LYON, France (Reuters) - When Joe Allen walked through the door at Liverpool football club his former manager Brendan Rodgers beamed at the waiting television cameras and confidently proclaimed: “This is the Welsh Xavi”.
It was perhaps an unenviable moniker for a young player making his way in the game and after four years at Anfield few would claim that Allen has lived up to comparisons to the great Spaniard, one of Europe’s finest ever midfielders.
While he has yet to consistently produce his best for his club, Allen’s performances for Wales have been nothing short of superb.
With his eye for a pass and tireless work ethic it is easy to see why his international team mates and manager are determined that he will not be an unsung hero in their Euro 2016 campaign.
As Wales have surprised everyone en route to the last four of the tournament in France, Allen has quietly gone about his business, dictating play from the heart of their midfield.
He is unflashy, tenacious without being overly physical and almost metronomic in his ability to recycle possession and move the ball seamlessly from defence to attack.
Wales manager Chris Coleman describes him as a leader, although not of the traditional footballing archetype — the quiet, mild-mannered Allen shows the way on the pitch, he says.
His team mates hold a ‘Joe Allen Appreciation Day’ at least once a week and everyone queues up to sing his praises.
“I can’t really speak highly enough of him,” Wales’s talisman Gareth Bale said after Allen helped to steer them into the knockout stages of the tournament.
“Maybe he doesn’t get the headlines outside but in the squad he gets them. He works his socks off every game and I’m sure he’ll go on to do incredible things in his career.”
Captain Ashley Williams is also a fan.
“We have a WhatsApp messaging group and at least once a week we have a Joe Allen Appreciation Day — great beard, great haircut, great guy, he’s the main man in the squad. Class player too.”
Allen’s Euro 2016 highlights have included an exquisite pass to release Aaron Ramsey to score Wales’s opening goal in their group stage finale against Russia.
He also took a stranglehold on the midfield in their quarter-final victory despite giving away the ball in the build-up to Belgium’s opening goal.
Like many of his Wales team mates, Allen seems to excel on the international stage — his place in their starting lineup is assured and his role is widely celebrated.
For his club last season, he frequently found himself playing second fiddle to England’s Jordan Henderson and James Milner as well as Germany’s Emre Can. All those three have been at Euro 2016, yet none has shone like Allen has for Wales.
For his country, Allen is the axis around which the midfield pivots, with Wales’s attacking talents Ramsey and Bale feeding off the ammunition he provides. Wednesday’s semi-final against Portugal, though, will require a reshaping of the midfield with Ramsey suspended.
When Allen grew a beard, the Wales fans changed the ‘Welsh Xavi’ nickname to the ‘Welsh Pirlo’, in honour of hirsute Italian midfielder Andrea.
Should Wales beat Portugal in Lyon, and perhaps even go one better, he may be known as just plain ‘Joe Allen’ in future.
Editing by Clare Fallon