Joe Allen has revealed how the Wales players sat in their dressing room after Euro 2016 elimination contemplating how they have changed the face of Welsh football.
The journey in France was over — losing 2-0 at the semi-final stage to a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal — but the sporting landscape in Wales has seemingly changed forever.
In a nation where rugby has traditionally dominated the sporting agenda, if not actually being reflected in participation numbers, Euro 2016 has represented something of a seismic shift in Welsh sport.
The country has fallen in love with football — be it schoolchildren or older generations watching in packed fan zones at home or those who travelled to France in such large numbers — and the sporting picture might never quite be the same ever again.
It was a point Allen said the whole squad considered as they began to appreciate what they have actually done over these last five weeks — their achievement set to be recognised by thousands at a Cardiff homecoming party this afternoon.
“We were remembering, despite the disappointment of going out, just what we have done here,” said Allen as the squad finally emerged from their inner sanctum two hours after the final whistle in Lyon on Wednesday night.
“We were just chilling out, taking it all in and talking about the effect it will have had back home.
“We are hoping that this story and journey we have been on will change Welsh football forever.
“We weren’t ready to go home, but it wasn’t meant to be for us.”
The tournament has created many special memories for Welsh management, players and supporters alike.
Wales had waited 58 years to grace a major tournament, but when they finally got there they were in no mood to let the moment pass them by.
“The whole package was amazing,” said Allen.
“We all know how long the wait has been, it’s been very long, so even to have been in the group stages was incredible.
“To reach the semi-finals has surpassed everything we expected and the whole nation is proud.
“The Belgium game, when Vokesy (Sam Vokes) got the third goal and it looked like that would be enough, that was a huge moment for us.
“The celebrations on the pitch, the singing, they are moments that will stick with you forever.”
Liverpool midfielder Allen will return to an uncertain future on Merseyside.
The 26-year-old has 12 months left on his contract at Anfield and talks are planned to see whether he is part of Jurgen Klopp’s plans.
Allen says he has not thought about his future at the Euros, with all his focus being on Wales and how they make the most of their success in France.
“The message is clear, its been a huge success story for Welsh football and I’m honoured to be a part of it,” said Allen.
“We have to use this experience as a springboard, we don’t want this to be a one-off for Welsh football.
“We want this to be what inspires us to do it again and again. With the quality we have got in the team, the set-up we have, we are confident we will do that.
“We said from the start we weren’t here to make up the numbers and be like tourists.
“We wanted to make our mark and set the tone for the World Cup, the next European qualification.
“I think the age of the group will mean we are together for the next few years at least.”
Gareth Bale shares Allen’s optimism for the future.
“To be so close to the final and miss out is disappointing, but we have to be proud of what we’ve achieved,” Bale said.
“It hurts now because it’s fresh but we’ve been on an amazing journey.
“The whole nation has enjoyed the journey as much as us and it’s been amazing, incredible.
“Fans, staff, everyone. It’s been one of those moments in your life we’ll never forget and very special to all of us.”
Bale says that the focus is already switching to the World Cup qualifying campaign, which starts with a home game against Moldova in September.
“Our hunger is there more than ever to get back (to major tournaments),” the 26-year-old said.
“It hurts now but we’ve enjoyed it and we feel there’s still a lot more to come.”
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