NEW ERA FOR CYMRU U21 STARTS WITH AUSTRIA TEST
New Cymru U21 manager Matty Jones will take charge of the side for the first time on Tuesday, 27 September in an international friendly against Austria at the Hohe Warte Stadium in Vienna having been confirmed as the successor to Paul Bodin earlier this month.
Both teams failed to qualify for the 2023 UEFA U21 EURO finals that will take place in Romania and Georgia next summer and Jones will use this opportunity to introduce a number of players to this level of football ahead of the next EURO U21 qualifying campaign that will begin next year.
Jones' first squad features a number of players yet to be capped at U21 level as a new era for the side begins. Defender Ed Turns has been selected as captain for the upcoming campaign, while Jones has named Fin Stevens as his vice-captain.
The former Leeds United, Leicester City and Llanelli AFC midfielder was previously manager of the Cymru U18 team and worked with Gemma Grainger during the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup qualifying campaign. Jones, 42, also made 13 full international appearances between 1999 and 2003 before his professional career was ended prematurely through injury, and worked at the Swansea City Academy before switching to the FAW in June 2020.
Jones also played and captained Cymru at every intermediate level, but recognises how the modern game brings with it a number of new challenges for young players. “Because of the expectations, the standard, the pressure, the scrutiny and the media coverage etc it's very different,” Jones explained. “We have strategies and processes now to align the U21s with the 1st team and that's how it's evolved with the thought and detail that goes into every department now.”
Cymru have never qualified for the U21 EURO finals but the success of the side in recent years has been the progression of players through the pathway system and into the senior squad. However, consolidated learning is a key principle for Jones as he looks to ensure those players with the experience of being involved in the senior squad play an important role in increasing the standards of the U21 side when called upon ahead of the next qualifying campaign.
“I like to maintain the expectations of the players and the players want to qualify,” Jones added. “We have to support the players with that dream and their aspirations. I don't see our players moving up to the 1st team as a problem as they are there on merit and that's where they deserve to be. But there are other players on the periphery that step up for the exposure of 1st team football, and there's an opportunity for those players to consolidate their learning and bring their experiences back to the U21 team and help drive the standard on and off the field.
“It's certainly my challenge now to make that alignment quite clear through the education of the player more than anything. I want us to create a culture where we expect them to want to come in with us. We still want to create those healthy pathways to the 1st team, but we also know the importance of cap accumulation and having that international experience. We need to keep striving to be better and better all the time. We're riding a wave here at the moment and it has been great to be involved over the last two years. It's a wonderful place to work and the players and everyone else associated with us feel that as well.”
During his own international playing career, Jones lined up for Cymru alongside future managers Gary Speed, Chris Coleman, Ryan Giggs and current manager Rob Page, but highlighted how the late Gary Speed continues to inspire him. “The legacy that Gary left behind is something that I take great pride in trying to represent and continue to grow even though senior managers after Gary have evolved that,” explained Jones. “He certainly inspired me to do what I am doing right now.”