My new contract with Wales wasn’t exactly welcomed by the fans.
I was appointed as Wales manager in January 2012, in tragic circumstances after the death of Gary Speed (below) – and my first campaign was a poor one.
I think I tried too hard. I was so desperate to get results and to put a smile on people’s faces, but I think I went about it in the wrong way. I was too demanding of too many people.
We didn’t even get close to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
When I signed my new contract ahead of the qualification campaign for Euro 2016, I decided things had to change.
Everyone was calling this particular group of Wales players the golden generation. We had Gareth Bale, who was at Real Madrid, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ashley Williams. It was a really good group of footballers.
But they hadn’t done anything on the international stage to merit being called the golden generation.
I told them they absolutely could become the golden generation; I told them they definitely had the talent, but I still had some questions for them.
“How much do you want it?” I asked. “How much do you want to turn up and play for your country?”
Looking at other international teams, just about every single one had players who had more than 100 caps. At the time, other than Neville Southall on 92, we barely had anyone who came close.
I asked the players if it meant more to players from other countries than it did to us. We’d never qualified for a major tournament through a qualifying campaign, and we didn’t have anyone with more than 100 caps.
“we went 1-0 down to andorra. At that point, Euro 2016 felt a long, long way away”
The mentality around playing for Wales needed to change. I needed players working hard to get back to fitness so they could play for their country, not using the international break to rest for their clubs. I needed players who loved wearing the jersey and would do anything for it.
I also carried on some work that Gary Speed had started. He had demanded better facilities and more staff, because the players needed to be looked after better. He wanted Wales to be a top-level team, and he set the wheels in motion for that to happen.
A lot of our lads were coming from Premier League clubs with great facilities, so we didn’t want them coming to play for ‘little old Wales’, who train on a rubbish pitch and stay in bad hotels and have food that isn’t very good. We needed high standards, too.
The FAW responded. They stepped up and invested. They made sure we had the best of everything.
You could feel a shift in the mentality around the camp. The players started feeling more important, and now there were no excuses: we couldn’t be a second-rate international team.
They responded on the pitch – though there were still a few bumps in the road.
We’d been heavily criticised for the previous campaign, and I’d decided that we were going to play three at the back for the foreseeable future. We had a tough game against Bosnia coming up, but our first qualifier was away to Andorra, so I wanted to test that formation out. Some saw it as an overly defensive set-up for a game against Andorra, so we were already facing more criticism.
The game was played on an astroturf pitch and, honestly, it was the worst pitch I’d seen in my professional career. I immediately knew this would be a tricky game.
“Mathematically, we were still a few results away – but, in my mind, that was when we qualified”
Then we went 1-0 down. We were up against it. At that point, Euro 2016 felt a long, long way away.
But we managed to pull it back to 1-1 – Bale scored a header – and then he scored a free-kick about 10 minutes from time to win it.
The mood changed. You could tell there was a great feeling in the camp after that result.
To get the qualification campaign off to a winning start was huge – it really was. After the feeling around the previous campaign, when we’d started with two losses and never really got going, it felt much, much more positive.
We then drew with Bosnia in Cardiff – the point was great, but the performance against a very good side with lots of players at the top of their game was the more pleasing aspect – and then beat Cyprus despite playing the second half against them with 10 men.
When we beat Israel 3-0 in our next game, it was the first time we’d used a box midfield – the system we eventually used at the Euros. That was another great performance, and that was when we really started to believe.
The fans did, too, and the 1-0 win at home to Belgium that followed was one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever experienced. To beat the team ranked number one in the world at that time really was incredible, and the fans made that day extra special.
Mathematically, we were still a few good results away – but, in my mind, that was when we qualified.
“We were completely outplayed, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened”
After beating Belgium, it didn’t matter who was in front of us. We were in a mood where the opposition didn’t matter; we felt like we could beat anybody.
We were unstoppable.
There’s nothing worse than letting your nation down, having the whole nation disappointed in you. I’d had that in my first campaign as Wales manager.
But when everyone is with you and proud of you – and they were after we got qualification secured – that is pretty powerful. I’ll never forget that feeling when we celebrated together in Cardiff after qualifying for Euro 2016 – Wales’s first major tournament in 58 years.
We made sure we enjoyed that moment and the fans did, too. Celebrating with them helped build a bond that we took into the tournament.
In the lead-up to Euro 2016, we actually had some poor results. We drew with Northern Ireland and lost to the Netherlands and Hungary. The worst result, though, was a 3-0 defeat to Sweden six days before the tournament started.
We were way off it. Completely outplayed.
But it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to us.
“Little moments like that are what make tournament football so special”
We got a wake-up call that day. After that result, we knew we had to get our preparation right for the Slovakia game – our first group-stage game at the Euros.
There were a lot of doubts about us. Slovakia were a really good team – far more fancied to do well at the Euros than us. Some people wondered if we’d even get a corner, let alone a goal.
The emotion in our national anthem is huge, and I think it got the better of us a little. For the first two minutes of the game, we were awful. We started like rabbits caught in headlights. We were just all over the place.
But we regained our composure and went 1-0 up. Slovakia came back at us and equalised, and it was all them for 20 minutes. At that stage I definitely would have taken a point.
But Hal Robson-Kanu popped up with a scruffy winner and the place erupted (above). It was full of Wales supporters who had followed us to France.
That was a huge achievement for us, and put us in a great place ahead of the next game: against England.
That game was always going to be amped up by the media, but it was bigger for us than it was for England. England were competing against the best teams in the world; for us to be playing England was a much bigger deal than it was for England to be playing Wales.
