Wayne Hennessey: Wales goalkeeper on Gary Speed’s legacy, ‘gaffer’ Robert Page and World Cup chance

Venue: Cardiff City Stadium dates: Sunday, June 5th Kick off: 17:00 BST
coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 Live, Radio Wales, Radio Cymru, BBC Sport website and app, plus live text online. Highlights BBC Wales.

There is no doubt that what Wales men’s football team have achieved over the last few years has been pretty remarkable – reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and the last 16 at Euro 2020.

And, now, could Wales reach their first World Cup in 64 years?

We will find out when Wales host Scotland or Ukraine in their World Cup play-off final on Sunday, 5 June at Cardiff City Stadium – with the winners booking their place in Qatar.

Someone who has been a central pillar of Wales’ rise is goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, who has amassed a century of caps having made his senior Wales debut against New Zealand in 2007.

“I feel kind of blessed really,” said the 35-year-old Burnley player.

“We [Wales] have had fantastic players and managers coming in but I should say about the managers, Gary Speed ​​- that was the foundation, going in the right direction, going forward. God rest his soul.

“Then obviously Chris Coleman came in and did a fantastic job but still kept it the same, so we all went in the right direction; Ryan [Giggs] coming in and now Pagey [Robert Page].”

It has been a turbulent period when it comes to who is at the helm for Wales.

The tragic news in 2011 that Wales manager Speed ​​had taken his own life left the football world in shock. It also left its mark on his devastated players – but Speed’s leadership provided the blueprint for Wales’ success today.

Coleman came in and took Wales on the rollercoaster that was Euro 2016 – being knocked out in the semi-finals by eventual winners Portugal was something that dreams are made of for a success-starved nation.

When Coleman stepped down in 2018, came Ryan Giggs. The former Wales and Manchester United star successfully led Wales to another major tournament, Euro 2020.

but Giggs has not been involved with Wales since November 2020, Meaning former captain Page stepped up to lead his country to the last 16 at Euro 2020.

Robert Page (L) and Ryan Giggs at Wales training in September 2020
Robert Page (L) took the Wales reins from Ryan Giggs in November 2020

“We call Pagey ‘gaffer’ now,” Hennessey said.

“Everything’s just stayed the same but in the right direction, and for players that’s crucial. As you can see it’s performed on the pitch and we’ve got that connection together, so it all started from Gary Speed ​​really.”

What’s next for Wales? Could it be the 2022 World Cup? They are just one game away from a flight to Qatar.

“Oh it’d be absolutely amazing [to reach the World Cup],” Hennessey said. “Not just for us as players, but for the whole nation back home and everyone supporting us. Wow, what an achievement that would be.”

Hennessey is one of several key players who may look at this as their last chance of reaching a World Cup with Wales, with the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Chris Gunter also nearing the end of their careers.

“For myself it’d be absolutely amazing, like my whole family, and everything I have ever wanted to do,” Hennessey said.

“But when I look at players like Bale, Ramsey, Gunter, Allen – they’re still going and they’re still going very strong. They’ve been fantastic for us and I just hope it continues. For them to reach a World Cup, I’m sure their families will be very proud.”

Hennessey became the latest Wales men’s player to reach 100 caps in March 2022, when he pulled on the goalkeeper shirt in a friendly against Czech Republic.

He was for many years Wales’ number one, but Leicester City’s Danny Ward has assumed that role in recent times. However, with Ward injured in March, Hennessey got the call to reach that precious century mark.

“Yeah it’s difficult being a goalkeeper – there’s only that one spot,” Hennessey said.

Danny Ward (L) has edged ahead of Wayne Hennessey as Wales' first-choice goalkeeper
Danny Ward (L) has edged ahead of Wayne Hennessey as Wales’ first-choice goalkeeper

“And for Danny he’s come in for Wales and played really well. When we heard the news that he’d got injured, obviously all of us were devastated for him. He’s such a nice guy, and for Dan it was unfortunate.

“Myself, Adam Davies and Tom King were all there with the Wales squad, so it was a really good time and everything worked out nice. But now Danny’s back fit so there’s a lot of competition still in the squad.”

Even there, it is evident that the support and togetherness in the Wales camp is strong. Hennessey says “it’s like a massive family”, and part of that family is Bale – Hennessey’s room-mate, fellow centurion and closest friend in the squad.

“We started when John Toshack was the manager and I first played with Gareth when he was a left-back,” Hennessey said.

“So obviously for a lot of the young lads coming through, they won’t have known what he was like as a left-back.

“To see him develop – move forward and forward – [to] playing up front, then going back to the wing, it was just amazing. It was amazing to see that, because he was just an all-round unbelievable player.

“He’s absolutely over the moon to join not just myself but all of the lads and all the staff.

“Gareth – he’s just… he’s our leader. He’s a fantastic captain and it’s just an absolute honor and a joy to be a part of it with him.”

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