Goalkeeper Danny Ward has emerged as an early star for Cymru at EURO 2020 with a series of decisive saves in the opening two games that have proved crucial in his team remaining undefeated.
Opportunities have been few and far between for both club and country for the former Wrexham youth player, but Ward has proved himself to be the man for the big occasion before, and there was a sense of history repeating as he took to the field at the Olympic Stadium in Baku for the opening match against Switzerland last week.
Although the circumstances were very different, Ward also started the opening match of EURO 2016 as Chris Coleman's Cymru began the tournament with a 2-1 win over Slovakia. Deputy to Wayne Hennessey at the time, Hennessey was deemed unfit on the morning of the match in Bordeaux, but Ward was more than ready to rise to the challenge.
“I knew he was struggling with his injury but that's what we're trained to do,” said Ward back in 2016. “You've got to make sure you prepare right and you're ready when the chance comes. Whether you have a week to think about it or a couple of hours, it's still going to be a big thing. It was a very proud moment but straight away you switch into game mode.”
It would prove to be Ward's only involvement at the tournament in France, although the following season was the most constructive of his club career as he joined Championship side Huddersfield Town on-loan from Liverpool, playing 46 games in all competitions and making a key save in the play-off final penalty shoot-out as the Terriers earned promotion to the Premier League.
However, Ward has made only 15 senior club appearances since that day at Wembley four years ago. Now deputy to Denmark's Kasper Schmeichel at Leicester City, it is the international stage that has provided Ward with his opportunity ahead of his 28th birthday on Tuesday. A long-term injury to Wayne Hennessey suffered in the UEFA Nations League win over Bulgaria last October has finally offered Ward his chance to become number one.
Impressing against world champions France in the build-up to EURO 2020, Ward kept his place for the opening match against Switzerland, and delivered a big performance when it was needed. A crucial last-minute save before Cymru scored the second goal in the 2-0 win over Turkey again vindicated his selection, and Ward is embracing his opportunity to shine.
"I've been involved in the Wales set-up for a long time,” said Ward last week. “It's the same at club level. I have had to wait and be patient. It's nice to know I have come off the pitch and I've done my job ultimately. The lads who were there five years ago, we are just trying to help the younger lads through who haven't experienced a tournament like this before. What knowledge we have, we try and help them.”
The decision to name Ward ahead of 96-cap Hennessey was no doubt a selection headache for Page, but the manager has been rewarded as his side head into Sunday's match with a place in the knock-out stages now appearing to be a formality.
“I thought Wardy was outstanding,” said Page following the match against Switzerland. “I must add that Wayne is a first-class professional and when I pulled him aside and told him, he was really positive towards Wardy, and he's been brilliant in and around the group. That speaks volumes about him as a man. But with regards to Wardy, he gave an assured performance and I thought he was excellent.”