Gareth Bale got Wales’ Euro 2016 campaign off to a perfect start with an early goal and substitute Hal Robson-Kanu struck a late winner as they beat Slovakia 2-1 in the opening Group B match on Saturday.
After a 58-year wait to qualify for a major tournament, it was just the outcome Wales had hoped for and their fans forming the majority of the 37,831 crowd celebrated rapturously as the players went into an equally delighted huddle in front of them.
“What an experience,” said manager Chris Coleman, whose side will now go into Thursday’s second match against neighbours England on a high.
Coleman made the right call in sending on Robson-Kanu with just under 20 minutes left “to get us further up the pitch”.
The striker, without a club after his contract at English Championship (second tier) Reading ended, scored with a scuffed shot through a defender’s legs in the 81st minute following a pass by Aaron Ramsey after Bale had put the Welsh in front early on with a free kick that deceived Slovakia keeper Matus Kozacik.
Slovakia, who should have scored after five minutes when Marek Hamsik dribbled past three players only to see his goalbound shot cleared off the line by Ben Davies, equalised through substitute Ondrej Duda with his first touch on the hour.
Robson-Kanu also did what was asked of him after replacing surprise selection Jonny Williams.
“It wasn’t the best finish but one we’re all happy about,” he told reporters.
Bale added: “When the subs come on they have to make an impact and Hal was amazing when he came on.”
Coleman started with the team’s talisman, Bale, as the main striker a position in which he has sometimes become isolated in the past.
A 20th goal for his country, the first of which came against Slovakia as a 17 year-old in 2006, emphasised Bale’s importance once again.
Wales also used a goalkeeper in Danny Ward, who had made only two previous appearances as a substitute, and played only twice for his Premier League club Liverpool.
He was called in to replace regular keeper Wayne Hennessey, who was said by Coleman to be “devastated” by a back injury he suffered in the warm-up.
Slovakia, unbeaten in a recent run that included winning away to world champions Germany, improved either side of the interval and rallied again in an exciting finish during which Adam Nemec almost made it the day of the understudies by heading against a post.
Wales made the most of their reprieve from Hamsik’s slalom when Champions League winner Bale was given his first sight of goal and caught Kozacik on the wrong foot from almost 30 metres.
The vibrant Welsh supporters were understandably furious when Jonny Williams was denied a penalty after Slovakia captain Martin Skrtel barged him over.
Slovakia began to improve and Duda equalised within a minute of coming on after Robert Mak beat two men to provide a low cross driven in from close to the penalty spot.
A Welsh substitution proved even more crucial in the end.
Ramsey stumbled but was still able to prod the ball forward for Robson-Kanu to score one of the most famous goals in Welsh soccer history.