It started in Bordeaux
Sitting in the Stade de France, at the Euro16 final between France (the obvious hosts) and 'plucky' Portugal, I was feeling slightly....odd.
Having booked my ticket to the final way before the tournament started (via my job as a customer of Continental Tyres), I never once thought that Wales would be in with a shout of appearing in this very final. I still can't quite believe that i just typed the previous sentence to be honest.
Along with a fair few over-confident Germans, I saw a resilient Portugal, conquerors of Cymru in the semis, overcome the favourites France. This saved me what would have been a very long commute back into central Paris after the game amongst throngs of jubilant, intoxicated locals. As it was, the atmosphere was still great, but sensibly great.
|The French were in good song. I dressed appropriately..|
There were almost no Welsh fans in the stadium, contrasting to the Germans, our fellow losing semi finalists, who's fans being so used to perennial last four appearances, had pretentiously booked ahead meaning throngs of white shirts outside the stadium before the game. How we'd have loved to have been watching Wales v Germany.
|Final Match - Stade de France - Wales were there!|
Winding back a month to June 10th, and Wales were about to start their first major tournament finals since 1958. 1958 to Wales is like England's 1966. Not in terms of success, but as a significant landmark, harked on about by every journalist, commentator, spectator and pub football expert since, er 1966 probably. This 'Wales have yet to qualify for a major football finals since 1958' line was made all the more worse, as i grew up seeing Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and the Republic of Ireland all have their time in the limelight at various finals during the 1980's & 90's. I kind of blame Gerry Armstrong for my love affair with the Welsh national team, as seeing his strike against Spain in the 1982 World Cup finals to put Northern Ireland through to the last 16 really got my imagination going as to what could be achieved by a nation like Wales (I was 8 at the time).
England's path since '66 has been a frustrating one for their fans but the date is looked upon fondly for obvious reasons, only becoming a burden to some including David Baddiel & Frank Skinner since around 1996. Compare this to Wales, and we became frustrated many moons ago. One, because we didn't win the 1958 World Cup like England had in '66, and two, because unlike them we'd suffered 38 years of monumental (virtual mathematical impossibilities in some cases) qualification failures, usually between 8-12 years apart.
Reading Phil Steads 'Chasing the Dragon' only goes to twist the knife, as he reminds us of the not so well known Euro 80, World Cup 82 and Euro 84 catastrophes which then marry up to '78, '86 '94 & '04 to pretty much finish you off before you've read the final chapter. But that was before... read that book now, and Welsh fans can release a small chuckle, not break into a sweat of bitterness and regret, finish that final chapter, lay the book down, and sleep easy..
|The tram ride to that first game..a memory that won't die.|
|The splendid stadium in Bordeaux, with a handy Novotel bar open to non-residents just around the corner. SShhhhhh!|
|Sheffield's finest Welshmen before the Slovakia game|
|Obligatory non-football related tourist shot|
A night spent managing to order octopus by accident from the Tapas bar, followed by France v Romania in a bar, followed by free shots in an empty nightclub ensued, followed by a two hour wait/walk for a taxi back to the Ibis.. Bordeaux does not do taxi's very well.
Some failed attempts at chatting up middle aged cleaning ladies finishing their night shifts into giving me a lift back meant a long walk and eventual taxi. Ade Colley had made it back first to our room, which would have lost out to a Tenko solitary confinement cell in terms of spaciousness. Rich Olyott was last man back having won the who can drink the most competition for the evening. The Aber old boys had landed at 11pm and commuted in, yet still managed to out drink everyone else on the night. Their hangovers the next day proved it.
The next day would be match day. I was raring to go, and with the game at 6pm, we had all day to chill, eat, chat & drink. Unfortunately, procrastination and hangovers caught us out, along with some rotten luck with bus timetables and Uber (again, new to me until this trip).
