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Welsh giving young players a chance

Published: Thursday 17 October 2013, 8.13CET
Wales failed to reach their first FIFA World Cup since 1958 but Harry Wilson's record-breaking debut and a 50th cap for defender Chris Gunter may hint at better times ahead.
by Mark Pitman
from Port Talbot
Welsh giving young players a chance
Harry Wilson and Craig Bellamy shake hands after Wales's draw in Belgium ©Getty Images

Published: Thursday 17 October 2013, 8.13CET

Welsh giving young players a chance

Wales failed to reach their first FIFA World Cup since 1958 but Harry Wilson's record-breaking debut and a 50th cap for defender Chris Gunter may hint at better times ahead.

Harry Wilson, Chris Gunter and Craig Bellamy all experienced major career milestones as Wales earned a creditable 1-1 draw in Belgium in their final FIFA World Cup qualifier, with fans hoping the younger Dragons will have even bigger celebrations to come.

Liverpool FC midfielder Wilson, at 16 years and 207 days old, came on after 87 minutes to become Wales's youngest-ever player, breaking Gareth Bale's record from 2006 by 108 days. It proved to be a life-changing moment for the player's grandfather Peter Edwards who had placed a bet on his grandson playing for Wales when Wilson was just 18 months old.

Following a pay-out of around €150,000, the 62-year-old electrical contractor will have more time to follow Wilson's progress. "I retired immediately," he said on Wednesday. "I told my manager yesterday that if Harry plays I wouldn't be coming back."

Former captain Bellamy, 34, has also called it a day following his 78th and final appearance for the principality, but the hope is that Wilson's introduction and the 50th cap handed to Reading FC defender Gunter may be more significant signposts for Welsh football. Still only 24, Gunter has benefited hugely from Wales's willingness to give young players a chance, having made his debut as a teenager back in 2007.

Other current internationals fast-tracked into the senior side include 26-year-old midfielder Joe Ledley – who was first blooded by his country in 2005. Bale, at 24, has already amassed 42 caps while captain Aaron Ramsey, 22, is expected to collect his 30th when Wales host Finland in a Cardiff friendly in November. The Arsenal FC midfielder was given his international bow in 2008 at 17 and would have featured even more had he not broken a leg in 2010.

Placing an accent on youth was a key principle fostered by John Toshack during his time as Wales coach between 2004 and 2010. Prompted by a string of international retirements by senior players upon his appointment, Toshack backed youngsters to fill the gaps, laying solid foundations for successors Gary Speed and now Chris Coleman to build upon.

"These players will get confidence by being involved," Toshack said in 2006. "We will be pushing them in more quickly than we have ever done before." It was a policy Wales's most capped player, 92-times international goalkeeper Neville Southall, approved of wholeheartedly. "Whatever you say about Toshack, he went with the kids and gave them so much experience. We're bearing the fruits now."

Although qualification for a first major tournament since 1958 continues to elude Wales, the present generation boast a wealth of experience beyond their years. Putting faith in youth is a gamble, but one that – as Edwards would attest – can pay off in style.

Last updated: 17/10/13 16.46CET

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