Ramsey reliant no longer: Wales’s new class are filling the void | Wales

Listening to Rob Page last week discuss resisting the temptation to call up Lewis Koumas, the 18-year-old who scored on his Liverpool debut last month, was to ram home the sense that this really is a new era for Wales. A few minutes later, Matty Jones, the Wales Under-21s manager who played with Koumas’s father, Jason, jested about the line doing the rounds at their base in the Vale of Glamorgan. “I think it is an internal joke at the moment that I just see former teammates of mine and look if their sons are playing,” he said.

Page believes Wales are in rude health; the best place they have been in his tenure because so many players – except, worryingly, his four goalkeepers – are regularly making a dent for their clubs. But perhaps the most telling indication of the shift was when he suggested they do not need Aaron Ramsey in quite the same way they once did.

It was the 33-year-old’s double that propelled Wales to Euro 2020, the same night Gareth Bale’s flag stole the headlines. “Times have changed,” Page said. “We’re not where we were two or three years ago.”

At the same time, the Wales manager recognises the need to have something tangible to show for it, in this case a spot at the Euro 2024 finals in Germany. When it comes to Ramsey, Wales would welcome the panache of a player who has long dealt in magic moments but they no longer pine for his feathery touch or look to him to make the difference. Ramsey is captain in this post-Bale Wales world, though the vice-captain, Ben Davies, is expected to lead the team against Finland on Thursday, when the teams collide in Cardiff in a playoff semi-final.

The long-term heir to the armband, however, is Ethan Ampadu, who is poised to win his 50th cap at the age of 23 years, six months and eight days, reaching that milestone quicker than Bale and faster than any other Welshman. Ampadu, who has captained Leeds this season, is mature beyond his years, an unassuming character who picks his words carefully. When it was put to him that his leadership skills were evident when “ordering people about” in his early days, Ampadu intervened. “I don’t like the word ‘ordering’,” he said.

Ampadu is at the crux of a Wales side aiming to reach a third straight European Championship. As a 15-year-old, Ampadu, while studying for his GCSEs at St Luke’s school in Exeter, trained with Chris Coleman’s squad in the buildup to Euro 2016 – he had the last laugh over his English classmates when Wales made it to the last four – and was a bit-part player at the delayed Euro 2020. Ampadu started all of Wales’s games at the World Cup in Qatar and has played every minute of this qualifying campaign, from Split to Samsun.

Others, such as Harry Wilson and Neco Williams, have emerged from the shadows. Koumas, a fixture on the bench for Liverpool in recent weeks, is part of the next generation who Wales plan to nurture into the senior squad. For Leeds, Ampadu has shone at centre-back alongside Joe Rodon – the club boast the meanest defence in the Championship – but he is primed to start in midfield alongside Birmingham’s Jordan James, 19, who is set to win his ninth cap.

Joe Rodon is one of a strong Leeds contingent in the Wales squad. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Ampadu, by comparison, is a veteran. “It feels like he has been around for ever,” Rodon says. “I know it sounds a bit mad but he’s going to be one for the future.”

Dan James, also of Leeds, is poised to record his half-century on Thursday. Rodon, on 42 caps, is not too far behind. The defender, on loan at Leeds from Tottenham, is part of a Welsh quartet vying for promotion at Elland Road. The sight of Ampadu, Rodon, James and Connor Roberts, who joined on loan in January, starring for the Championship leaders led to parallels with the Leeds vintage in the late 70s, when a superb picture of Alan Curtis, Brian Flynn, Carl Harris and Byron Stevenson, their arms wrapped around each other on international duty in Malta, appeared in Shoot magazine. Then there are Gary Speed and John Charles, Welsh greats with Leeds in their blood.

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Ramsey was injured for Wales’s qualifiers in November but travelled with the team to Armenia and while his influence on the pitch appears to be waning, he remains a huge figure off it. Ramsey played the final 23 minutes of Cardiff’s derby defeat by Swansea last Sunday but that represented his third appearance since September, all as a second-half substitute.

For the first time this millennium, a Wales team without Bale or Ramsey – both of whom were at the heart of Wales’s nervy playoff win over Ukraine to reach the World Cup – could reach a major tournament. “We have lost one of the world’s best players with Gareth,” Page said. “But there has been enough in the squad to put us into a position where we are two wins away from qualifying.”

The tigerish midfield axis of Ampadu and Jordan James will be key if Wales are to tee up another playoff final in Cardiff next Tuesday against Poland or Estonia. Welcome to life after Bale, Joe Allen and – increasingly Ramsey. While Page acknowledges this evolving Wales remain a work in a progress, now is the time for this class to make their mark.

“We’ve lost superstars with Gaz and Joe,” Rodon says. “It was always going to be difficult for us in the transition period but there is a really good balance in the group. The players now who are coming up to 50 caps have that experience in tournaments. It is not new to us to be in situations like this.”

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