Ask 1,000 Welsh football fans for their favorite moment from Euro 2016 and you might receive 1,000 different answers, but one in particular will remain etched at the forefront of those minds for years to come.
Such was the effect of Chris Coleman’s side, who traveled as far as the semi-finals in what was the country’s first major tournament appearance in more than half a century–their only other being the 1958 World Cup.
There’s nothing if not pride for Wales’ unlikely run into the tournament’s last four, and Hal Robson-Kanu’s tide-turning goal in the quarter-final win over Belgium is among the proudest moments of all. A finish that stands toe-to-toe with its elite peers, propelling a team who were largely perceived as happy just to be taking part.
July 1 will long hold a special place in Welsh hearts as a result. Belgium—managed by Marc Wilmots at the time—started Euro 2016 with a defeat to Italy but had restored equilibrium with seamless wins over the Republic of Ireland (3-0), Sweden (1-0) and Hungary (4-0).
A fourth straight win looked likely for the Red Devils after Radja Nainggolan unleashed a trademark howitzer past Wayne Hennessey 13 minutes in at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
Ashley Williams headed home to bring Coleman & Co. level before Robson-Kanu pulled a Cruyff Turn in circumstances worthy of the man after whom it was named:
Sam Vokes—who hadn’t scored an international goal in more than two years—was unfortunate to follow that contribution, though his clutch header in the closing stages was almost as great in its significance.
Wales were eligible to qualify for every UEFA European Championship except one since its inception in 1960 but had never made the cut. One magical evening in Villeneuve-d’Ascq saw them finally arrive at the standard they sought and beat their best finish at any major tournament, with Robson-Kanu’s place in folklore cemented regardless of what came after.
Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and their captain, Williams, each played critical roles in the tournament–but were also expected to, as established Premier League names of the period. Robson-Kanu was in a way more representative of a Welsh squad now well-populated with top-tier talents, a valued remnant from when Football League players were in the majority.
His only other finish in the competition—leaving him second only to Bale among Welsh scorers at Euro 2016—was a late decider in the opening 2-1 win against Slovakia. Decidedly less extravagant than the Johan Cruyff tribute that followed, but no less valuable as Wales went on to top Group B ahead of close rivals England by a single point:
It was fitting that Robson-Kanu should score such a memorable goal in the quarter-final on July 1, his first official day as a free agent after ending his 12-year stay at Reading. In search of new prospects and aware of how his stock could rise with the scope of a European Championship fixed on France, the former Arsenal academy student announced his availability in sensational style.
West Bromwich Albion convinced the forward to turn down “significant amounts of money” from China to give the Premier League another whirl, initially on a two-year deal. At 27 years of age, there was reason to suspect the Welsh winger would never receive a finer chance to succeed at the top having played only one season in the first tier while at Reading.
Tony Pulis found little use for Robson-Kanu despite marking his first start for the club with an assist and goal during a 2-1 win over Southampton in December 2016, getting the better of a Virgil van Dijk then impressing with the Saints:
The Baggies preserved their Premier League status in 2017 but were unable to avoid the drop the following season, with Robson-Kanu losing his place under Alan Pardew. The carousel of managers has continued at the Hawthorns with four bosses taking up roost in a little more than two years, though Slaven Bilic looks settled as the club now targets automatic promotion back to England’s top flight.
Stability in the managerial hot seat has given Robson-Kanu—now 31—a sturdier foundation and resulted in arguably his best season to date. He’s scored a career-high 10 goals in 33 league appearances (23 starts), marking him as the Baggies' top scorer and cementing his place in the first XI under Bilic, after initially impressing as a substitute at the beginning of 2019-20.
His fine start to the season was enough to earn a new contract that will keep him at West Brom until the summer of 2021, though the chase for the Championship title hasn’t all been glitz and glamour:
Almost two years after retiring from international duty—and nearly three years since his last Wales cap—Robson-Kanu is reaping the benefits of that decision to focus on his club longevity. And, with any fortune, fans might see the cult hero back in the Premier League once more.
There will always be more illustrious names from that Euro 2016 squad. Many of them are still held in high regard for what was accomplished in France, but regardless of what’s to come in his future, fans are sure to exalt Robson-Kanu as the unlikeliest of icons in the country’s most prestigious moment.