And breathe. Into six of seven minutes of second-half stoppage time David Brooks sealed Wales’s crucial victory. Seconds before the relief when Danny Ward claimed a free-kick was audible from thousands of Wales supporters. Rob Page proclaimed he would take a scruffy one-nil win and while it was hardly smash and grab, they had to sweat to a earn a crucial win that revives their hopes of automatic qualification. Aaron Ramsey’s 100th senior career goal, from the penalty spot, opened the scoring but Wales also endured their share of hairy moments.
A 15-second countdown to kick-off was displayed on the big screen at one end of this no-frills stadium within walking distance of the cobbled old town. At that moment Page, who last week acknowledged the external negativity surrounding his team and on the eve of the game did not hide from questions about his future amid mounting scrutiny, could be forgiven for wondering whether this would be the last time. Wales had won one of their previous 13 matches, that unconvincing 1-0 win coming against Latvia in Cardiff in March.
Wales needed a fast start and they got one. Brennan Johnson shot over with barely a minute gone after latching on to a zipped Ethan Ampadu pass and then Chris Mepham made a thudding block which cannoned off the Latvia midfielder Janis Ikaunieks for a corner. From that set piece Ampadu sent a header over and then a few minutes later, from another corner, Ben Davies rose to register Wales’s first effort on target, his cushioned header forcing a save from Roberts Ozols, preferred to Nils Purins in the Latvia goal after their 5-0 thrashing in Croatia on Friday. Johnson then effortlessly wriggled clear of Kristers Tobers but shot over.
Connor Roberts forced Ozols into a fine, plunging save with a smart header from a Neco Williams cross and Roberts more than played his part when Wales opened the scoring approaching the half-hour. Ramsey pinged a diagonal ball from left to right in search of Roberts and the Burnley full-back did superbly to prevent the pass going out of play and hoicked the ball towards Harry Wilson, who was barged over in the box by Kaspars Dubra. It was soft but clumsy in equal measure.
Ramsey picked up the ball, nestled it under his left armpit and then, when the referee, Michal Ocenas, blew his whistle, coolly rolled the ball in, sending Ozols the wrong way. Ramsey wheeled away towards the nearest corner flag, where he was joined by every outfield teammate. A few plastic cups of beer quickly emptied as they were flung towards him in celebration.
Wales supporters had in effect taken over this modest three-sided ground with a rubble car park at one end, reminiscent of Oxford United’s Kassam Stadium. It was at that end Ramsey dispatched his penalty. At that point everything was rosy. Wales were dominating possession and should have had another couple of goals on the scoreboard. Williams elected to cut inside on to his right foot rather than shoot first time after reaching Johnson’s high cross and Johnson then drilled wide after Ramsey freed Tottenham’s deadline-day signing.
Moments later Wilson had a shot saved. But in the minutes leading up to half-time Latvia gave Wales a fright. Ward saved from Ikaunieks and then flapped at the subsequent corner but Latvia’s Raimonds Krollis was a split-second late to react and could only nudge wide. Ikaunieks then played a teasing pass into the box with the outside of his boot but Krollis could not connect.
Wales faded in the first half and failed to reassert their authority early in the second. Ramsey’s departure on 49 minutes hindered their attempt to regain control and by the time he was replaced by David Brooks the dynamic of the game had already shifted. The again-impressive Jordan James released Johnson but the Wales No 9 fired wide, perhaps guilty of trying too hard. Then Krollis provided another scare, dropping a shot wide of a post from distance.
A flashpoint arrived soon after the hour. James was on the receiving end of a crude, high tackle by Ikaunieks, earning the Latvia midfielder a booking. The referee headed to the VAR monitor to review whether the incident – Page all the while stood a yard behind him, arms folded, cussing the nature of the tackle – was a red card offence but stuck with his original decision.
Williams and Brooks passed up golden opportunities before the latter struck, but Latvia went close to notching an equaliser approaching the end of normal time. Ikaunieks stepped inside off the right flank, Williams slipped and presented the Latvia forward with a window of opportunity to strike at goal and his powerful left-foot shot, to the relief of Wales, rattled the side netting.