We went 1-0 up through Gareth’s free-kick, but we got sucked into a fight after that; we didn’t offer anything like enough when we had the ball.
“As a manager, having players implement your game plan to perfection is a special feeling”
You can’t do that against a team like England – just sit on a lead like that. Eventually you get picked off, and we lost with the last kick of the game.
We were really disappointed in ourselves and very down about the result and the performance, but on our way out of the stadium after the game we saw something that lifted our mood. The Welsh and English fans were playing a game of football together, having a drink and singing. It was a hard day for us because of the result, but it was so nice to see the fans having such a great time.
I wish I’d taken a photo because it was a real sight. Little moments like that are what make tournament football so special.
Everywhere we went, there was a sea of red behind us. We played lots of our games in front of a majority Welsh crowd. They really got behind us and made the atmosphere electric.
The best example of that was in our final group game against Russia.
We went into that match needing only a point to qualify for the knockout rounds. That almost made our task more difficult than if we’d needed to win. It’s very hard to go into a game playing for a draw.
So, I said to the players: “You choose. You decide how you want to approach this.”
They knew how devastating we could be when we attacked, and they wanted to show that. So, we went for it.
“That sent a shockwave through the team. Everyone realised we had to give everything to get over the line”
On an absolutely beautiful night in Toulouse, the players performed from the first minute until the last. We played Russia off the park (above). It was my favourite performance in my entire time as Wales manager.
As a manager, having players implement your game plan to perfection is a special feeling. Every single one of the players was brilliant, and we fully deserved to win 3-0 and top the group.
We were really confident at that point, but I never let myself think further ahead than the next game. You can’t do that.
Yes, there’s obviously a part of me that is only human, and in the back of my head I might have thought: “What if?” But you quickly put any thoughts like that out of your mind and come back to reality. As a manager, you can’t afford to get ahead of yourself.
After getting through the group, we had to wait and see if we were going to play Northern Ireland or Turkey. Turkey obviously presented a real challenge, but in all honesty I didn’t want another home international. I also didn’t want to play a game where we were the favourites and people expected us to win, as they would against Northern Ireland. I didn’t know how we’d cope with that. I would have been happy being the underdog, and the pressure being on the other team.
In the end, we played Northern Ireland. A really tough team; really, really hard to break down.
On the night before the game, I was praying for rain. I wanted the grass to be fast so we could move the ball about quickly.
I woke up the next morning to hot, dry and sticky conditions, which made it really tough for us. Northern Ireland dug in and sat back against us; on the day, their game plan worked better than ours. They looked rock solid, and the longer the game went on the edgier it got. Thankfully, we got lucky when we forced an own goal with 15 minutes to go.
Ashley Williams collided with Jonny Williams not long after, and hurt his shoulder. I started getting ready to take him off, but he glared at me.
“Luckily, hAL had different ideas, threw a Cruyff turn and slotted the ball home”
“I’m not coming off!” he screamed at the dugout.
That sent a little shockwave through the team. Everyone realised we had to give everything to get over the line here. We’ve got to fight for this cause and fight together.
That refocused the players, and we held our nerve to get through to the quarter finals.
You’re in a bit of a bubble when you’re at a tournament, so when we got back to our hotel in Paris and all our families were there, we celebrated together. It was important for the players to have that. They work so hard and train every day, so after a win like that it was important to celebrate. That was amazing for us; nights like those were a big part of the bond we had.
Then, in the quarters, we had one of the most memorable games of the tournament against Belgium.
We rode our luck at times – they had a fair few chances – but we were the better team. We conceded a hell of a goal from Radja Nainggolan, but we never let our heads drop. We never gave up.
We’d done research into set-pieces before the tournament, and Ashley Williams scored a great header to level the game from a corner. Then Hal Robson-Kanu scored one of the goals of the tournament.
We’ve all seen it. When he took the ball down in the box I – just like everyone else in the stadium – was screaming at him to set the ball back to Joe Allen on the edge of the area. Luckily, he had different ideas, threw a Cruyff turn and slotted the ball home (above).
Again, the celebrations and the camaraderie were amazing. We had such a tight-knit group. It’s impossible not to smile when thinking back on days like those.
Unfortunately, in that game we lost Ben Davies and Aaron Ramsey to suspension for the semi final against Portugal. In the system we were playing, they were two huge losses.
“Once you experience that together, it’s lifelong. that connection will never go away”
Before the game, we spoke a lot about stopping certain types of crosses towards Cristiano Ronaldo, as that was the only way I saw them scoring.
Portugal surprised us a bit by playing very deep and letting us have the ball for long periods. We struggled to break them down.
We kept them out for the most part, but then Ronaldo won one header at a corner and scored. We were rattled for about five minutes, and they got a second. There was no way back for us from there.
We’d put so much in to get that far, and although we were proud of how far we’d got, we were all devastated at losing. There was a lot of emotion in the dressing room after the game.
It was unthinkable before the tournament that we’d get that far, but we were so close that it still hurt to lose in the semis.
It was such an incredible ride that we went on. When I see any of my players or staff from that time, there’s an immediate connection. You only create that when you come through as many high-pressure situations as we did.
Once you experience that together, it’s lifelong. I don’t think that connection will ever go away.
We proved so many people wrong just by qualifying for the European Championship, so to get as far as we did meant so much.
When you’ve been a part of that, and built something as positive as we had, there is nothing better. You wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world.
The bonds we built as a squad will never, ever be broken.