Ben Davies is the Neath Maldini – he sent Wales to Qatar with one tackle
It was a moment to rouse a nation that had bitten its fingernails to the bone.
On a wet Sunday afternoon in Cardiff, at the fag-end of the Platinium Jubilee weekend, Wales were inching towards immortality. Rob Page’s side held a 1-0 lead against Ukraine and stood on the verge of their first World Cup since Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister.
But their goal was leading an increasingly charmed life. An equaliser, and inevitable heartbreak, loomed on the horizon like an unwanted spectre at the feast.
There was widespread admiration for Ukraine in the build-up to the World Cup play-off, with pundits exalting their strength and courage in unthinkably horrific circumstances.
But they’re a damn fine side in their own right, a technically proficient outfit that had eased past Scotland and created chance after chance at the Cardiff City Stadium.
The clock ticked on, too slowly for those of a Welsh persuasion. And time froze when Andriy Yarmolenko, the scorer of an unfortunate own goal, was presented with the perfect opportunity to even the scores.
Ukraine had threaded the ball into their captain’s path and you’d have forgiven Yarmolenko for already mapping out his goal celebration in his head. But the former West Ham man reckoned without Ben Davies.
Appearing from nowhere, like a cat that’s sensed its feeding time, Davies pinched the ball from Yarmolenko’s feet just before his opponent had shaped to shoot. The approving roar from the home supporters could probably have been heard in Bristol.
This last-ditch tackle, which you sense had become immortalised even as Davies slid across the sodden turf, epitomised Welsh commitment in the face of an onslaught.
It epitomised the collective team spirit of the Welsh side, first fostered under Gary Speed but harnessed beautifully by Chris Coleman and now Page.
But, above all, it epitomised 64 years of pent-up frustration and the desire not to add another hard-luck tale into the canon. Not on Davies’ watch.
It capped a quietly impressive season for the Spurs defender. Having floundered under Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo, nobody would have blamed the 29-year-old for feeling apprehensive about Antonio Conte’s arrival in north London.
But the Wales defender has made himself indispensable to the Tottenham defence having been transformed from a left-back to a left-sided centre-back on Conte’s watch
Some Spurs fans would have been happy to see Davies sold after feeling he’s been exposed over the years for his lack of pace and his inability to win individual duels with consistency on the left flank.
These voices are significantly quieter now. While Davies isn’t the most powerful or physically imposing defender, he’s utilised his strengths well and dovetailed nicely with Christian Romero and Eric Dier in the Spurs backline.
Possessing a fine understanding of spacing, Davies has done the little things that have been asked of him with admirable efficiency.
And, after shutting out Mohamed Salah during Spurs’ draw at Anfield last month, the full-back offered an insight into the methods Conte has used to spark his revival.
“He’s a very detail-oriented manager”, Davies said. “The level of detail he works to is incredible. It’s more of a case we look after ourselves first rather than who we are playing against.
“We’ve got a way of playing which I think is pretty clear, he’s drilled that into us since he arrived and it will be small tweaks based on who we are playing, how we press, how we defend.
“I have to say he makes it very, very easy for you on the pitch.”
• • • •
• • • •
And the confidence that’s been installed in Davies’ game was clear for all to see on Sunday. His magnificent performance began with an important block to spare Neco Williams’ blushes as he reacted superbly well to thwart Oleksandr Karavaev.
On multiple occasions during the excruciating second half, the experienced defender could be seen leading Ethan Ampadu and Joe Rodon through waves of Ukraine pressure.
And Roman Yaremchuk was denied a famous equaliser from another of Davies’ all-important interventions. No wonder he and the rest of the Wales side were ecstatic at the final whistle.
“There was a lot of emotion in this game, but we stood up brilliantly,” Davies said afterwards.
“Every challenge they threw at us we dealt with. It’s incredible, a dream come true, as a squad we’ve worked so hard for this.
“We may not have the most talented group but we give it everything we have got.”
While not everybody in the Wales line-up is Gareth Bale, Davies is doing himself a disservice by downplaying his talent.
Despite Conte chopping and changing his formation during his Spurs tenure, Davies has consistently been a mainstay in the side and his positional play under the Italian has come on leaps and bounds.
And it was this positional play that saw him thwart Yarmolenko and become a national hero in the process.
From Porthmadog to Newport, thousands across the principality will be giving thanks to Conte this morning for his role in the rebirth of the ‘Neath Maldini’.
By Michael Lee