Euro 2020: Wales to further build on legacy of Gary Speed - Leon Wobschall

IMMACULATE, vastly respected and a winner, the late Gary Speed was the professional’s professional.

As his beloved Wales prepare to face Switzerland in their Group A opener in Baku today – having qualified for their second successive European Championship finals – many will spare a thought for the revered former Leeds United midfielder and Welsh manager, who tragically died in November, 2011.

In his final match in charge just a few weeks earlier, Wales produced a dazzling display to thrash Norway 4-1 with many who love Welsh football starting to wonder if something special might just be about to happen after a third consecutive victory.

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Indeed it was with a number of players who played on that autumnal occasion in Cardiff, including Ashley Williams, Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and the imperious Gareth Bale, going on to play their part in one of the most beguiling finals stories in recent times as wonderful Wales reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016 – at their first major tournament since 1958.

Gary Speed: Legacy.

Had Speed – part of a Wales squad who agonisingly just missed out on reaching major finals on two occasions in his playing days – been around to see it, he would have been immeasurably proud.

Yet he would have been just as gratified to watch Wales back it up by qualifying for the latest finals, suggesting the events of 2016 were no flash in the pan.

The creation of an ultra-professional ‘no excuses’ culture at Wales owed much to the work of Speed, who modernised preparation methods and embraced the best hi-tech sports science there was to help players gain those extra one and two per cents that can often make a difference.

The gravitas of Speed also ensured that squad withdrawals became a thing of the past, with the fruits of his labours – and those of predecessor John Toshack – in blooding young players giving Chris Coleman a lasting legacy to build upon.

John Charles: All-time great. Picture: Getty Images

After too many cruel moments to mention – the Joe Jordan handball and kiss of his fist at Anfield in 1977, the David Phillips controversy at Ninian Park in 1985, Paul Bodin’s penalty versus Romania and several more besides – the sight of Wales finally casting aside their status as nearly men to qualify for the 2016 finals was cathartic.

For a country which bequeathed one of the British Isles’ greatest all-time players in John Charles to the global game and provided other greats from Southall to Hughes, Rush to Giggs, it was also long overdue.

Five summers ago, there was a glad-to-be-here mindset, which turned into something extraordinary for Wales.

Before their first group game against Slovakia in Bordeaux, thousands of Welsh fans who populated the bars of the city in their iconic red, yellow and green bucket hats spoke about being happy just to see their heroes score one goal at the finals.

Aaron Ramsey: Star.

Wales doubled that in the first game and the goalposts had moved. They were not rugby-shaped ones either.

Pitted in with Italy, Turkey and the Swiss, Wales find themselves in a harder group this time around. Reaching the knock-out stages would be decent progress.

It is a squad which possesses a liberal sprinkling of youth this time around, but there will be expectation nevertheless.

As there should be, as a football man in Speed would have surely agreed.

Gareth Bale: Captain.