Jimmy Murphy is still the only manager to take Cymru to the finals of the FIFA World Cup having guided his country to play-off success against Israel back in 1958. Current manager Rob Page has a lot in common with Murphy, and now dreams of emulating his achievement as he leads Cymru into the play-off final against Ukraine or Scotland in Cardiff on 5 June.
UEFA Nations League
- Cymru v Netherlands - Wed 8 June
- Cymru v Belgium - Sat 11 June
Although they were born 64 years apart, and 64 years currently separates Cymru from their one and only World Cup finals appearance, what bonds Murphy and Page are the life values they both learnt from being born and raised in the Rhondda. Murphy was brought up in Ton Pentre while Page spent his childhood just three miles down the road in Tylorstown. While both would make their name in professional football, both remained deeply proud of their respective roots and upbringings.
“What values did I learn? A good question,” said Page in a recent interview. “I'm very proud of my upbringing and my heritage, absolutely. Those first sixteen years growing up in the Valleys was really important for me. It had been renowned over the years as being a mining community. I used to listen to some stories. You can imagine the environment that those men, boys and some kids worked in back in the early days. They had strong values and strong beliefs, but also a camaraderie and team spirit that I see in our changing room.”
Page signed for Watford at the age of 11, and after making his senior debut at the age of 19 he would go on to make over 200 appearances for the club. His professional playing career would later take the defender to Sheffield United, Cardiff City, Coventry City, Huddersfield Town and Chesterfield, but his proudest moments were spent representing his country on 41 occasions and also captaining the side against Hungary in February 2005. Following spells as manager at Port Vale and Northampton Town, he was named Cymru U21 manager in 2017 and took over the senior role in November 2020.
“It's a great honour,” explained Page when asked about his international appearances. “It’s the best honour. When you know your family are up in the stand and you’ve got friends and family back home watching on TV, it means a hell of a lot, and to then obviously captain the team on one occasion as well. But to coach and manage your country is another great honour, it’s the pinnacle, absolutely it is. Winning as a manager is one-hundred times better than winning as a player.”
Like Page, Murphy left the Rhondda as a teenager in 1928 to sign professional terms, and he would spend the next decade at West Bromwich Albion before the start of the Second World War. He would also make 15 appearances for his country, but he is best remembered for his achievements as Cymru manager between 1956 and 1964, a role he combined with that of Sir Matt Busby's assistant at Manchester United. Leading his club through the immediate aftermath of the Munich Air Disaster in 1958 while also guiding Cymru to the World Cup said everything about his strength of character that was forged in those formative years back in the Rhondda Valley.
“My mother used to tell me stories that the alarm would go off and she’d hear the miners out of the bedroom window going down the street,” Page explained. “Their spirit got them through the difficult shifts and they got paid very little money for it as well. But they still turned up when that alarm went off. An honest day’s money for an honest day’s work. I remember the strikes, they were difficult times but everyone pulled together and looked after each other. They worked their socks off, and they deserve a lot of credit for putting food on the table for their families, which was hard in those days.
“Those values of hard work and graft I’ve had instilled in me from a young age. I want my players to understand what a Welsh supporter wants to see when they are on that pitch. I’m talking about the values of a strong work ethic. Don’t be complaining about having to play for 94 or 95 minutes. I want the Welsh supporters to walk away at the end of the game proud of not only the performance from a footballing point of view, but of the effort that they’ve put in from a work ethic point of view.
“Playing football for Tylorstown Boys Club, my dad would run us here, there and everywhere, knocking lads out of their beds on a Sunday morning just to go and play the game. On a rainy winter’s day you couldn't rub your hands together because you’re that cold. But they're great memories. I absolutely loved playing football for Tylorstown back in those days. And if it hadn’t been for that opportunity to play grassroots football I wouldn’t be sat here today, because my career started from there.”
Page cut an emotional figure as victory over Austria in the play-off semi-final in Cardiff in March moved Cymru to within one match of reaching the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958. Another incredible atmosphere at the Cardiff City Stadium played a vital role in the 2-1 victory as captain Gareth Bale scored both goals, and the value of having the Red Wall behind the side in the final next month cannot be underestimated, especially when the national anthem sets the tone for what is to follow.
“I’m a wreck, I’m not going to lie” said Page when asked about the power of the anthem before the match. “It’s an emotional song. For me, it’s the best anthem in the world. I know I’m biased, but I firmly believe that, I do. I’m in a privileged position in that I’m 20 yards away from the opposition players and I can see their reaction when our supporters sing it. They’re in awe of it. It’s an emotional time because you’ve got all that pressure. You don't know how the game’s going to go and there’s a lot of pressure on it, but the supporters play a massive part in that, and that’s why we were so glad to be playing at home.”