At the Baku Olympic Stadium on Saturday a giant oval of sunlight shone on rows of empty seats but it was players who spent much of last season in the shade who ensured Wales stay alive, rallying to secure what may prove a priceless point.
After the promise of Aaron Ramsey making his first competitive start for his country in eight months and Gareth Bale arriving in Azerbaijan in peak condition, it was the unlikely lads who hoisted Wales out of a hole.
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None more so than Danny Ward, the goalkeeper who has played second fiddle to Kasper Schmeichel at Leicester for the past three seasons. His last league appearance came for Huddersfield more than four years ago and that day he proved the hero, too, saving from Jordan Obita in a penalty shootout to help win promotion in the Championship play-off final.
Despite Ward’s lack of action – he has started five games for Leicester since January 2020 – he has displaced Wales’s longstanding No 1 Wayne Hennessey, and how he has thrived. Almost a fortnight ago he saved another spot-kick, flying to his right to deny Karim Benzema, and against Switzerland he almost singlehandedly prevented defeat.
Wales’s players and staff watched Italy eviscerate Turkey on Friday and, for a moment, it appeared they would go the same way as Switzerland’s Breel Embolo picked holes in a porous defence. Although they stirred they had Ward to thank for a hat-trick of superb stops. “We know he’s a world-class keeper,” the defender Connor Roberts said. “He made some worldie saves. He doesn’t play that much for Leicester and he hasn’t played a whole load of games in his career but every time he plays for Wales he does really well.”
For Wales’s equaliser, it was a beautiful first-time cross by the lesser-spotted Joe Morrell that invited Kieffer Moore to bury a brilliant header. Morrell is an intriguing player in the sense that he too has had to get used to life on the periphery, making five starts for Luton in the second tier last season.
As a 15-year-old Morrell was highly coveted, on the verge of joining his Wales teammate Harry Wilson at Liverpool but stayed at Bristol City, who handed him a professional contract and his debut a few months later. But that proved his only first-team appearance in seven years at the club, leading the midfielder to consider quitting the game.
And yet Morrell has not put a foot wrong in a Wales shirt. He did not look out of place against Paul Pogba in defeat by France nor Granit Xhaka against Switzerland, even if Wales collectively ceded too much possession. Robert Page made clear his bafflement at Morrell’s dearth of minutes at club level, the quirk being that Morrell has made nine starts for his country since September, including World Cup qualifiers. “How he’s not playing …” Page said, trailing off. “Because he’s a ‘footballer’, internationals suit him and he shines every time he is given the opportunity to show the Welsh public and Europe what he’s capable of doing.”
Moore, by contrast, enjoyed a fantastic season at Cardiff but for a striker who was playing for Barnsley in League One two years ago and farmed out on loan to Torquay four years ago, a goal on his tournament debut represented another milestone on an extraordinary journey.
“It’s mad,” said Roberts. “Him [Ward] and Joe Morrell hardly ever play for their clubs. For them to come on this stage, perform well and be part of this squad is unbelievable for them.”
Ramsey, understandably given how delicately his fitness has been managed in the buildup, drifted and looked off the pace, none more so than when he allowed Haris Seferovic to shift his feet and get a shot away from the edge of the box. Bale, too, was on the margins. There was an important headed clearance and he exhibited the odd touch of class, killing a high ball before crossing, but they were merely glimpses.
Wales will hope Bale and Ramsey turn it on for what seems a win-or-bust game against Turkey on Wednesday.