Is now the time for Gareth to Bale out? Wales legend is running on empty

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“You’re going home in the morning,” came the chorus from the England supporters after Marcus Rashford fired in an early second-half free‑kick and again, a little bit louder, when Phil Foden doubled their advantage 98 seconds later. It was salt into the wound for the bank of Wales fans at the other end – six‑and-a-bit blocks of the Red Wall – for whom a first World Cup finals in 64 years has turned out to be a rather dispiriting and demoralising experience. Was it really worth the wait? Gareth Bale will no doubt ponder the same question in the coming days.

Related: Wales fans proud and unbowed after early World Cup exit

Bale, who appeared to alert medical staff to a hamstring problem with about 10 minutes of the first half to play, was substituted at the break. Three weeks ago, on the day Rob Page announced his squad, the Wales manager conceded that whether Bale could handle three games in quick succession was the million‑dollar question, for which we now have a resounding answer: 256 minutes across eight days was simply too much for a player who has played such little football over the past few years. The painful truth is Bale’s three World Cup appearances comprise three duds. At the final whistle Bale limped on to the pitch, embraced Page and then Gareth Southgate.

Bale had seven forgettable touches and completed one pass in 50 first-half minutes – and that was back towards his own defender about 10 yards from the Wales goal-line. Despite starting in his favoured position on the right flank, Bale again appeared to be running on empty, immobile and somehow, despite all of his past grandeur, reduced to a pawn on a chessboard of kings and queens in a dull first half, in which Kieffer Moore had Wales’s only shot on target. At one point Page quickly fed Bale the ball on halfway. Bale took a long throw in search of Moore, who flicked the ball on in the hope of locating Aaron Ramsey, who would wear the captain’s armband in the second half.

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Page said if Bale returned for the second half he would have been playing at about 70%. Quite what percentage he was operating at in the first half is anyone’s guess, with Page’s hollow insistence Bale “put in a big shift” hard to comprehend.

Things did not improve. But for 38 minutes, believe it or not, Wales were actually only one goal away from reaching the last 16. But then Christian Pulisic scored against Iran and half an hour later Wales’s ludicrously slim hopes of advancing to the knockout stage were in tatters. By the time Ben Davies was forced off through injury approaching the hour, Wales were in a real mess.

Connor Roberts was exposed at left-back, Ethan Ampadu, arguably the best of a bad bunch as far as Wales performances in Qatar go, filling in at right-back. Joe Morrell, hardly a regular for Portsmouth in League One, joined the midfield alongside Joe Allen, who started his first game since September.

England, meanwhile, introduced starters from Manchester City, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Gareth Bale with family including mother Debbie, father Frank and sister Vicky, after the match with England.
Gareth Bale spends time with his family at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

Bale’s withdrawal brought the arrival of Brennan Johnson and within seconds the 21‑year‑old Nottingham Forest forward provided Wales with a welcome thrust. Finally, there was some intent, even if it came to nothing. Johnson gave Luke Shaw a bump as he set off to race on to a lofted pass and the referee, Slavko Vincic, awarded a free-kick. A few minutes later Johnson’s neat back‑heel flick close to halfway helped the ball on to Ramsey for a lesser-spotted Wales attack.

The Wales centre-back Chris Mepham acknowledged his side would have to take the handbrake off if they were to have any chance of recording a first win against England since 1984, and Page took the decision to switch system, ditching the three-man defence for the first time since September last year.

Page even seemed determined to keep Southgate and the England staff guessing, with Joe Rodon, Davies and Mepham warming up as a back three, while Neco Williams and Daniel James lined up as wing-backs.

Related: Marcus Rashford double puts England top of group and sends Wales home

To say Wales were suddenly free of all inhibitions here would be pushing it, mind. Davies shifted to left‑back and Ramsey and Bale roamed behind Moore – often nowhere near the striker – but the England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was a spectator throughout. James, reduced to a 5ft 7in trier, was also totally lost. Before dropping a shot wide of a post in the second half, his main contribution was giving John Stones a whack on the shins.

Wales exit with Bale’s penalty, which salvaged an unlikely draw against the USA, their only goal and after bruising defeats by Iran and England. The Wales fans who made it to all three of their games here must be sick of the sight of the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.

Where do Wales go from here, and with whom exactly? Page has said his senior players have promised him they will not all retire in one swoop and Bale insists he will stick around for the Euro 2024 campaign. Ramsey, too, will seemingly carry on. A few minutes after the final whistle the 2,500 or so Wales supporters launched into a stirring, a capella version of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, with Bale, Allen and the rest of the squad visibly moved, but that represented one of few moments from Qatar to cherish.