THE BLOG
18/06/2015 18:38 BST | Updated 18/06/2016 06:59 BST

Together, Stronger: The Remarkable Rise of the Welsh Footballing Nation

This isn't a team laced with prima-donnas. Not an outfit of players too big for their boots, in spite of the fact there's a chasm between pay-scale, player profile and club quality within it.

It's certainly a bizarre feeling, this.

A Welsh football team, on the brink of qualification for a major tournament. That just doesn't happen. It hasn't for the best part of six decades. Not since 1958, way back when a certain 17-year-old named Pelé took the World Cup by storm; scoring to send Wales home on his ascent to the top. And his first of three Jules Rimet trophy wins.

Since that competition in Sweden, Wales have - despite promising campaigns, some great players and near misses - flattered to deceive. We'd become something of a laughing stock on the international football scene. But times have changed.

While Welsh nationals held hope as the Euro 2016 qualifiers began in September, no native in their wildest thought would have considered the position we now find ourselves in. On Friday night in Cardiff, Gareth Bale's solitary goal and the gutsiest of defensive performances meant a golden generation of Belgian footballers returned home empty handed.

Wales top their group by three points, and boast a five-point gap over third place with four games left. Two wins over Cyprus and Israel in the next two games should all-but seal an unprecedented trip to France next summer.

Friday was magical, and the greatest night in the modern history of Welsh football. And helped along by a 12th man - who produced a spine-tingling rendition of the national anthem as the clock ticked by 70 minutes, and did not send the volume down a jot. We're only used to hearing such noise at the most special of rugby fixtures across town.

On pitching this idea to effuse about Wales' new-found optimism, I was told to "try and make it interesting". And it struck a chord. It's tough to make people outside of Wales actually give a damn about our game. Which is natural, I'll suppose. People aren't inclined to care for a country they've no connection to. But for so damn long, Wales have been the underdog. And one that offered little-to-no hope.

Though things have changed, that underdog is one that offers promise, and by now very real thought of what might be. And who doesn't love an underdog? By no means are Wales the most exciting team to watch, but the team plays with a determination that embodies the #TogetherStronger campaign launched nine months ago.

This isn't a team laced with prima-donnas. Not an outfit of players too big for their boots, in spite of the fact there's a chasm between pay-scale, player profile and club quality within it.

Bale is the world's most expensive footballer (that's still crazy to think, too) and double FA Cup winner Aaron Ramsey is one of Premier League football's best midfielders. There's captain Ashley Williams and the much-maligned Joe Allen, plus a handful of others who play in the English top flight. But the Welsh team consists of an exotic mix between football's cream of the crop and run-of-the-mill Football League-level players.

It's a team united. One playing for the memory of former manager and Welsh legend Gary Speed - who took his own life in November 2011 - while coach of the majority of this group of players. Speed's father Roger revealed recently how he told the group of players taken over by Chris Coleman to run through brick walls, much as they had done for Gary.

And it was heeded advice. Coleman's reign started with disappointment - losing all four of his first games in charge of Wales - but he battled back from calls to resign to change things. Coleman captured the imaginations of his players, and enticed them into his way of thinking in order to make the most of a golden generation of our own.

It's mind-blowing how a nation can move from a FIFA ranking of 117th to a likely break of the world's top ten in the space of four years. Because that's how bad Welsh football got - behind the likes of Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Guyana and Haiti in August 2011 - but following recent success, Wales will supersede Spain, France, Italy and Switzerland on 9 July.

Don't get me wrong, we know we'll be ranked far too high; the rankings list is almost as bogus as the organisation that runs it. But it's still great to see.

It means Wales will enter the World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign as top seeds. It all makes a difference, and mightily increases our chances of booking our place in that competition too. Though most of all, it's a symbol that Welsh people can be proud of their football team again.

And our upcoming fixtures are worth a watch for you non-Welshies too. If your thing is teamwork, passion, a never-say-die attitude and potentially historical moments, take a look. We're not there yet by any means, but lord do God's country believe now.

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