Turning the Page . . . Wales Boss Rob has Defied his Critics In the Post-Bale Era

Transition has been something of a buzzword in 2023.


A year on from a first World Cup appearance since 1958, a new-look Wales side have the chance to make more history by qualifying for what would be a third successive European Championships.


Until just a few weeks ago, that appeared a highly unlikely prospect following damaging defeats to Armenia and Turkey in June – coincidentally, the two sides Rob Page is aiming to beat in mid-November to book their place in next summer’s Euro showpiece in Germany.


Following the retirements of Gareth Bale, Joe Allen, Chris Gunter and Jonny Williams, the Dragons needed some fresh talent.


Nathan Broadhead, Jordan James, Ollie Cooper, Charlie Savage, Joe Low, Regan Poole and Liam Cullen have all earned their senior Wales debuts since Page’s side crashed out of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar at the group stage.


It has been a turbulent year, to say the least.


But Page has always understood the full scale of the transition Wales are in, particularly after losing, in his own words, “one of the world’s best players” in ex-Southampton, Tottenham, Real Madrid and Los Angeles ace Bale.


It’s the very reason the head coach believes he was handed a four-year deal by the Football Association of Wales (FAW) after guiding his country to what was only their second ever appearance at a World Cup.


There was plenty of debate around Page’s position as head coach following what was a wretched summer, while it’s been suggested that the FAW’s CEO Noel Mooney had been sounding out potential successors as manager.


But the squad and coaches united to help deliver what was a famous result and performance against Croatia on October 15 – when Harry Wilson’s brace earned the hosts a 2-1 triumph at Cardiff City Stadium.


It was not only a result that lifted Wales up to second in Group D, but one that reinvigorated the Red Wall ahead of what is now a pivotal double header this month, when most had previously been fearing the worst.


As Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward says: “We can look forward to another tough couple of games, but it’s back in our hands and all to play for.”


It’s easy to forget that Wales were rarely at their rip-roaring best in the latter stages of Bale’s glittering career.


The talisman produced memorable moments – most notably against Austria and Ukraine in the World Cup play-offs – to send Wales to Qatar.


But certainly in recent years, the Red Dragons had rarely produced dominant team displays and were understandably heavily reliant on the man who became the world’s most expensive player.


To that end, Wales can be even more proud of their astonishing victory over Croatia – a side ranked sixth in the world by FIFA and a team that reached the World Cup final in 2018 and the semi-finals last time out.


The whole team produced when it mattered most.


Wilson was clinical. David Brooks was magical. Jordan James and Ethan Ampadu were rock solid in the centre of the park. The list goes on.


From one to 11, Wales were magnificent and deservedly clinched all three points over Zlatko Dalic’s outfit.


This is the new Wales. Because, quite simply, it has to be.


It’s the only way they’ll achieve success without a star as destructive as Bale in their ranks.


As Bournemouth star Brooks says: “It’s huge. The last couple of times we’ve been to tournaments, I didn’t play as big a part as I would have liked – which I had to accept because Gareth Bale was in front of me and he’s a living legend.


“So I’d love to go again now and be part of this new team. It’s massive for me, that’s what I want to achieve in my career, and I’ll be ready to go.”


Supporters practically consigned themselves to accepting defeat in the past when Bale and Aaron Ramsey were unavailable. That is no longer the case.


Unfortunately, the cracks were glaringly exposed on the grandest stage this time last year as Wales badly faltered in the group stages of the World Cup.


Since then, Page has had to navigate the choppy waters of the post-Bale era.


“I think we would be naive to think that we’re going to qualify for every single tournament going forward and win loads of games,” said Connor Roberts in September.


While the Burnley defender’s comments irked some members of the Welsh fan base, there was an underlying truth behind his words.


The achievements of recent years have been beyond rational expectation. They have raised hopes, but Wales remains a small nation in global terms with a modest domestic league.


Add to that, the changing of the guard that tends to occur after World Cup campaigns and it’s hardly a surprise there have been lows as well as highs.


There will continue to be bumps along the way, but the previous two international breaks show Page has the full support of his coaching staff and players.


Crucially, that gives Wales the chance to achieve something special in this decisive month.