When Wales qualified for their first World Cup Finals since 1958 earlier this year, the feeling of euphoria at just heading to Qatar and being part of the global showpiece was tangible in the principality.

Yet as the tournament has moved closer, that sense of achievement of ending 64 years of waiting has been overtaken by a feeling of confidence that they are able to achieve more than just being at the finals.

Manager Robert Page is firmly of the belief that his side are not just there to make up the numbers, and their performances at the last two Euro Finals suggest that anyone underestimating Wales will do so at their peril.

“I think we’re all greedy, aren’t we?” said Page.

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“If 12 months ago someone had to said to us that we’re going to qualify for the World Cup, we’d all have been very happy with that.

“But now we’re here and the tournament is nearer, you start to look at the group and think ‘hang on a minute, all these games are potentially winnable’.

“Then you can find yourself starting to look beyond that. So honestly, we are going to take one game at a time, as they come.

“We’ll be focussing on one game at a time in the camp, but always with the aim of getting to the next stage and getting out of the group in the back of our minds.”

Page, now 48, amassed more than 250 appearances for Watford between 1993 and 2002, captaining them to victory over Bolton Wanderers in the 1999 Play-Off Final at Wembley and then leading them into their first-ever season in the Premier League.

Watford Observer: Robert Page tussles with Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp Robert Page tussles with Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp (Image: Action Images)

He went on to play for Sheffield United, Cardiff City, Coventry City, Huddersfield Town and Chesterfield, taking his career appearance total past 550. Page also clocked up 41 full caps for Wales, and captained them once in a 2-0 victory over Hungary in 1995.

After retiring, Page was a coach at Port Vale before becoming manager in 2014, and he also went on to manage Northampton Town before becoming Wales Under-21 manager in 2017.

He was appointed Wales assistant first-team coach in 2019, and then took on the role of caretaker manager in November 2020 following Ryan Giggs’ arrest.

Page was at the helm when Wales reached the knock-out stages of the Euro 2020 Finals, and said his main learning to take away from that experience was the significance of making a solid start.

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“What’s important is that we don’t lose that first game with the USA,” he said.

“It’s not imperative that we win it but it’s important that we don’t lose it.

“We drew the first game at the Euros with Switzerland and then we beat Turkey. That meant we had four points going into the last game with Italy, and barring a disaster we knew we were going through to the knock-out stage.

“The principles will be the same at the World Cup: we don’t want to lose our first game. That’s why we focus on the first game: if we get a win that’s great, if we get a draw we move on with a point. And then after that you plan for the second game.”

Page continued as interim manager during the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, and shortly after they beat Ukraine in the European play-off final to claim their place in Qatar, he was given the job permanently and signed a four-year contract in September.

Of course, before getting on the plane to Qatar, Page had the somewhat unenviable task of narrowing the players at his disposal down to a squad of 26 for the finals – and then telling those who hadn’t made the cut.

“I had the best night’s sleep I’d had in a long time the night after I named my squad, because it was such a weight off my mind,” admitted Page. “It was a special day for me to announce my squad.

“I had to have a couple of uncomfortable conversations with disappointed players, which wasn’t nice, but once I knew the squad was out there and everybody knew where they stood then I could relax.

“It’s horrible telling players they aren’t going to the World Cup, it really is the worst feeling in the world. You know they’re not going to take it well, particularly as Wales have waited so many years to get a World Cup finals.

“I had to be the one who delivered the bad news though and that comes with the territory. You take the plaudits when the team is doing well, and you also have to do the not so nice bits. You have to be as honest and sympathetic as you possibly can. I always find honesty is the best way.”

Page spent two days in Wales around the announcement of his squad, and was able to soak up the excitement and anticipation among his fellow countrymen.

“It’s crazy, honestly. I had two days in Wales when I was naming the squad, I went back to the valleys and I opened a 3G pitch and there were 200 kids there, and the excitement for the World Cup is incredible.

“The anticipation is huge. I had grown men coming up to me saying they can’t wait for the World Cup to start.

“It’s gone bonkers. And us qualifying has created such an amazing atmosphere in the stadium when we’ve played games. I played for Wales and I never felt a connection with the Welsh fans as strong as it is now.”

Page said reaching a World Cup finals meant a number of his senior players could fulfil a dream that so many of those who had represented Wales before them didn’t get the chance to emulate.

“I’ve got a generation of footballers with me at the minute, and they’re getting to an age where they know they can’t play for ever: Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsay, people like that.

Watford Observer: Gareth Bale celebrates scoring against CroatiaGareth Bale celebrates scoring against Croatia (Image: Action Images)

“And what they achieved at the Euros in 2016, getting all the way to the semi-finals, they possibly thought that was the pinnacle, the best ever.

“So, you do then start to wonder if that’s going to be their last chance to play at a major tournament.

“But then we qualified again and went to Baku in 2020, and we had to do that the hard way through the play-offs. The lads found a way to win games, even if it wasn’t the prettiest.

“So, qualifying for the World Cup was a little bit of a surprise to me, but I am so grateful that these players have the chance to go and play in the finals. That was the one thing that was missing off the CVs of those senior players.”

He may not live in Wales, but many years of playing and residing in England have not altered his strong Welsh accent or diminished the pride he feels being connected to the national side. And that is something he has attempted to instil in his children.

“We live in Sheffield but I’m a very passionate Welshman, and my kids understand the importance of respecting the Welsh culture,” said the Llwynpia-born gaffer.

