class performance from Luis Enrique's side as they eased their way to a 4-1 win. A late consolation goal from Sam Vokes giving the Wales fans at least something to cheer. It was the first game back at the stadium for Wales since the defeat to England in 2011, but Gareth Bale was forced to sit on the sidelines through injury, in the hope that he may be fit for the match against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin a few days later.
Although Bale failed to make it to Dublin, a superb free-kick from Harry Wilson was enough to earn Wales a valuable victory. More young players were exposed to what was a physically demanding match, but it was Ashley Williams who made the biggest impression on the manager. “Outstanding,” said Giggs about his captain. “Man of the match by a million miles. I wasn't happy with the first-half performance - he was the only one really who showed the things I was looking for, winning challenges. He was just magnificent, a real captain's performance. I get asked all the time about the younger players coming in but the older, experienced players are just as important, and they showed that.”
The victory over the Republic of Ireland meant that the final match of the Nations League against Denmark in Cardiff would decide the winner of the group. Unfortunately, Denmark claimed a 2-1 victory on the night, and there would be more frustration a few days later when Wales ended the year with a surprise 1-0 defeat away to Albania in an international friendly. However, defender Chris Gunter would make headlines for the right reasons, as he captained the side on his 93rd cap to become the all-time appearance record holder.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride,” explained Gunter. “Especially over the past couple of years when I’ve been equalling and surpassing certain names that I used to come and watch as a boy. It’s hard to explain, from a personal point of view, what that means, and the fans, in terms of the reaction I’ve been getting over the past couple of years. It’s hard to put into words. For something you get so much joy from doing and that’s such an honour, it shows that you almost don’t deserve the support.”
The focus for December turned to UEFA EURO 2020 as Giggs and other representatives from the FAW went to Dublin for the qualifying draw. Wales were placed in Group E alongside Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary and Azerbaijan with the fixtures scheduled to take place between March and September 2019. “It's a five-team group so I think you've got to be relatively happy with that,” said Giggs. “It could have been worse, could have been better. There are some tough teams in there, Croatia being the stand-out one. So we're going to have to play really well to beat them.”
Meanwhile, Wales confirmed that international football would return to Wrexham in 2019 with a friendly against Trinidad & Tobago scheduled for March. The team have not played an international match at the Racecourse for over a decade, and it remains the oldest stadium still being used for international football in the world. Wales played their first international at the stadium against Scotland back in 1877.