World Football

The Remarkable Rise of Kieffer Moore

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Five years ago, Welsh history was engraved and legends were made. Wales had stunned the world of football to reach an unlikely EURO 2016 semi-final.

En route, they eliminated Belgium, who had the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard to call upon and were initially billed as the favourites to go all the way in the tournament. A 3-1 victory over Marc Wilmot’s side saw Wales through to the final four; but although they courageously battled and braved the tide, they lost out 2-0 to eventual winners Portugal.

Though defeated, Wales headed home with their heads held high. They knew they had conducted something really special. And so did the supporters, whose interminable passion played a key part in their nation’s success.

Household names only became even more cherished, once-peripheral squad players became heroes and the nation collectively basked in joyous euphoria two days after the defeat, where Wales’ lionhearts were met with raptures of support on their welcome home open-top bus parade through the red-jersey-soaked capital.

Five years is a long time in football, though. The sport- and the fortunes, successes and roles can alter in an instant, let alone half a decade, and there are only eight members of Wales’ famous run still in the squad today.

Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Wayne Hennessey, Ben Davies, Danny Ward and Chris Gunter, the eight surviving members, make up part of Robert Page’s 26 man squad for EURO 2020. Wales began the tournament with a 1-1 draw to Switzerland, which helped them to finish second in a particularly uncompromising group stage also consisting of Italy and Turkey.

The player who scored Wales’ elusive equaliser in Wales’ opening encounter found himself in much more modest surroundings when those who he now shares a dressing room with, endeared themselves to the country and beyond.

In the summer of 2016, Kieffer Moore was cutting his teeth at then-Vanarama National League outfit Forest Green Rovers, having joined the Gloucestershire side at the turn of the year. And, in a scenario now unfathomable due to his goal-scoring prowess, he made his debut as a centre-back against Braintree Town.

Speaking after Moore later earned a move to Ipswich Town, which would see him undergo the first of two stints with current Cardiff City manager Mick McCarthy, former Forest Green manager said: “I brought Kieffer back from Scandinavia and the biggest thing for me is he wants to learn.

“He is a bustling, big fella. But he has got a good touch and some really good tools to work with. Mick McCarthy is one of the best coaches around and I think Kieffer will thrive there. I’m really proud of him,

“He can play centre-back and is no mug there. 

“I played him there four or five times, he is a good size, has a good presence and can play in a number of positions.”

Pennock was relieved of his duties at the New Lawn in April 2016, though, just one week before their playoff semi-final against Dover Athletic. They beat Dover 2-1 on aggregate but lost out in the final to Grimsby Town.

Mark Cooper- still with Rovers today- soon took the reins, and Moore’s influence in the team diminished. By November, Moore had moved on loan to Torquay United. 

Having been born in Torquay, Moore had previously spent time with the Gulls as a teen and was released after they were forced to fold their youth programme, subsequently playing in the South Devon League Division Two for local side Paignton Saints.

Back at Plainmoor, he made an immediate impression, scoring five goals in four outings to allure the interest of Ipswich, who were in the Championship at the time. Torquay were so encouraged by his early showings that they had been on the verge of signing him permanently, however, McCarthy’s tractor boys farmed out £25,000 and won the race for his services.

Moore made 11 substitute appearances in East Anglia, failing to score and failing to start. But importantly, his status as a second-tier footballer ensured that his days of non-league football were complete. He had graduated from the school of hard knocks and fresh pastures- although a league below- were on the horizon. 

Paul Warne took a punt in July 2017, bringing Moore to South Yorkshire with Rotherham United on a season-long loan and he instantly sought to ignite League One.

A hat-trick on his home debut against Southend United surfaced as an imprint of intent, soon followed by a brace in a 3-2 win over Bury to take his tally up to six goals in six appearances. He wasn’t to be a flash in the pan, either- Moore scored 13 goals during his time with the Millers, with his final one a dramatic 96th-minute equaliser against local rivals Doncaster Rovers.

But it was time for the next step of Moore’s career; he’d earned the interest of clubs higher up.

Barnsley, who were struggling in the Championship, swooped for Moore in a bid to bolster their survival hopes and inject a source of goals into the side. And whilst he was unable to help them sway relegation, an output of four goals and four assists apiece was respectable for a player just beginning to tread water at that level. 

They gained promotion from League One at the first time of asking, finishing second on 91 points and were spearheaded by Moore. He was their top scorer with 17 goals across all competitions and was one of five Barnsley players to make the PFA League One Team of the Year. 

In May, Moore’s heroics with Barnsley were rewarded with an avenue most players dream of- International football. It was the typification of his trajectory, entailing years of hard work to overcome varying hurdles at a variety of levels.

Welsh heritage had been identified, due to Moore’s maternal Grandfather from the town of Llanrug, in North Wales, and before long, he was rubbing shoulders with Bale and co in Wales’ Algarve training camp.

Despite playing for England C during his time with Forest Green and even tinkering with the possibility of representing China through a paternal great grandfather, who had emigrated from Beijing in the 1940s, he was able to don the glorious Welsh jersey for the first time against Belarus in September of that year.

By that point, he had already signed for Wigan Athletic in the Championship and the former lifeguard was making waves on the International level, too. On his competitive debut, a EURO 2020 qualifying match away to Slovakia, he opened his account within 25 minutes. 

