What should have been a tournament to remember turned into one to forget for Cymru as England brought the World Cup experience to an end with a 3-0 victory at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Tuesday night.
Rob Page made three changes to his starting line-up as Danny Ward replaced the suspended Wayne Hennessey while Joe Allen and Daniel James came in for Connor Roberts and Harry Wilson. A change in formation highlighted the defensive issues of the 2-0 defeat to Iran as Page went into the match with a 4-2-3-1 shape instead of his preferred back three. Meanwhile, England manager Gareth Southgate made four changes with Kyle Walker, Phil Foden, Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford introduced from the start.
Ward was called into action inside the opening 10 minutes to deny Rashford. It was a sign of things to come despite Cymru holding their opponents to a goalless draw at half-time. An enforced change saw Connor Roberts replace Neco Williams, while captain Gareth Bale was replaced by Brennan Johnson before the start of the second half with a hamstring problem. Within minutes of the restart, Rashford and Foden had presented England with a two goal lead, and Rashford would score the third midway through the half. Ben Davies and Allen would also find themselves forced off before the final whistle.
“It's very tough at this moment in time,” explained Page to BBC Sport Wales at the final whistle. “I thought in the first half we were outstanding, I really did. The effort they put in without the ball was exceptional. We addressed it at half-time that we could have been a bit better with the ball, but I won't have a bad word said about that group of players. They've given everything and I don't want to talk about negatives today. We're disappointed to leave the tournament, but our first half performance was excellent. It was a massive effort from the group and I couldn't be more proud of them. To get here was a massive achievement. We've got to build for the future again now.”
After a 64-year wait to appear at the World Cup, the tournament ends for Cymru after just three games that yielded just one point and one goal. The reaction to the poor opening half against the United States in the first match offered hope of a result against Iran, but the side regressed despite earning a point through Bale's penalty, and suffered a 2-0 defeat. England was a must-win match, and while the changes strengthened the defensive shape, the opportunities at the other end of the field never materialised. Expectations were higher than ever for Cymru at this tournament, a consequence of previous EURO success, but the achievement of qualification cannot be underestimated after so many years of hurt.
“Everyone's disappointed but we're all proud of what we achieved to get here and to qualify,” said Bale to BBC Sport Wales. “We have to look at how far we've come. Of course, we would have loved to have gone past the group, but football is difficult. Teams go through good runs and bad runs, and we didn't quite live up to our expectations in this tournament, but we will take massive experience from it. We've worked really hard to get here, and we'll walk out of that changing room with our heads held high and proud of each other. We're frustrated, we would have loved to have played better and created more chances, but it just didn't happen for us in this tournament.”
Bale also confirmed that he will remain available for Cymru as long as he can continue and while he is wanted. The next EURO qualifiers begin in March, leaving Page and his staff with little time for deep reflection into what went wrong. Considering the talented generations of players that never represented Cymru on the world stage, nobody can dismiss the achievement or belittle the pride that this team can rightly feel in finally delivering an appearance at the World Cup. There was an expectancy that this side would perform on the stage that they had worked so hard to reach, but over the course of the three group games, it just didn't happen.
The Red Wall went to Qatar in their thousands and were once again a credit to the country and to the team. Their support will not waver. Page and his squad will learn valuable lessons from this whole experience, and for some of the younger players this will be their first real taste of disappointment in the colours of Cymru. What nobody can take away is that this side have finally exorcised the ghosts of 1958 and that this disappointment will only fuel future success. Qualifying is an achievement in itself, but it is no longer seen as the limit to what we can achieve.