The long and winding road to Euro 2020 has taken Wales further than most and, although it came to a screeching halt in Amsterdam, it was an end not without a sense of hope.
Even by the standards of this transcontinental tournament, Wales was a tough course towards the second round as they drove thousands of miles to Baku and Rome for group matches before facing Denmark in the capital. Dutch.
As Wales envisioned their 4-0 defeat, was it more than their European Championship ended? the end of an era?
That squad included eight of the players who took Wales to all-time new heights of the Euro 2016 semi-finals and, after Saturday’s final whistle, the spotlight inevitably fell on the most famous of those who remain, Captain Gareth Bale.
When asked if this would be his last game for his country, the 31-year-old just walked away.
But while Bale, Aaron Ramsey and others may not have had many of those campaigns left, there was also a feeling that this was a Wales side at the start of something.
Their team was the third youngest at Euro 2020. It was an end but a nod to the future.
“They might not think so now, but when you take all the emotion out of it, it will be very helpful for the future,” said Robert Page, interim manager.
“It’s a young group and the World Cup qualifiers are approaching in September, and we’ll be back.
“We’ve had a taste of tournament football now and we want more of it. “
After losing to Brazil in the 1958 World Cup quarter-finals, Wales had to wait 58 years for their next major tournament appearance. And while they ended this sterile period in a spectacular way at Euro 2016, their golden summer in France was always going to be a difficult act to follow.
Part of the beauty of 2016 for Wales was its rarity. Qualifying for these competitions is not something that no one associated with Welsh football will ever take for granted.
So while the manner of their loss to Denmark hurt, they were proud to have reached the knockout stages for the third time in three major finals.
“In the whole tournament I thought the boys were great and even getting to where we are is a great achievement with the players we have, not playing national football week after week”, said Page.
“I’m proud of them for that. “
Page made a salient point about his team’s lack of action.
As the 2016 squad featured a generation of players all reaching their prime at the same time, Wales entered this tournament undercooked in places and irrelevant in others.
Goalkeeper Danny Ward has enjoyed an excellent campaign despite spending the national season on the bench for Leicester City, while midfielder Joe Morrell, who started in Wales’ four games at Euro 2020, hadn’t played for Luton Town in the league since February.
Even their stars, Bale and Ramsey, only appeared intermittently for Tottenham and Juventus respectively.
No wonder then that Wales’ performances in this tournament have been inconsistent.
They stole a point in their first group game with Switzerland, put on their best performance in years to beat Turkey and had to dig deep to avoid a heavy defeat in Italy.
Their last 16 game against Denmark was one too many.
“It’s bitter to take,” Page said.
“The players are suffering there because of the way they left the tournament and they don’t deserve it. They deserve a lot of credit for what they have done so far.
“Overall a great group to work with and I think there is a lot more to come from them. “
The next stop for Wales will be a double World Cup qualifier against Belarus and Estonia in September, with Page likely in charge in the continued absence of manager Ryan Giggs.
The pain of eliminating Euro 2020 was evident on Saturday, made worse by the manner of the defeat.
But this World Cup qualifying campaign will give this team something new to focus on, a chance to make their own story.
While one road ends in Amsterdam, another begins.
“We are proud to have been able to come out of the group stage for the second time,” said midfielder Joe Allen, another of the 2016 class.
“The message is clear for the team. We have to think about qualifying for the World Cup now. We have a young group that has a lot more to give. “