Craig Bellamy has praised Wales for achieving Euro 2016 qualification almost four years on from the tragic death of their manager Gary Speed.
Former forward Bellamy was a team-mate of Speed’s at club and international level and played under the ex-Everton and Newcastle midfielder when he coached Wales.
In Speed’s last game as manager, Wales secured a 4-1 win friendly win over Norway in November 2011. Just 15 days later, the 42-year-old took his own life.
Wales subsequently failed to reach the 2014 World Cup, with Bellamy announcing his international retirement at the end of their unsuccessful qualifying campaign.
But the ex-Liverpool, Manchester City and Cardiff City man retained faith in the team that booked a place at a major tournament for the first time since 1958 this week under Chris Coleman.
“It’s been a lot of years of hard work,” Bellamy said. “I remember a lot of these players coming through, seeing their debuts and seeing the quality. They had a lot of bad years; this has not been overnight.
“I remember playing with these boys and we lost a lot of games. We weren’t really competing but I would always try to say: ‘It’s not about now, it’s about where you are going, and you are going to qualify.’ I was hoping I might stay around but it didn’t quite work out that way. You can’t write your own scripts.
“But I was always conscious this was a special group. It’s different to Welsh teams from before. I was close to qualifying once or twice but this group is different. The quality, the age, with [Aaron] Ramseys and [Gareth] Bales, we were different.
“We had an incredible human being [Speed] come in and probably the best Welsh team I ever played for. I remember coming off from a game against Norway and I thought: ‘We are going to go to Brazil.’
“We were that good. Unfortunately, we all know what happened and it knocked us. It knocked us as a group.
“Seeing this group of players qualify, celebrating in Bosnia, it was difficult because part of me was thinking: ‘We have been close to qualifying, we have had one or two good teams.’
“But there is not a group of players who deserve it more than this group, there really isn’t. To go through what this group of players had to go through, the circumstances, to pick themselves back up… to see them qualify, the joy and the hard work they have put in, for me it was a really happy moment.”