We struggled to get into town, after a mammoth hotel breakfast for me, and a MacDonalds coffee, water, Fanta and Heineken hit for the headache crew. In the end we took the bus and ended up sitting with some of the few Slovakians that we saw in the city, until we got to the stadium where they were fairly well represented. The other group that we saw were insistent on swapping headgear. Caught in a moment of madness, not quite on a Ron Davies scale, but nonetheless regrettable soon after, Rich swapped his sacred Spiritof58 bucket hat for a Slovakian baseball cap ,with some friendly Slovaks. I photographed the moment to ensure he sees this and doesn't make the same mistake again, that is unless he finds some similar bucket hatted away fans in the future..
|Rich 'losing' his bucket hat. Don't do it Rich|
|Game 1 - Hitting town pre-game|
We reached a great bar after trekking past what seemed like every other in the city centre, and settled in with a few beers, although we only had an hour or so before the trek to the stadium would begin. The sea of red was getting bigger, and after a quick lunch in which Phil Olyott took as an opportunity to become cultured, maybe even a little 'French, his espresso and red wine chaser did look a bit out of place amongst the surrounding pintage..
|Phil '3 beverages' Olyott|
|First Saturday beers - relaxed|
So onto the stadium. The tram journey was something to remember, with songs all the way, passing throngs of bars and Welsh fans walking to the stadium. The riverside bars seemed to be the main hive of activity for Welsh fans and it was hard to comprehend how many were in Bordeaux, with not a hint of trouble. Arriving a tad early by my own standards, we looked for an opportunity to get a couple more beers in rather than get into the stadium early. Radio Cymru were recommending showing up 3 hours prior to kick-off. Despite the obvious worries of security in these worrying political times, the actual process of accessing our seats was smooth and there was no actual need to be super early in the end.
In what was an industrial area around the stadium, there were no obvious bars, but we walked against the flow after spotting a lone Novotel, gated for residents only. A few nice words to the security guard and we were in. The bar was perfect, not too busy, comfy seats and the TV on, we had landed on our feet. Next up was the tear jerking moment of getting in, taking our seats behind the goal (I'd managed to get a ticket from esteemed Wales fan and roommate for the weekend, Ade).
|After 58 years, Wales were in tournament mode - emotional|
Excitement turned to emotion as the anthem was sung. Why? Not hard to explain, and something pretty personal to any long term sufferer (I mean Wales fan)... As previously mentioned, the years of failure are what made the tears arrive, coupled with one of the best anthems in the world, therefore it was a very proud moment that will be savoured for ever!
We were still at base 1, not a ball had been kicked and the anticipation was off the scale. Some pundits had previously stated that Wales could go all the way, but in reality, our run in to the finals was pretty lame. We had lost 3-0 to Sweden the previous week, and soundly beaten. We'd actually not won in four and there were some worries amongst supporters that our rich vein of form had come to an end. Slovakia on the other hand had just beaten Germany, and so I think my personal feelings on the day were that we were going to go down fighting on the pitch, and singing in the bars...
Fears were almost confirmed when the Slovaks pressed and a great bit of skill in the meant a last gasp Ben Davies lunge was all that stopped them getting an early lead. Yet we too looked good on the ball. At the time of writing, the memory is already fading, but we seemed pretty confident not forgetting that these players had a bucket load of caps, and most also had a bucket load of Premiership or at least Championship appearances. There was no flustered, scrambled play, it was smooth close passing and when we lost possession, we were good at pressing and regaining possession. Was this really Wales?
No need for me to commentate on the whole game, we know that Gareth Bale's first free kick of the tournament resulted in a goal which was celebrated wildly, and that the persistent Slovaks came back before one of the stars of our tournament, Hal Robson, Hal Robson-Kanu scuffed a stumbling Aaron Ramsey pass into the net to bag us three points. We were in dreamland. I hugged Ade, I looked behind at the red wall and spotted the Olyotts crying. They were proper 'Wales Away', two decades worth of it, if not more, even travelling to Qatar in (circa '99) for a meaningless summer friendly amongst a dozen other fans on the same charter as the squad.. or so the rumour goes.
And so the story went on from Bordeaux, already told by thousands of other Welsh fans.. We beat the Slovaks here, lost to England but bounced back and trounced Russia to win the group and carried on winning, past Northern Ireland and Belgium in what was a surreal night in Lille for everyone associated with the Welsh football team.
Mr Ronaldo finally put an end to our French adventure in the semi finals, much to the disappointment of Welsh fans yet relief for their bank managers.. To think the Northern Irish were skint after the second round, many Welsh fans are probably still paying for the summer of 2016, but it was so worth it :-)
|Me & Rich Olyott after the game|