Wales will compete in their first major international tournament since 1958 this summer
Main player profile: Hal Robson-Kanu
Throughout Wales' penultimate home qualifier for Euro 2016, against Israel in October, thousands of fans sung one song over and over and over again, with brass accompaniment from the Barry Horns band. The tune was taken from a 1987 hip-hop hit – Salt 'N' Pepa's 'Push It' – and the words were simple: "Hal .. Robson ... Hal Robson-Kanu / Hal … Robson, Hal Robson-Kanu" and on and on for 10 whole minutes, as fans bounced up and down with giddy glee. Gareth Bale is Wales' best soloist but Robson-Kanu, the selfless utility forward, symbolises their spirit.
Becoming a symbol of Welsh pride was not easy for a player who was born in west London and represented England at U-19 and U-20 level before pledging his future to Wales thanks to his Caerphilly-born grandmother. But the fact that nothing has come easy to Robson-Kanu is one of the keys to his popularity and helps make him a fitting emblem for a country preparing for its first international tournament since 1958.
Robson-Kanu signed for Arsenal when he was 10 but was released by the club when he was 15 because he was showing no signs of developing into the powerful athlete that he is now. "I was one of the smallest players in the squad," he later explained. "I wasn't fast enough, strong enough or big enough." But Brendan Rodgers, the director of Reading's academy who would later become the manager of Liverpool and Celtic, detected his talent and took him to Reading.
But more setbacks were in store for the aspiring player at Reading: soon after arriving he suffered a serious knee ligament injury that ruled him out of action for over a year. Shortly after recovering from that, he tore his knee ligaments again and was condemned to another long absence, missing nearly three years in total. But he came back stronger – and taller, having shot up to 6ft 1in – and came to be considered as one of the brightest prospects in England, which is why he was selected for the country's U-19 and U-20 teams. He made his first senior appearance for Reading on the opening day of the 2009-10 season. Towards the end of that campaign he switched allegiance and played for Wales U-21s before making his full international debut in a 2-0 defeat to Croatia in May 2010.
Robson-Kanu has now been at Reading for 11 years and fans of the club are divided about how they feel about the likelihood of him leaving this summer – many value him, but plenty think that even a club in the Championship can find several wingers with more magic and danger. The player has not signed a new contract and the thinking is he will attract offers from higher clubs if he performs well at Euro 2016. And he is likely to perform well. That does not necessarily mean that he will score any goals or wow anyone with trickery. It means he could continue to be as effective as he was throughout the qualification campaign, when he scored only once but was instrumental in the team's success.
Coleman's achievement has been to forge true synergy, devising a system that makes Wales solid while enabling their sharpest players, Bale and Aaron Ramsey, to do as much damage as possible. The manager was castigated for seemingly being too negative when the side scraped a 2-1 victory over Andorra in their first qualifier but the wisdom of the system soon be came clear: the switch to three central defenders, a pair of holding midfielders and two wing-backs helped make the team tight, while the role of the centre-forward gave Bale and Ramsey space in which to thrive. That role was often entrusted to Robson-Kanu, who is usually a winger but played it superbly. Many wingers could have complained or just floundered after being asked to play as a centre-forward whose main responsibility was to drag defenders out of position with selfless runs. Not Robson-Kanu.
The win in Israel was a highlight. The Israelis has trounced Bosnia-Herzegovina 3-0 in their previous home match and they expected Wales to defend heavily in Haifa. Instead the Welsh went on the attack straight away and Robson-Kanu's relentless and clever running man tore huge holes in the home defence, allowing Ramsey to score once and Bale twice as the Welsh coasted to a 3-0 win. That was the point where the end to a long wait for qualification seemed likely.
Robson-Kanu scored only once in the qualifying campaign for Wales, the winner in the 2-1 victory over Cyprus. His only other goal for his country came in March 2013 was captured in a photograph that has become one of the defining images of Coleman's reign so far even though it was part of a previous campaign. The photo shows Robson-Kanu guiding his header into the net after soaring majestically through the snow at Hampden Park, plundering the winner and personifying the team's triumph over adversity.
Tactics and key questions
Wales chopped and changed formations during qualification but their favoured system is 3-4-2-1, which helped them pick up victories in key matches, notably away in Cyprus and Israel and at home against Belgium. Chris Coleman had been keen to move away from 4-3-3 at the start of the qualifying fixtures and decided to go with three central defenders, which also suits the players at his disposal. Wales reverted to a flat back four for a couple of matches early in the campaign but everything clicked when Israel were comprehensively beaten 3-0 in Haifa.
