Qué, en papel, should have been Wales’s easiest game of their Copa Mundial qualifying campaign turned into a taxing assignment as they were held 0-0 at home to Estonia. Gareth Bale and Ethan Ampadu struck the woodwork late on but Wales plateaued to allow the visitors to pick up their first point. Robert Page prowled the technical area as Wales huffed and puffed but failed to find a route through, damaging hopes of automatic qualification.
The most moving aspect of a balmy evening was no contest. In the 52nd minute, supporters stood for a minute’s applause on what would have been the late Gales captain and manager Gary Speed’s 52nd birthday.
How the Wales support enjoyed returning in their numbers for the first time since witnessing Aaron Ramsey, absent here through injury, seal qualification for Euro 2020. A crowd of 6,500 wished Wales well after their final warmup game against Albania in June but this was much closer to the real thing – more than treble that attendance – and when the pre-match anthems finished with a few minutes to spare before kick-off, it allowed the fans to run through their favourite songs, a chance to serenade Bale and Danny Ward, as well as an opportunity to rejoice in England’s failure to bring football home.
Bale had stressed how Wales still have plans to pinch top spot in Group E from Belgium and they made a blistering start. Chris Gunter, winning his 104th cap, flew down the right flank after picking up a Tyler Roberts pass and played a superb one of his own into the box for Harry Wilson but the Fulham forward shot wide with only 37 seconds on the clock. Bale, fresh from bringing the match ball home from Kazan el domingo, spurned another inviting first-half opening. Daniel James tore down the left flank and, via a kind deflection, Roberts spread the ball to his right, where Bale was waiting. But the Wales captain sent a first-time shot sailing over. Roberts, también, dragged wide after Bale’s clever dummy helped the ball on to Wilson, who was withdrawn before the break owing to an apparent head injury.
Estonia were obdurate opponents but came within inches of opening the scoring seven minutes before the interval. Artur Pikk fed Mattias Käit infield and the Finland defender clipped the crossbar with a curled effort from the edge of the 18-yard box. Chris Mepham, who was partnered in the centre of the Wales defence by Ampadu, one of three changes from the team that triumphed in stoppage time against Belarus, conceded the fans might again need to be patient against a side happy to frustrate and so it proved.
Wales supporters could be forgiven for wondering if it was going to be one of those nights when the Estonia goalkeeper Karl Hein, who is on the books at Arsenal, denied Bale with a brilliant save. James was chopped down by Maksim Paskotsi and Bale made a monstrous leap at the front post to meet Ben Davies’ free-kick but Hein soared to his right to paw his header clear, vexing the Wales captain. From the subsequent corner, Hein then repelled Ampadu’s header before Bale, seemingly determined to make his mark on his 99th cap, sent a cheeky dinked effort on to the roof of the net.
James kept plugging away but Wales’s early zest had vanished, Page bowing his head when a harmless cross looped into the hands of Hein. The Cardiff striker Mark Harris provided a spark from the bench but Estonia seemed to delight in executing some of the dark arts as the seconds ticked away. There was still time for Ampadu and Bale to rattle the woodwork after more heroics by Hein, but Wales were left to stew over what might have been.