Wales left heartbroken after failing to qualify for 2018 World Cup
CARDIFF, Wales -- The Welsh players, seeking comfort in superstition and song, had asked their FA to cut their anthem short, the way the home Georgians had accidentally ended "Land of My Fathers" after the first verse before their match last week.
That night in Tbilisi, the 2,000 traveling supporters finished the anthem on their own, and the Welsh went on to win to keep their World Cup qualification hopes alive. So it was that on Monday night at Cardiff City Stadium, before Wales and Ireland met in their crucial final qualifier, the loudspeakers went silent and more than 30,000 Welsh sang unaccompanied and unabashed. It was the sort of moment that gooseflesh was designed to explain.
A single, gutting game of football later, and the gooseflesh was gone, replaced by the sort of heartache that inspires different songs.
Ireland won 1-0.
"We just came up a bit short," Wales manager Chris Coleman said. "It wasn't quite enough tonight. It's a shame for us. It's a hard one for us. It hurts."
Later, given a little more time for reality to sink in, he underscored just how disappointing the result was. "We're absolutely devastated," he said.
It wasn't strictly true that both teams needed to win -- Wales might have advanced with a draw -- but victory for either side made everything automatic for both of them. Serbia, who began the night atop Group D, entered the complicated equation given their result against Georgia; the score between Croatia and Ukraine in Group I also mattered, because the worst of the nine second-place finishers would fail to advance, and only a single goal scored gave the Welsh a slim eighth-place advantage over the reeling former.
Wales looked determined from the opening whistle and dominated most of the first half, at least in possession and attack. They were missing star Gareth Bale to a calf strain, and it showed in the lack of a final product in front of goal. Ireland countered with physical, mostly fruitless play, except for their knocking out of Wales midfielder Joe Allen. The match went to the break scoreless. So did the other crucial games. It was deadlocks all around.
Then Ireland scored their goal.
The Welsh nearly took the lead in the 53rd minute, when Hal Robson-Kanu headed a cross on target. Irish keeper Darren Randolph made a leaping save to tip the ball over the crossbar.
Four minutes later, Ireland's Jeff Hendrick pounced on a giveaway and ran the ball down the right sideline, keeping it in by inches, maybe just an inch, the linesman trailing right behind him, his flag at the ready. Hendrick's cross eventually found James McClean waiting near the penalty spot, and he drove his shot home to the left of Wales keeper Wayne Hennessey.
The Welsh fans responded by singing their anthem again, as loud as they could, better to drown out the 3,000 celebrating Irish among them. It still sounded something like hope.
But then the Croatians scored against Ukraine, meaning that Wales now needed a win for any chance of reaching Russia. The Serbians scored against Georgia, too. Now only second place and a playoff was up for grabs. The odds were getting longer while the rewards were getting smaller.
With 10 minutes to go, "Land of My Fathers" rang around the stadium for a third time. It sounded different this time, lifted into the night by the thinnest of threads. While the match rattled toward its desperate finish, the agony of how fine the line was began to hit home.
With their best collection of talent in their long history, the Welsh had a happier fate within their reach. After their sensational semifinal run at Euro 2016, they hoped -- maybe even needed -- to qualify for their first World Cup since 1958.
They led in four of the five qualifiers they eventually drew (the other being their first match against Ireland, which was scoreless). A draw at home to Georgia and an 86th-minute concession to Serbia now become the haunters.
Joining those moments will be the sight of Hendrick sprinting down that sideline, that ball so close to trickling out. Instead, it became the assist that led to the goal which helped decide so much.
Serbia are in the World Cup. Ireland are in the playoff. Croatia are in the playoff. Slovakia, on a night when nothing was in their control and everything went wrong for them, ended up the worst of the second-place finishers, joining Wales on the closest orbit of the outside looking in.
After applauding their players -- "I told them they should stick their chest out, they should be proud of themselves," Coleman said -- the Welsh supporters filed out of the stadium, defeated here for the first time in four years. If they made any sound, it couldn't be heard above the Irish and their own singing. "Land of My Fathers" didn't get sung again, or if it did, it was sung in whispers. It was replaced by "The Fields of Athenry," echoing into the night.
Sometimes the difference between a song of victory and a song of defeat isn't in the voice that carries it, or in what key, or at what volume. Sometimes it's in the ears that hear it.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.