As well as going with a three-man defence that day, Coleman set Wales up with two No10s (Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey) and it worked spectacularly well. The width was provided by the attacking wing-backs, with two holding midfielders – Joe Allen and Joe Ledley – giving the back-three protection and dictating play when Wales had possession. Further forward Hal Robson-Kanu’s selfless running stretched the Israel defence and opened up space for Bale and Ramsey to exploit. Ramsey put Wales ahead and Bale scored twice in what was a complete team performance.
It seems likely that Wales will play exactly the same way in France. The system makes them hard to break down – they conceded only four goals in qualifying – and gives their most influential players, Bale and Ramsey, a platform to attack without being isolated. Playing with Bale up front is not a path that Coleman is likely to go down in France. He tried it in November 2014 in Belgium and although Wales got a precious point and drew 0-0, Bale spent too long waiting for the ball that never came. He only had 18 touches all evening.
Bale’s importance to Wales is impossible to overstate. The Real Madrid forward loves playing for his country and revels in the freedom that Coleman gives him. He scored seven and set up two of their 11 goals during qualifying and is capable of single-handedly winning matches. Wales have to get Bale on the ball as much as possible.
The glaring weakness in the Wales squad is the absence of a proven Premier League centre-forward. Simon Church, Sam Vokes and Robson-Kanu have all auditioned for the striker role for Wales but none of them are prolific. Robson-Kanu will almost certainly get the nod because of his willing running but Wales will not be relying on him for goals.
Key selection decisions revolve around whether Chris Gunter plays in the three-man central defence or as a wing-back. It seems more likely to be the former, with Ashley Williams and Ben Davies the obvious candidates to play alongside Gunter at the back, leaving Fulham’s Ashley Richards, who was hugely impressive during qualifying, to continue as the right wing-back. Swansea’s Neil Taylor fills that wing-back role on the left flank. The only other burning issue for Coleman surrounds Ledley’s fitness, which may open a door for Andy King, a goalscoring midfielder who has just won the Premier League title with Leicester.
One defensive worry for Wales is their vulnerability on set-pieces. The goals they conceded against Northern Ireland and Ukraine in the friendlies in March were both from dead-ball situations and Bosnia struck twice from set-plays in the only match Wales lost during qualification. Coleman is well aware of the problem and it will be interesting to see if he considers bringing West Ham’s James Collins into the three-man central defence to give Wales more of a physical and aerial presence at the back.
Probable starting lineup: (3-4-2-1) Hennessey; Gunter, A Williams (c), Davies; Richards, Allen, Ledley, Taylor; Ramsey, Bale; Robson-Kanu
- Which Wales player will take everyone by surprise at Euro 2016?
Unless Hal-Robson Kanu turns into a world-beater overnight and scores a bucket load of goals it’s hard to see anyone unheralded emerging from the Wales squad. If Joe Ledley fails to make it because of injury, Andy King has the potential to be a more than able deputy for the Crystal Palace midfielder. King was hugely unlucky to have N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater ahead of him at Leicester last season and he was excellent whenever he got an opportunity. King is one of those players who is underrated outside of his club and country but not undervalued by those who pick him and play alongside him.
- Which player could be a disappointment?
There is so much expectation on Gareth Bale’s shoulders and you could almost hear the gasps in Wales when he went down in the Champions League final with what turned out to be cramp. Bale seems to thrive on the pressure of playing for his country and the extent to which a nation depends on him to deliver those game-changing moments, but he could do with a helping hand from Aaron Ramsey, who endured a disappointing season for Arsenal. Ramsey’s a world-class player on his day and Wales need him to be on the top of his game in France.
- How far do you think Wales will go and why?
Bale mentioned trying to win the Euros in the immediate aftermath of the Champions League final and we are now living in an era when anything seems possible on the back of what Leicester achieved. Realistically, Wales will look to reach the knockout rounds. Elimination at the group stage would be a major disappointment, yet getting through is no formality and it feels like so much hinges on the first game against Slovakia, especially with England up next. I’ll plump for a place in the last 16 but if Bale is at his sensational best, Wales could go further.
Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace/ENG)
Danny Ward (Liverpool/ENG)
Owain Fon Williams (Inverness/SCO)
Ben Davies (Tottenham/ENG)
Neil Taylor (Swansea City)
Chris Gunter (Reading/ENG)
Ashley Williams (Swansea City)
James Chester (West Bromwich/ENG)
Ashley Richards (Fulham/ENG)
James Collins (West Ham United/ENG)
Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal/ENG)
Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace/ENG)
David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest/ENG)
Joe Allen (Liverpool/ENG)
Jonathan Williams (Crystal Palace/ENG)
George Williams (Fulham/ENG)
Andy King (Leicester/ENG)
Dave Edwards (Wolverhampton/ENG)
Gareth Bale (Real Madrid/ESP)
Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading/ENG)
Sam Vokes (Burnley/ENG)
Simon Church (Milton Keynes/ENG)
David Cotterill (Birmingham City/ENG)