Wales' 'Golden Generation' disappoint at World Cup
Fans were hoping for Wales to turn up at the World Cup in high spirits after an agonising 64-year wait but the team stumbled at the first hurdle as the ageing "Golden Generation" of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey failed to deliver.
In the opening 1-1 draw with the United States, Bale proved why he is Wales' most trustworthy player after he won and converted a late penalty, but that was all he could offer in what was an underwhelming campaign for the Welsh in Qatar.
Against Iran, the 33-year-old was dispossessed several times and had one shot on target as Wales suffered a disappointing 2-0 defeat which left them hoping for a miracle against rivals England in the so-called "Battle of Britain".
Wales' most-capped player was anonymous in attack against England in the first half and was substituted at the break due to a hamstring issue before Wales limped to a 3-0 defeat, finishing bottom of Group B with one point and one goal.
Regardless of his form at club level before a major international tournament, Bale usually delivers when he puts on the Wales shirt but it was not the case this time as questions were raised about his form and fitness.
Coming into the World Cup, the Los Angeles FC forward had played only 36 minutes of competitive football since September. At the World Cup, he had to play three matches within eight days and he struggled.
While Bale looked like a spent force, Ramsey was no different -- floundering in midfield as he gave the ball away more times than any other player against Iran and lost all but one of his eight duels.
Ramsey started only five of his 12 French Ligue 1 games for Nice this season before making the trip to Qatar.
"That's the problem we always have, asking players who are not playing for their clubs to come and give performance after performance," Wales head coach Rob Page said.
Ramsey, who turns 32 next month, and Bale have long carried the national team on their shoulders but they crumbled under the weight of expectation in Qatar.
Apart from Bale and Ramsey, 32-year-old midfielder Joe Allen also had a disappointing cameo, though that was expected given he was making a return after two months out following a hamstring injury and that his best days are behind him.
Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, 35, was guilty of a rash error in the second game that allowed the Iranians to get into the contest as he was sent off.
The absence of a player who could rise to the challenge hurt Wales, who made the World Cup via the playoffs by overcoming Austria and Ukraine to reach the global showpiece tournament for the first time since 1958.
Perhaps the time is up for the Welsh golden era with Bale's career winding to a close in Major League Soccer and doubts over Ramsey's ability to deliver big performances - though Bale says he will play for Wales for as long as he's wanted.
Having played below their standards, Wales will hope they do not have to wait another 64 years to return to the World Cup.