“It’s little things: whenever any Welsh team is playing, I stand up and blast the anthem on the TV on volume 100. I get the kids to come in and listen to it with me.

“They understand how passionate I am about being Welsh and how much it means to me. In their hearts I think they are Welsh really, even though they were born and live in England. I like to think they’re proud of what I’ve done as well.”

But when Wales face England in Qatar, who will the kids be supporting?

“Of course they’re going to support Wales! Their Dad is manager of Wales!” said Page, almost incredulous that anyone would even ask.

Being drawn in the same group as England means there is an added dimension to Group B at the finals.

“England is just another game to us,” Page said though.

“I know there’s the rivalry and people like to talk about that, but we will just treat it as another game.

“What would be nice is if both countries can get the job done and be qualified before we play each other. That’s not being disrespectful to the USA or Iran, they are there for a good reason. You could throw a blanket over the four nations with regards to world rankings.

“England is just another game, but I also know it also adds a bit of spice to the group.

“We play England last, and we could go into that game with both teams on six points, three points, who knows. There are so many permutations but playing England last might make things a bit easier as the pressure could be off by then, and we’ll certainly know what is needed to progress by then.”

The experience of leading Wales in the Euro 2020 finals means Page has first-hand knowledge of the special environment that is major tournament football.

“I think the main thing I learned was that you have a squad of players, and you have to use them,” he said.

“The intensity you want to play at, the quality of the opposition you’re playing against, means you are going to need to use your full squad of players.

“I think rotation of players might be key to things.”

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Possibly outside of the British Isles, mention Welsh football and only one name will be given back to you: Gareth Bale.

At 33, the former Tottenham and Real Madrid forward is unlikely to get another crack at a World Cup, and his performances in Euros finals - as well as during Wales’ qualification for Qatar - mean he is understandably seen as the star player.

However, Page doesn’t like having his Welsh team considered to be a one-man outfit.

“Naturally Gareth gets the headlines because of the important goals he’s scored to help us get across the line. The free-kick against Austria, the free-kick against Ukraine, they will naturally put him in the headlines.

“But you can’t take away what Joe Morrell has done during the World Cup qualification. Aaron Ramsay, Joe Allen, Ben Davies, without those lads playing to the level they’re playing at every single time they put that Welsh jersey on, then we don’t give Gareth the opportunities to go and score those goals.

“He will get the plaudits, and rightly so, but I’ll never have the rest of the lads ignored or have people say we’re a one-man show because that is disrespectful to the other players and Gareth himself wouldn’t want that.”

So, who are the players in the Welsh squad that Page thinks football fans should look out for during the finals?

“I’d give you two names: Joe Morrell in midfield and Joe Rodon in defence,” he said.

Watford Observer: Joe Morrell in action against Belgium.Joe Morrell in action against Belgium. (Image: Action Images)

“Morrell is playing League One football and every time he goes to a Championship club he can’t seem to get a game, but when he puts the Welsh jersey on, he’s exceptional. He never, ever lets us down.

“Rodon is now playing his football for Rennes in France, and a lot of people won’t know much about him. Tottenham signed him from Swansea at a young age, and now he’s out playing Ligue One football in France. He’s a really exciting prospect who comes alive in the Wales jersey.”

Naturally Page would never say Wales couldn’t win the World Cup – but if they don’t, who does he think might?

“Belgium are consistently one of the top teams in the world, and then you’ve got Brazil obviously. You wouldn’t go far wrong if you went for Spain. The usual suspects won’t be too far away.

“If I had to pick one, I’d probably go with Brazil.”

Now the tournament is almost upon him, Page can focus on the task at hand, but he admits that managing the national side was not something he considered until he hung up his boots.

“I just dreamt of being a player. I didn’t know about management or coaching until I’d finished playing.

“All I knew as a kid was that I wanted to be a professional footballer. Then when you fulfil that ambition your next thought is whether you can play for your country. I always wanted to represent Wales.

“Then the next honour I had was to captain my country, and once you manage your country it’s on another level.

“But when I was eight or nine, playing football in the street with my pals, I never dreamt of managing Wales. I never did. It was only when I retired from playing and wanted to stay within football in some capacity that I thought about coaching and managing.

“You’re still a player when you captain the national team so the honour is that you’re leading your teammates out on the pitch. That is an incredible honour. But you’re still one of 11 players and you have a shared responsibility.

“The difference being a manager is that you’re there on your own. If things go well, then that’s the best feeling in the world. But when things don’t go so well then it’s a very lonely place in that technical area.”

Of course, he will never be alone in the technical area as Page has the support of a large travelling party who will be by his side in Qatar.

“I’m blessed to have a great group of staff around me and a great set of players,” he said.

“If you’ve got that then you’ve got the recipe for a winning team.

“Talented players who are also good lads create a winning environment, and the environment in our camp is second to none.

“The team of staff I have with me have worked at the top level of elite sport for years and their standards are ridiculously high.

“Great staff and world-class players coming together breeds success.”

One day, Page will stop being the current Wales manager and become another former national team boss. So, what does he hope his legacy will be?

“Obviously taking my country to two major finals, and one of them being a World Cup, is right up there. We hadn’t been to the World Cup since 1958 so that is something I am very proud of.

“But what I also want, having worked with our Under-21s, is to bring our players through. I get so much satisfaction out of seeing our young players grow and playing for the senior team.

“If I can leave behind a team that has a core of players who progressed through then that will be great.”

PART TWO COMING SOON: Robert Page discusses his love for Watford, what he learned from Graham Taylor...and video analysis sessions in the manager's living room!