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Young Guns Blog by John Jones.

With the season effectively at an end, particularly so regarding U-23 and U-18 teams, it is that time when young gun blogs will soon take a break from its weekly appearances on the dragon soccer website. Before doing so, I will present a couple of versions with an opinion on the events during this season which have involved the Wales football teams.

It is still impossible to review the more recent times without a reference to the Euro 2016 tournament and euphoria and pride it induced in all of us who have strong feelings about our Welsh heritage. Thus, I will start at that point precisely two years ago from this moment. At last the perceived hoodoo of qualifying for the finals of a major tournament had come to an end after a 58 year wait. I was happy and felt that if progression out of the group stage was negotiated successfully, this could be regarded as a success. So much for my value in punditry, those expectations were far exceeded as I joined the throngs that rejoiced when each victory was celebrated. When it was over, the focus moved to thoughts of a possible qualification and participation in a World Cup finals tournament. An achievement that would undoubtedly bury all the skeletons of past frustrations was firmly fixed in the minds of many followers as the idea of a trip to Russia seemed an appealing prospect.

As we now move on roughly two years later, the bar that was set high and yet seemed not to be insurmountable, was again an elusive target that could not be negotiated. It was, as had happened previously, another of those near misses that produced reflective thoughts and ''what if'' muses. Key players missing at inopportune times is the likely explanation that most people would propose as a reasoning. I cannot give an argument that would provide a valid counter to those sentiments. Added to this, in my opinion, are other valid explanations which have as much importance. Undoubtedly, if asked, most fans would now regard the Euro's as the time where the present team reached its peak capability. Again, a statement difficult to provide much to counter it. My belief is that the team peaked during the latter part of qualifying for the Euro's and managed to sustain it well enough to produce the performances in the tournament. Yes, I am being a bit picky in mentioning this, but hopefully I can give a good narrative to explain why. The team was considered good enough to have a great opportunity to qualify at the start of the campaign to get to France. Some young guns were also in the wings that were impressing enough to forge a belief that they could in the least be important supportive squad members, possibly even more than that. This supposition proved to be unfounded as injury absences and a resulting slowing down in progress this caused, left them as only ancillary squad participants. Fortunately, the main little more than a dozen players on whom the team relied, remained relatively injury free and though various individual performances were extremely important at times, the total team effort propelled them to the eventual semi-final appearance. In some ways, the lack of contenders for places in the team worked in their favour, the settled group built an understanding that playing together for many games develops. With the focus then moved for a place in the group of 32 nations qualifying for Russia 2018, it was believed that the draw had not been unkind for Wales and that success was within the means of the team. It was however a qualifying group that pitted 4 teams with generally an equal ability competing for 1 or at best 2 places. This left little margin for error. Coming off the Euro success left the players involved needing a late summer break and a resulting absence from the initial part of pre-season training with their clubs. Perhaps not the most ideal preparation especially with international fixtures taking place quite soon after the start of the season. This did not seem to particularly detract from team performances as it remained unbeaten, although a habit of relinquishing winning positions was a worrying trend. At the beginning of this season World Cup hopes for Wales were balanced on a knife edge, the chances of qualifying as group winners unlikely, but with no margin for error a spot in the play-offs was a possibility. Performance was a little below what it had been previously but determined efforts and some key contributions took the team to their last game as slight favourites to grab the play-off spot. With one point needed and a home tie to achieve it, the game was one where neither team played particularly well. Robbed of one of its most influential players when Joe Allen was substituted after some very robust opposition tackles on him, once Ireland scored Wales were unable to respond effectively.

It was undoubtedly a disappointing conclusion to another World Cup qualifying attempt, one that had begun with much optimism displayed. As magnificent as the team had been in the Euro's, it was however in need of reinforcements and a sufficient quantity of replacement candidates of the quality needed was unfortunately not available. It is maybe slightly ironic that now there are high hopes for an influx of young guns who seem capable of being important contributors to the team strength. Hopefully this group can avoid the setbacks that previously detracted from the strength of the Wales squad. We can only hope that the future is bright.

The team now has a new manager to take them forward. Very often that scenario has included a situation of inheriting a squad that needs considerable overhaul. It does not seem to be the case this time and it is going to be fine tuning that is probably the main need. It is going to be very important fine tuning nevertheless as the young talent available will be incorporated into the team. With the core of the team still a viable option going forward, it is a case of fitting in the pieces in a mode of continual improvement. It is not an easy task as maybe perceived but one that is well within the capability of those charged with doing so. As with the performances on the field, it is very much a team effort that usually produces the best results. Of course, the most important piece of the puzzle is an ability by the players to outcompete the opposition. The pieces are possibly all available, we shall await and see if the jigsaw presents a beautiful picture that will give delight when eyes are cast upon it.

Having tried to add a concluding paragraph, but attempts proved to be unsatisfactory and so unworthy of inclusion, I will leave it as presented above. What I have written is probably not particularly enlightening, but I intend to provide an added installment to it next week and this may possibly help finish what I have produced this time.

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Posted: Wednesday 2nd May 2018
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