WALES: 1 PANAMA: 1
THERE was more than one moment when, at Cardiff City Stadium, minds wandered to what might have been.
Around half as full as it was a month ago, the empty seats told a tale that there had been other plans and hopes for this November week.
Yet, those who were there, were given proof, if proof was needed, that the full story of this Wales team is yet to come.
Hopes of victory were dashed in injury time when Armando Cooper broke free to cancel out Tom Lawrence’s delightful 75th minute strike, though the plot ran deeper than the scoreline as David Brooks, Ben Woodburn and Ethan Ampadu showed there is reason to look forward.
A new chapter awaits. One involving new, youthful, characters.
Who will oversee the writing of it is still not clear.
Chris Coleman, the author of so much recent success, is still uncertain as to whether he will pen his name next to a new contract.
There was no uncertainty from the Red Wall; the game was not three minutes old before the chants of ‘we want you to stay’ were aired.
Coleman waved in acknowledgement and, while important discussions on how to move forward are due, it is hard to imagine that, after watching this, the 47-year-old will not be enthused and excited about what is still to come.
Granted, the late, late equaliser will also remind all that Wales will not want to go over old ground as the story of the last campaign spoiled an otherwise positive evening.
But while minds understandably wandered to Dublin and ‘what ifs,’ they were often quickly focused on the future unfolding in front of them.
If it is to prove to be Coleman’s final match in charge, then it was fitting in many ways. The success of his reign came from building on the foundations of others, the experience handed out to talented youngsters at a young age. Chris Gunter, captain as he equalled Gary Speed’s appearance record for an outfield player and an ever-reliable ever-present through Coleman’s time, was testament to that.
Here it was Coleman’s turn, not for his benefit but the side’s. Ampadu, Brooks and Woodburn will all be bet-
ter for evening’s like this when they learned from mistakes and were lifted by successes.
Of which there were many. The movement, the technique, the touches and turns brought both smiles from supporters and opportunities in the final third.
With an average age of 24 and only David Edwards north of 30, this was thought to be the youngest side named by Coleman.
And one facing World Cup qualifiers with 574 caps and the kind of physical cunning associated with central American sides. Positive when they could be, it was perfect opposition for those learning about international football and still having the chance to play.
Which Wales did with plenty of optimism. Within five minutes Brooks – surely soon to be christened Dai having opted against his England eligibility – had nutmegged a marker and found Woodburn on his wavelength and at the end of a cross.
Soon after Ampadu added himself into the mix, winning possession with a strength that made a mockery of his 17 years and seeing Brooks again reach Woodburn, whose header needed to be saved by Los Canaleros’ Jaime Penedo. Vokes was the next to benefit, not far away from smashing from range after Woodburn’s tenacity and persistence turned over Panama ball.
Brooks has not received the same attention as Woodburn up to this point, the 20-year-old’s Championship status with Sheffield United not as headline-grabbing as the latter’s with Liverpool, but he was quick to make an impression here. A gliding runner, he always looked eager for the ball and rarely wasted it when he got it. Likewise Amapdu, who was as comfortable issuing instructions to more seasoned internationals around him as he was spraying passes. There is still a debate as to where the Chelsea starlet will find his best position but, at the right times, he popped up all over the park, not afraid to throw himself into a tackle when it was needed.
One such challenge earned a booking – another lesson learned – though what also caught the eye was the way senior men made sure that there was a protection for the red rookies that was once offered them. Words were had by Gunter to Ricardo Avila for his attention to Brooks. It saw a headbutt aimed the defender’s way, though no red card. Wales’ justice came when Brooks encouraged David Edwards’ 41st minute surge into the box to win a penalty, though Vokes aimed his low shot too close to the keeper to bring the goal the play had deserved.
Like the penalty, there were errors. Not every pass was precise, sometimes the ball was held a little too long and, though their fearlessness was refreshing, there will be games where the touches and tricks will have to be more concentrated. There will be better opposition.
But that will come, as Wales have seen once before.
And this group will be better for this experience, especially when it looked like being a winning one courtesy of Lawrence. At 23 and this is twelfth cap, the Derby man is hardly a veteran himself, though took is goal with the composure of a player not fazed by this level. Picking the ball wide on the left, drifting inside and curling into the bottom corner, it was a goal to suit the occasion.
As Ryan Hedges – one of four debutants from the bench to join Tom Lockyer, Marley Watkins and Lee Evans – got in on the act, weaving an opening, a piledriver from substitute Andrew Crofts almost made it two.
As it was, as Panama scrambled clear from defensive error in injury time for Cooper to blast past Danny Ward, it was they who had a last word on the night.
But it remained a night which reminded there are chapters still to come. Whether it is to be under Coleman, that’s another story.
Ben Woodburn looks to shake off the attentions of Panama’s Blas Perez
Sam Vokes hides his head after missing a penalty at the Cardiff City Stadium
Ethan Ampadu impressed as he took another step onto the international stage