Not much had gone the way of the Welsh in the first half. Deciding to sit back and let England do the running in this match, they had very little of the ball. There was the odd break away but they were clinging on rather than holding their own. Until the 42nd minute, Gareth Bale had been on the fringes of this game — he was playing second fiddle to Aaron Ramsey, who was one of the few highlights for the Welsh in the first half. Hal Robson-Kanu, a player that is more of an irritant than itching powder wound up Wayne Rooney enough that the England captain lashed out and conceded a free-kick 35 yards out from England’s goal.
Up steps Bale, fresh from scoring from a similar distance against Slovakia. He hits the ball up and over the wall and it goes low to Joe Hart’s left. The England keeper is wrong-footed and lets a ball that he should have covered into his goal. For the second time in two games, England had conceded a goal when they were dominant. It was a moment that will be talked about for generations to come. If Wales had got something out of the match, it would have been discussed for the next 100 years.
You have to understand, this is it. The real quiz. No matter what happened before or what happens after, this is the game that matters most to Wales fans. Rightly or wrongly, beating England, their most bitter rivals, is what matters most to Welsh fans. And beating England is not something that Wales have done since 1984, some 32 years ago. In fact, before that Bale free-kick, they hadn’t even scored a goal against them in that time. On that day it was debutant Mark Hughes that scored the winner. That Hughes is now a wizened 52-year-old management veteran only further emphasises how long ago it was that Wales won or found the back of the net. It was 20 years before Wales played England again, and they have only faced each other four times in the 21st Century. The demise of the British Home Championship, which was often marred by the kind of violent scenes that we have seen in France in recent weeks, has meant that this fixture is incredibly rare.
It is really difficult to explain to those that aren’t from Wales how much beating England means, but maybe the Scots and the Irish would understand. Today the schools stopped lessons at kick-off time and turned on televisions to watch, if they didn’t there is every chance the kids just wouldn’t have come. This is the first time Wales have played against England in a major championship, this was literally the biggest game of football that Wales have ever played, certainly the biggest since their World Cup quarter-final back in 1958.
Going in at half-time a goal up is more than anyone in red, even if Wales were in their away kit, could have hoped for. There was an exploratory run down the left wing from Bale in the opening moments but after that it was back to sitting deep and letting England come at them. With England boss Roy Hodgson making a play out of someone else’s managerial play book and bringing on Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge, England had real attacking threats.
Despite Wales having ten men inside the 18-yard box regularly, England were relentless and eventually that pressure told. It was those two England substitutes that combined to bring England level. A Daniel Sturridge cross was put away by a Jamie Vardy swivel. It was 1-1 and England were all over Wales like a swarm of starving mosquitoes that have found some exposed flesh.
There was a hint of offside to the England goal, but the ball was headed into Vardy’s path from that Sturridge cross by Ashley Williams. From the point that England equalised until the final whistle, this was the footballing equivalent of the armies of the Greek city states holding back the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae.
The Welsh just kept sitting deeper and deeper — it was rare for more than one Welsh shirt to be as far north as the half-way line and even rarer for them to be there making any sort of attacking run. The one moment inside the last quarter of the match where Wales would have felt they were in with a chance of scoring was when Chris Smalling brought down Jonny Williams in the box. There was a massive appeal for a penalty but it was — correctly — turned down. After that it was back to just sitting back and hoping for the best. There were any number of fine challenges that helped keep the scores level by the Welsh, most notably from captain Ashley Williams who was outstanding, but there was always too much invention and aggression from the English.
Just when it seemed like Wales had done enough to claim a point from this massive game Sturridge was there again playing a one-two pass and toe-poking home.
Wales gave a huge amount, but in reality their decision to do nothing but defend for the full 90 minutes was always going to be a risky one. A draw against the Russians in their final group game should be enough to see the Welsh through to the round of 16. They are a good enough team to do that.