When Wales manager Ryan Giggs named his 25-man squad for the double-header against Denmark and Albania in November 2018, he included no less than four players yet to see their twentieth birthdays and another five aged either twenty or twenty-one.
To say immediate Welsh hopes are being pinned solely on the products of the sterling youth systems in place would be an exaggeration of course. However, it is a fact that the future is looking bright thanks to an extremely talented batch of young players coming through.
In this article, we will have a look at five of these starlets already making, or on the verge of making a breakthrough.
1) Ben Woodburn (Liverpool)
Perhaps the most well-known of our quintet of players, Woodburn is currently on Liverpool’s books and indeed made his competitive debut at the age of just seventeen years and forty-two days. Finding it hard to break into Liverpool’s first team, Woodburn started the current season on loan at Championship side, Sheffield United. Injuries have restricted his appearances this season, and in December he was recalled to Anfield by Jurgen Klopp.
Becoming the youngest ever Liverpool goalscorer when he netted against Leeds United in the EFL, Woodburn elected to play for Wales despite having been born in Nottingham and made his debut against Austria as a 17-year-old. In scoring the only goal of the game, Woodburn became Wales second-youngest goalscorer after Gareth Bale. He currently has nine caps and one goal for his country.
2) Matt Smith (Twente)
In the summer of 2018, Matt Smith made the brave decision to go out on loan from parent club, Premier League champions Manchester City and moved abroad to Holland.
Spending the 2018-19 season at Twente, the defensive midfielder has racked up the kind of experience unavailable to him at the Etihad and has forced his way into Ryan Giggs’ plans, earning himself four Wales caps in the progress.
Having come through the Welsh youth system alongside such players as Tyler Roberts, Harry Wilson, Ethan Ampadu and Ben Woodburn, Smith qualifies to play for Wales through a grandfather born in Gwent.
Although Smith is aware that he will face an almighty battle in his efforts to nail down a first-team place upon his eventual return to his parent club, it is not a challenge that will faze this determined young man.
3) Tyler Roberts (Leeds United)
Deployed as a forward or winger, Tyler Roberts has already played for five clubs in his short career since starting at West Brom where he made a solitary Premier League appearance in 2016 at the age of seventeen. Three loan spells then followed as Roberts spent the next two seasons at Oxford United, Shrewsbury Town and Walsall before securing a permanent move to Elland Road in January 2018.
Injuries affected his first few months with Leeds and not a single appearance was made until the 2018-19 season kicked-off. Since then Roberts has found his feet in the Championship as well as beginning to find the back of the net.
First called up to train with the Wales squad at just sixteen years and five months of age, Roberts currently has three caps to his name. Should Leeds keep on course for promotion, Roberts could well be plying his trade in the Premier League next season.
4) Harry Wilson (Derby County)
Like Ben Woodburn, Harry Wilson was loaned out for experience by Liverpool for whom he made his debut in the FA Cup in 2017. While Woodburn joined Sheffield United, Wilson was off to Derby County as the 2018-19 kicked-off.
The fact that he made his way to Pride Park on the back of signing a five-year contract for Liverpool shows the esteem in which this winger is rated at Anfield. Despite being on the small side at 5ft 8 inches, Wilson is blessed with lightning pace and two sharp feet.
In September 2018 Wilson hit national headlines with a superlative goal scored for Derby in the EFL Cup at Manchester United. From fully twenty-five yards out, Wilson curled an unstoppable free-kick into the top corner of the net. Not forgetting his Liverpool roots, he promptly raced off in celebration with all five fingers of his right hand extended in a nod to Liverpool’s five European Cup triumphs.
The youngest-ever Wales international, Wilson earned his grandfather a windfall of £125,000 when he made his debut at the age of 16 in 2013. When Wilson was a baby his grandfather laid out a £50 stake on his grandson representing Wales. At odds of 2500/1, it proved to be a sound investment.
5) David Brooks (Bournemouth)
David Brooks had to go the long way round to make it to the Premier League. Despite being on Manchester City’s books as a youth, Brooks found himself playing for FC Halifax in the National League in 2015. This came following his departure from the Etihad when he signed for Sheffield United who promptly loaned him to the Shayman as Halifax are nicknamed.
Upon his return to Bramall Lane, Brooks quickly settled and in the summer of 2018 he earned an £11 million pound transfer to Bournemouth. His appearances thus far this season have shown a maturity which has already resulted in reputed interest being shown in him by Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. Although Bournemouth were reported to have offered Brooks an improved contract in an effort to stave off potential suitors, it remains to be seen how long they will be able to hold out should his form continue in the same vein.
Brooks has currently been capped 9 times by Wales.