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Thursday, 15 October 2015 14:08

The Golden Generation is Crowned

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TUESDAY 13th OCTOBER: Cardiff City Stadium- a chilly autumn evening
WALES 2 ANDORRA 0 (UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying Group B)
Five weeks on from that warm September afternoon when Chris Coleman's team drew 0-0 with Israel and didn't quite clinch their place at Euro 2016, we're back at Cardiff City Stadium. In that five weeks a lot has happened, apart from summer turning to autumn: Wales have played in Bosnia (and lost) but they have now qualified, thanks to Israel dropping points that mean they can't reach second place in the group. So tonight's game is without pressure - and it's widely anticipated as a time to party and celebrate. Of course, Wales want to avoid the embarrassment of failing to despatch the part-timers of Andorra, but everyone assumes that's a formality. Andorra have never won a competitive international - but we all remember that they came close in the very first game in this group, leading 1-0 until two late Gareth Bale goals set Wales on the path to glory.

This evening is an unusual experience for Welsh supporters: we're very well used to meaningless final qualifying games, but they're usually sparsely-attended affairs after Wales have missed out, with the faithful looking for anything that might justify optimism for the next campaign. Most of us present tonight have never celebrated Wales reaching the latter stages of a tournament, though a few remember a two-leg quarter final in the 1976 Euros. Many fans are arriving early at the stadium: as I arrive, 90 minutes before kick off, there's a big crowd gathering to greet the team bus. Merchandise stalls are busy, and beyond the stadium confines there are more hawkers than usual selling unofficial flags, scarves and face-painting.

Inside, the atmosphere is building. The Super Furry Animals appear in a corner of the ground 45 minutes before kick-off and play a brief set. Then the TV screens play highlights of Wales matches, plus (a nice touch) the Welsh Premier goal-of-the-month videos for August and September. There's more interest in the arrival of the Wales squad for pre-match practice, and as 7.45 approaches the stadium fills to capacity. We have the anthems - Andorra's jaunty, Wales's uplifting.

And so the final 90 minutes of the qualification campaign starts: a few enthusiastic challenges from the Andorrans in the opening stages, but then there is a long interruption after a clash of heads. Stretchers, medical team, more medical equipment, all brought on as the visitors' Pereira stays down; after seven minutes he's wheeled off. The sight of their stricken teammate has not deterred the visitors, who lunge into several rash challenges immediately. Wales dominate possession and are able to pass freely, win the ball back when they lose it, and camp in the Andorran half. But they can't translate it into goals. Time is repeatedly lost as the ball is retrieved - where are the ball-boys? Wales have to make a change when Hal Robson-Kanu pulls up injured. A couple of Bale free-kicks miss their mark, corners don't quite find the crucial touch. The officials refuse Wales two quite strong penalty shouts. Meanwhile Andorra do what all outclassed teams must: they frustrate, obstruct, defend; they foul; they waste time. The half drags slowly on to its (belated) finish.

After the interval, Wales press forward once more and five minutes into the half the breakthrough finally comes when keeper Ferran Pol fails to deal with an Ashley Williams header and Aaron Ramsey smashes in the rebound. The goal celebrations are as much relief as joy - relief that the embarrassment of a goalless draw has been avoided.

Nothing much changes, Wales continue to press forward, Andorra continue to drag proceedings out whenever possible - the substitution of their captain Oscar Sonejee appearing to break some sort of record for time taken to leave. Eventually, near the end, Wales carve out a goal of some quality, Ben Davies thrusting down the left and crossing, Bale getting just getting enough of a shot away on the turn to beat Pol. More goal celebrations, and with the officials adding only two minutes (in truth Sonejee's exit alone was worth that), the real celebrations are soon beginning in earnest.

After the final whistle, the Wales players are presented to the crowd and party in the centre of the stadium while cannons fire glitter at them and champagne fizzes. The golden generation, as Chris Coleman has now admitted they can be called, have earned this.

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