Where it all went wrong for Wales

Disbelief instead of Dortmund, heartbreak instead of Hamburg.

Wales’ bid to reach their fourth major tournament in eight years ended in tears at Cardiff City Stadium last night as Poland’s penalty shoot-out success took the final place in Germany.

The play-off disappointment was the cruel climax to a turbulent attempt at Euro 2024 qualifying.

There were two dramatic nights against Croatia, and a fine semi-final win over Finland.

But it was also a campaign marked by missed opportunities and marred by continuing questions over manager Rob Page.

And despite the harsh manner of Wales’ exit, there are still those who will argue the side should never have had to leave it to luck and trying to qualify via the play-offs.

Here BBC Sport Wales looks at the key moments that cost Wales a place at Euro 2024.

Wales boss Rob Page applauds fans

A World Cup hangover

Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, Wales’ first for 64 years, was the pinnacle of Page’s tenure so far. But once Wales got to Qatar, that dream turned into something of a reality check.

One of the biggest issues Wales have faced in recent years has been their players’ lack of regular football at club level, and that was plain to see at the World Cup.

Wales started slowly in their opening game against the United States and were fortunate to escape with a draw, and then they were thoroughly outplayed by Iran and comprehensively beaten by England.

All the while, the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey looked well off the pace having come into the tournament with limited game-time.

Nothing can change how proud a moment it was for Wales to finally qualify for the World Cup – but their performances in Qatar made the experience of being in the tournament itself an underwhelming one.

Page and his players were deflated and, with Bale retiring just a month later, it was hard to shake the feeling that Wales had come home with a hefty World Cup hangover.

Armenia agony

There is rarely one moment alone that leads to disappointment – yet there is one night that glaringly and grotesquely sticks out in Wales’ failed campaign, long before Daniel James’ penalty miss.

Wales’ 4-2 defeat by Armenia was not only a shock in terms of result, it was shocking in its manner, and the type of night Welsh football thought it had left behind.

This was Moldova, Georgia et al for the millennials, a home humiliation from which Wales’ automatic qualification hopes never truly recovered.

Wales were unquestionably poor in their defending, but an imbalanced team selection provided too much of an invite for Armenia – and prompted significant levels of pressure on Page.

Turkish early bath

Turkey is a proud footballing nation and, with its national side back on the rise, an away game there was always likely to prove challenging.

Wales had made things infinitely more difficult for themselves by coming into that game last June off the back of that humiliating defeat at home by Armenia.

They were nowhere near that bad in Turkey but, even then, Page’s side were straining to keep their opponents at bay during the first half in Samsun.

Wales rode their luck at times, with Turkey having an early goal disallowed, but then in the 41st minute Joe Morrell was sent off for a reckless challenge on Ferdi Kadioglu.

If Wales were already up against it, that red card rather sealed their fate. Although they battled gamely, Wales succumbed to a 2-0 defeat and their hopes of qualifying automatically were dealt a massive blow.

Wales player Joe Morrell is sent off

A very public disagreement

Question marks over Page’s future came close to being turned into statements after those summer defeats.

And while it’s not unusual for managers to feel the heat after poor results, to have it turned up in public by your own chief executive was – at best – unnecessarily disruptive. More tension than together stronger.

While Noel Mooney would describe reports of Roy Keane being lined up to replace Page as “baloney”, it was accepted that the FAW had looked at Page’s future – while an interview on matchweek made no denial of Page’s need to win games.

It saw Page’s backroom staff attend a news conference in a show of support, and Ben Davies tell the world such “noise” wasn’t helpful.

As it turned out, Wales were galvanised and delivered a superb performance to beat Croatia – with players performing ‘zip it’ celebrations.

Nevertheless, even after peace talks between Page and Mooney, the public split between hierarchy and team still had a damaging impact.

Noel Mooney

Ramsey regret

When summer turned to September, a victory in Latvia appeared to settle the nerves. Certainly, Aaron Ramsey showed little signs of being fazed as he tucked home a first-half penalty in Riga to turn pressure into an opening for a much-needed victory. The midfielder had been majestic.

Yet within four minutes of the restart, Ramsey signalled to the bench to come off. A precaution, he said later, and he was duly fit to inspire Cardiff to a South Wales derby win later that week..

And just like that, and a knee and a calf problem later, so ended Ramsey’s involvement in the campaign.

While Ben Davies came into his own taking over as captain, replacing Ramsey’s playmaking and experience was too much for a Bale-less Wales to bear.

And despite being named in the squad, it was strange not to see him even appear off the bench as the play-off against Poland ebbed away from Wales.

Armenia agony… again

Ramsey’s absence was perhaps none more felt than in Yerevan where Wales somehow managed to trip up when opportunity had opened the backdoor.

A memorable win over Croatia had not only overturned the damage done in the summer, it had shown Wales had found a balance and new verve to their play.

Throw in some surprise results elsewhere, it left automatic qualification in Welsh hands heading to Armenia for the penultimate fixture.

Two wins would be enough, but it was effectively over long before thoughts of the home tie with Turkey. Five minutes was all Lucas Zelarayan needed to make an awkward fixture another embarrassment as Wales failed to add a second to an Armenian own goal in a dispiriting draw.

And for all the huff and puff, a panicked and pedestrian Wales were desperately short of quality and creativity in the final third, despite the array of attacking options.

Wales player Kieffer Moore looks dejected in Armenia

Limitations exposed

While Wales have slowly been expanding their pool of talent, and some suggestions that the squad are stronger in their options than for many a year, the reality of that came into frustrating focus as the Poland play-off began to creep away from them and into the shoot-out.

With defensive options Ben Cabango, Wes Burns, Rhys Norrington-Davies and Tom Lockyer all absent before the camp, an injury to Connor Roberts saw Page turn to Dan James to cover at wing-back rather than turn to his bench.

It ended James’ attacking threat and Wales began to run out of ideas and initiative. Ramsey’s lack of fitness and an untimely David Brooks illness limited options further just when Wales needed to find something different to avoid the penalty jeopardy.

And while the side had undoubtedly recovered to find a better balance and identity from earlier in the campaign, it ultimately ended in disappointment.

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