It was 58 years in the making, but Wales’ 2-1 win over Slovakia on Saturday finally ended their long, painful period in the shadows of international football. And while Gareth Bale did his bit, it was substitute Hal Robson-Kanu whose name the jubilant supporters were singing by full-time.
Despite Robson-Kanu having started eight of Wales’ 10 qualification games, Chris Coleman made the strange decision to leave him on the bench and go with Bale as the sole striker from the first whistle. And while it was the Real Madrid star who grabbed the first goal, he was far from a success in the No.9 role. It is something Coleman will gladly learn from and move on after picking up a win in the country's first appearance at a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup.
Bale’s free-kick in the 10th minute was not an epic strike. Well struck though his set-piece was, Matus Kozacik in the Slovakia goal made the grave error of taking a step towards his wall side and could only watch as the ball hit the back of the net in the half of the goal he should have been patrolling.
It was only the second or third time he had got on the ball, with Coleman’s decision to play him as the figurehead up front proving to be an exercise in isolating his greatest outlet up against three Slovak defenders.
For all the will in the world, Jonny Williams and Aaron Ramsey could supply nothing like the distraction Bale needed from either side of him to free up some space, although things might have looked a little better for the trio had Martin Skrtel been sent off for an assault on Williams shortly before half-time.
The Liverpool defender threw out an elbow at Williams as the two raced to the Slovakia bye-line inside the penalty area. Despite the close attentions of the goal-line official, neither he nor the referee decided that Wales had been wronged, instead pointing for a goal kick. It was every bit as key in Slovakia’s fight back as Bale’s misallocation as a striker.
As Jan Kozak’s side continued to dominate possession they were always likely to cause Danny Ward more trouble in the second half, and by the time Ondrej Duda struck low to the rookie keeper’s left Wales were beginning to run right out of ideas.
But as soon as Coleman threw on Robson-Kanu, they looked a different side. Suddenly they seemed to have options everywhere, with Bale’s threat from deep asking new questions of the Slovakian back line. The interchangeability of Robson-Kanu, Bale and Ramsey left them ragged.
However fortunate Robson-Kanu’s strike might have been, it was a true reflection on the ability within the two striking departments. Slovakia were let down by their lack of quality in the final third, Wales by their inability to make more of their vast stocks of it.
If Coleman can harness that, then they have every chance of progressing beyond Group B and perhaps even recording a knockout win. The belief, desire and togetherness on display amongst the red shirts was magnificent, but they need their star players on top form if they are to achieve to their full capability in France.
Right now, though, there is an opening win to be rightly celebrated. And after 58 years in the wilderness, it is one that Wales fans in Bordeaux and beyond will never, ever forget.