His stock continued to rise when he scored in a comprehensive 2-0 win in Azerbaijan the following month, before assisting Aaron Ramsey’s second goal against Hungary to ensure that Wales headed to the European Championships.

Combining club and International form is often tough, but Moore did just that, scoring ten times over the course of the season for Wigan and earning plaudits for more than solely his knowledge of where the back of the net is.

A multidimensional centre forward with a vast skill set that betrays typicalities of a player of his 6’5 frame, Moore once said: “My game’s not all about scoring goals, it’s about causing defenders problems, and I try and bring a lot of people into the game.

“And for my size, people don’t think I can do but I’m a good mover, I can run with the ball, I can run the channels and just cause a nuisance, really.”

That’s exactly why, after Wigan went into administration and were forced to asset-strip upon their relegation, Cardiff City decided to take a punt on Moore.

They had reached the playoff semi-finals in 2019-20, losing out to Fulham as they leaned heavily on the unpredictable fitness of maverick Lee Tomlin.

Tomlin, an attacking midfielder, ended up as the Bluebirds’ top goalscorer that season with eight goals to his name. Of course, scoring was not Tomlin’s forte. But they needed a source of goals, yet it was seemingly pinned on a player in the team to create goals. 

None of Cardiff’s main strikers in Robert Glatzel, Callum Paterson and Danny Ward had managed to surpass the seven-goal mark, either, further emphasizing the dire need for reinforcements in the final third.

That dire need had, in fact, been a symbol of outcry from Cardiff supporters for many years. No striker had reached 20 goals in the Welsh Capital since Ross McCormack in the 2008-09 season, and no player had since the late, great Peter Whittingham in 2009-10. 

They needed, not only a cultured centre forward capable of optimising the burden of scoring goals, but also one fit to handle Cardiff’s direct, physical style. They needed more than just a striker. And Moore was that player.

Already an endeared figure in this corner of the world thanks to his performances with Wales, the signing of Moore was married with instant captivation and it didn’t take long for that to be justified.

In only his second league appearance for Cardiff, Moore scored both goals in a 2-0 win at Nottingham Forest and continued to sparkle from there on, becoming a staple of consistency in spite of his side’s own inconsistencies and on-field undoings.

Cardiff didn’t reach the playoffs, but they did have their 20-goal striker. The Welsh International finished fourth in the Championship scoring charts, behind Ivan Toney, Adam Armstrong and Teemu Pukki. 

Those showings led to Moore gaining the license to lead the line for Wales at EURO 2020, in spite of Robert Page’s experimentation in the striking role leading up the tournament.

Just as Cardiff’s trust paid off, Page’s trust looks to have paid off handsomely, too. In their opening fixture against Switzerland, Wales were 1-0 down with 15 minutes to play after lively forward Breel Embolo had scored the game’s opener shortly into the second half.

Then, Wales earned a corner.

They played it short and worked the ball to Joe Morrell on the edge of the area. The obvious intention was to get it to Moore.

The midfielder clipped his delivery into the 18-yard box first time and it duly met the head of Moore, who made no mistake in emphatically powering his effort into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal to salvage a crucial point for Wales.

Wales had been under the cosh for large chunks of the showdown, but it didn’t matter all that much now. The Red Dragons had breathed fire and got their goal. 

In the grand scheme of things, it turned out to prove decisive. They followed up on the Switzerland victory with a thrilling 2-0 win over Turkey before narrowly losing out to the ever-strengthening Italians to seal their qualification to the knockout stages. 

Had it not been for Moore’s header, they wouldn’t have secured second place. And, if they had lost to Switzerland, it is without question that they wouldn’t have had the momentum and spring in their step that helped them overcome Turkey, a nation tipped by the masses as the competition’s dark horses.

Turkey weren’t the dark horses, though. In spite of possessing talented players in Burak Yilmaz, Hakan Calhanoglu and Caglar Soyuncu, they failed to match the expectations and finished rock bottom without a single point to their name. Wales, however, exceeded expectations after being largely predicted to fall short in their group.

Okay, so it’s not a fairytale. Wales didn’t emulate their heroics in France. They didn’t win the hearts of supporters all over the world. And unfortunately, their tournament was over less than a week after the Italy game. They were to face Denmark, a nation on a mission and full of confidence after defeating Russia 4-1 in their final group game to qualify.

Wales started brightly, although Danish coach Kasper Hjulmand’s decision to move central defender Andreas Christensen into defensive midfield proved to be a masterstroke. It prevented Wales from dictating play and Christensen’s presence behind Denmark’s two high-pressing midfielders nullified the threat of Ramsey, Bale and Moore. Wales were without an alternate strategy and lost 4-0.

And the pain will still be intact for Welsh supporters, Welsh players, Welsh coaches and.. well anyone connected to Wales. Losing 4-0 is never an easy pill to swallow, especially in a knockout match. Yet, there is a lot to bear optimism towards.

They have a young, hungry squad and for what they may have lacked in experience, they certainly made up for in spirit and endeavour. For anyone, football provides a genuine learning curve and their experiences in EURO 2020 will only benefit the youthful core of players that Wales have at their disposal.

Moore is another player who will inevitably strengthen from gaining experience at such a high level and he will surely be invaluable as he looks to be the focal point of Wales’ World Cup Qualification campaign.

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