Wales assistant coach on how ‘together stronger’ united a team – and a nation

by Julie Kissick

THEY may not be at the World Cup in Russia, but Wales football fans will always have the summer of 2016. And, if Wales Women have their way, they’ll also have France 2019 to look forward to.

First team assistant coach Osian Roberts knows all about the pain and pleasure of success and failure. He has been a coach-educator for thirty years and he shared his considerable knowledge at an event at University of South Wales Sport Park today.

He explained to past and present football students the significance of ‘Together Stronger’ as a campaign – both on and off the pitch. It won acclaim as a marketing message and it saw Wales surpass all expectations in Euro 2016.

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Wales lost 2-0 to Portugal in the semi-finals, but the road to that remarkable summer involved huge changes to the Wales set-up – a process which took years to implement and hone.

The hashtag #TogetherStronger is synonymous with Wales now. But it wasn’t always the case.

A master tactician in his own right and the constant for Wales in the last seven years, Roberts explained how ‘together stronger’ became a philosophy ingrained in the psyche of the players and bought into by the fans.

“When we came in in 2011 we didn’t have a history of qualifying for big tournaments. We were 117th in the world,” he said. “Based on that we were lucky that the late Gary Speed, the great Garry Speed wanted to change that.

“He was brave and he was bold and he was prepared to take some hits early on. We were trying to implement something different, we had to be brave and we did that. It was a risk, but it had to be done.”

Roberts explained the emphasis on a vision, a joint vision which everyone buys into. It was something which helped fuel the #TogetherStronger campaign.

“We had to have a vision and we did. We had to make sure we had a culture which worked for us too – and that took time.

“Now we have standards, then we had rules. No mobile phones at mealtimes for example. Gary lead on that. On a Sunday night at the evening arrival we would put things on for the players, they enjoyed turning up and having fun together. The social side of things was really important from the start because it helped change the culture.

“When you hear the Gareths [Bale] of this world saying ‘we are not only friends, we are brothers’, that wasn’t always in place. That had to become a part of our culture.”

Roberts revealed that making sure all the first team players knew the national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, was part of that cultural change. The Wales management’s philosophy centred around making sure the players were valued primarily as people.

“Speedo’s idea was to get Courtney Hamilton to come in and teach the first team the anthem. It’s about people. They’re people first, they’re players second. You demonstrate that you care and then you can implement your game plan. You have to connect, that’s key.”

After the tragic death of Gary Speed and the appointment of Chris Coleman, Roberts wasn’t sure about his future involvement with the national team.

Coleman was in no doubt however. He wanted Roberts to remain, conscious of his experience and connections with the side which was still in transition.

Roberts knew Coleman was keen to continue the changes his predecessor had begun and while he could have brought in ‘his own people’, he had a clear message for Roberts: “If you’re good enough for Gary, you’re good enough for me”.

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Like Speed, Coleman didn’t want to be surrounded by ‘yes men’. He wanted to ensure that the environment in the Wales camp was challenging for all. It was part of the ‘healthy conflict’ philosophy which ensures accountability at every level.

And despite another change of manager, Roberts identified a continuation of this progress with new Wales boss, Ryan Giggs.

“Ryan has come in now, a new manager with a fresh pair of eyes and a new understanding. This group get on so well and we need to make sure they can dig each other out when they need to on the pitch. That again is about developing a culture. It needs to continue to grow.”

He shared a range of tactical expertise with the USW audience, explaining the importance of benchmarking which is evidence based, clear to all and sustainable.

Roberts talked about the need for flexibility as well as accountability, something he says is as important to him as anyone else: “You never stop learning, you should never get stuck in your ways.”

His closing message to the football audience was to “make sure you enjoy the journey along the way”.

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