Chris Gunter’s “chin up” approach epitomises team’s bond with fans
25 June ~ At full time in Stade Bollaert-Delelis, as England fans and players celebrated Daniel Sturridge’s late winning goal, Chris Gunter made straight for the Wales fans at the opposite end of the field. As he reached that red-clad corner of Lens, Gunter, the most-capped player in Chris Coleman’s squad, gestured sternly at those applauding back at him, to keep their chins up.
In a tournament that has brought so many incredible, unbelievable highs for Wales fans, it is perhaps this moment that best encapsulates the bond between players and supporters. Knowing that the men out there on the field get exactly what this means to you in the stands doesn’t feel like it’s much to ask, but it’s not easily achieved. Wales have fostered an atmosphere where the man on the street feels a deep connection with the world’s most expensive player – it’s a remarkable achievement that has carried us to, and through, France.
In Toulouse, after Wales had dispatched Russia with encouragingly professional ease, as the cameras switched to Joe Ledley’s latest dance recital, Gunter again strode to the Welsh corner of the stadium. To huge cheers he repeated the same chin-up gesture that said "I told you it’d be fine".
Having already beaten Slovakia, it was perhaps not that surprising that Wales were capable of overcoming Russia to progress from the group. But for them to dispatch Russia so ruthlessly and so confidently was remarkable. Players who have often been stifled at club level – Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and to an extent Ben Davies – took their opportunity to shine in the foreground. As a result Russia were simply never in the game; they were just blown away.
In such scenes of dumfounded celebration it can be hard to be pragmatic, but Wales must acknowledge that Russia’s own need to win in Toulouse was a welcome development. As Leonard Slutsky’s side pushed forward the game opened up and allowed Wales the room to deploy their favoured counter-attacking style.
Such room and space is likely to be in much shorter supply today against Northern Ireland, a team who, like Wales, prefer to play with a defensive counter-attacking approach. And in the back of Welsh minds will be the struggles they had in qualification breaking down teams such as Cyprus and Israel who sat back and soaked up pressure.
This will be the first time in the tournament Wales have faced a side who will likely play a system akin to their own, and it is the first time they have entered the field as favourites. Tactically Coleman and Osian Roberts have thus far got Wales’ approach – and adaptations – spot on, now they face a key dilemma on whether to stick or twist in order to prolong Wales’ stay in dreamland for another week. Glen Wilson