Wales' "family spirit" embodied by Gareth Bale, Chris Gunter connection

It was March 2006, and Wales were competing in the elite round of the European U-17 tournament. The right-back was Chris Gunter. Down the left was a certain Gareth Bale. Ten years on, Gunter is still patrolling the right, and Bale is the most expensive player in the world.

As they prepare to face Russia in Toulouse Monday, it's one of the things that sets nations like Wales apart. Unlike bigger nations, where players come and go from the national team setup all the time, once you prove you're good enough, you tend to stay involved through good times and bad. These two, born just five days and 15 miles apart in 1989, have grown up together in a Wales jersey even as their individual professional trajectories went in different directions.

Bale made his professional debut for Southampton in April 2006. Gunter's came for Cardiff four months later. Bale moved to Tottenham in the summer of 2007; Gunter joined him six months later. Bale was the hotter prospect, but Gunter also moved in a multi-million pound deal, which, for any teenager, is quite steep.

Two Welsh teenagers, a left-back and a right-back, were ready to write another chapter in Tottenham history, except football, like life, isn't very big on following scripts.

Both experienced difficult periods. Gunter struggled for playing time, was loaned out to Nottingham Forest and then left on a permanent move. Bale wasn't doing much better: He suffered a string of injuries and became a punchline when someone noted that in his first two seasons at the club, Spurs had not won a single game in which he had appeared, a run of 24 matches.

And then their careers truly diverged or, maybe, each found his level. Bale went from strength to strength, began playing further up the pitch, moved to Real Madrid in a record-breaking deal and won two Champions League titles. Gunter bounced from Nottingham Forest to Reading, becoming a regular in the second tier of English football. But when they go back to join up with Chris Coleman's Dragons, all of that disappears. They go back 10 years to when they first played together as equals.

Folks say there's a "club feel" to teams like Wales. It's more than that. It's a family feel. One son might go on to become a university professor or lawyer, while another might get a gig tending bar or bagging groceries. Yet within the family, they are equal.

That's the ethos that Wales boss Chris Coleman has built over time. He knows that for the Dragons to breath fire, there has to be a level of unity and familiarity that most national teams don't have. He understands this because he was himself a part of Welsh sides in which superstars like Ryan Giggs co-existed with guys like Carl Robinson who, without being disrespectful, was the opposite of the Manchester United star. (And yet, as if to prove a point, Robinson won just five fewer caps than Giggs.)

Managers generally lie when they say players are equally important. They're not. Great players are rare, average ones are a dime a dozen and easily replaced. But when you're Wales, it's a bit different. The average player can't easily be replaced unless you want to call upon a mediocre one, if not a bad one. So when Coleman tells Gunter or Wayne Hennessy or a James Chester that they're important, it's because they are.

The stars get that message too. In his day job at Real Madrid, Bale gets to play alongside Karim Benzema and some guy named Cristiano Ronaldo. For Wales, he started up front with Hal Robson-Kanu (who scored all of 3 goals for Reading last year before being released) and finished with Jonny Williams, who struggled to get playing time at Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest before ending up at MK Dons. Williams has failed to last 90 minutes in a club game since April 2014.

Yet in some ways, they're not teammates to him; they're brothers, or at least extended family. Additions to a core of guys who have provided a continuous footballing thread in his life even as he's experienced ups, downs and moves to Spain. And, in the case of Gunter, a virtual twin who accompanied him for part of his club journey and has battled alongside him in a Wales shirt every step of the way.

That's likely what he meant when he talked about fighting for "the Dragon" and feeling "10 feet tall" in a Wales shirt. Those ready to do battle alongside him today get it. They may play in different leagues of different standards but, really, this is their club. This is their family.