There were less than three minutes on the clock when the Wales supporters started their campaign to keep Chris Coleman on as manager and it quickly became clear that it was going to be the soundtrack of the evening.
“Chrissy Coleman, we want you to stay” was the message that reverberated from the fans time and again on the manager’s 49th – and potentially last – match in charge of his country.
Talks will continue between Coleman and the Football Association of Wales over the coming days, with the 47-year-old’s contract expiring at the end of the month. The feeling is that the two parties are not that far apart, with key details still to be resolved surrounding Coleman’s backroom staff and the infrastructure that he wants in place to build on his work over the best part of six years. Either way, his legacy is assured with Wales.
In many ways this was a night that provided a glimpse into the future, with Ethan Ampadu, Ben Woodburn and David Brooks all showing moments of promise on their full international debuts and the 23-year-old Tom Lawrence delivering a fine solo goal 15 minutes from time.
There was also a little bit of history for Chris Gunter, who made his 85th appearance for Wales to draw level with the late Gary Speed as the country’s most-capped outfield player. Panama, however, had not read the script and the evening finished with Armando Cooper scoring an injury-time equaliser to deny Coleman and his players victory.
While the failure to secure a place at Russia continues to hang over Wales, there are no such concerns for Panama. They have qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time, courtesy of a dramatic victory over Costa Rica last month that brought a nation of four million people to a standstill. Juan Carlos Varela, the Panama president, duly declared the following day a public holiday.
The objectives are much longer-term for Wales and Coleman picked a team with that in mind, giving Ampadu, who is 17 years old, Woodburn, who turned 18 last month, and the 20-year-old Brooks their first Wales starts. All three caught the eye when they came on in the 2-0 defeat against France in Paris on Friday and they were quick to make an impression here, too. Six minutes had gone when Ampadu pinched possession, Brooks crossed from the right and Woodburn, arriving at the far post, had his header saved by Jaime Penedo, the Panama goalkeeper.
When Sam Vokes broke through the middle and thumped a 25-year shot wide it seemed only a matter of time before they opened the scoring, yet Wales’s bright start soon fizzled out.
Ampadu, in fairness, showed some nice touches and a fine range of passing, but the Chelsea midfielder also picked up a yellow card for a late challenge on Gabriel Torres that left the Panama striker in a heap. Gunter clearly felt that some sort of punishment should also have been handed out to Ricardo Ávila, complaining to the referee that the Panama winger butted him later in the half.
Ávila escaped without sanction but Luis Ovalle, the Panama right-back, was not so fortunate when he clumsily upended Dave Edwards in the area four minutes before the interval. Gunter said beforehand that he would not want to turn this friendly into a farce by stepping forward to take a penalty if it was awarded – he is still searching for his first Wales goal – but the right-back may well have fared better from 12 yards than Vokes, whose poor spot-kick was easily saved by Penedo.
Panama had a decent chance of their own early in the second half, when Torres sprinted clear as Wales appealed in vain for offside. Danny Ward, the Wales goalkeeper, seemed to hesitate a little as Torres took a heavy touch and it took a timely challenge from Gunter to clear the danger.
The game then seemed to drift until Lawrence brought it to life as he darted in from the left, leaving several Panama players in his wake, before drilling into the far corner. Yet it was Cooper who had the last word.