urban75 blog

Wales and the Euro 2016 Championships: the beautiful journey

France 2016 – Enjoy this trip. Enjoy this trip. And it is a trip…

“Coleman had a dream

To save the national team

We had no strikers, so played with five at the back, FIVE AT THE BACK

With Bale in attack, with Bale in atta-a-ack

Watch out Europe, we’re on our way back…”

If it’s Wednesday it must be Lyon, yeh? Or is it Lille? Or Paris, or Toulouse, or Bordeaux? Who’s got the tickets? Have we got any spares? Have we got a hotel? How we getting there? How we getting back? Is the metro running?

Will the bars be open after the game? Where we off tomorrow? Anyone going back to work on Monday? What’s French for Michael Gove’s a ****?

First priority for Russia 2018 is a full-time transport and logistics manager – the scale of planning required to facilitate a trip like this may not be beyond the whit of your average football fan – we muddled through with a combination of precision rapid deployment crack troop organisation and befuddled blundering blinkered transport two-steps.

Trains, boats, planes, taxis, uber, cars, metros, trams, buses – you got ‘em, we’ll use them. By any means necessary. Thankfully, most of France seems to have an integrated transport structure which Brits can only dream of.

So where did it all begin?

Not really 1958 for me, although that grand achievement of reaching the quarter final of the World Cup in Sweden looms large for every Welsh football fan.

It’s the early 70s at Ninian Park, home internationals, European and World Cup qualification matches, and the long stretched-out landscape of much chewed over near-misses, disappointment and heartbreak .

Anfield in 1977 and Joe Blydi Jordan. Robbed.

Romania at the Arms Park in 1983, and the Bodin penalty.

Scotland at Ninian Park in 1985. Robbed again!

Italy at the San Siro in 2003 and then Russia for the play-offs at the Millennium Stadium.

And so on. Play. Compete. Get Close. Fail to qualify. Repeat.

And then things changed. Toshack, appointed for the second time in 2004, sowed the seeds, blooding the youngsters – despite the oppositional defiance of the “old guard” who either failed to turn up or flounced off in retirement in their yellow Lamborghinis.

Then Gary Speed, the fall to lowest ever FIFA ranking of 117th in the world in 2011, and then the startling reverse ferret as Wales tucked in and thrived under Speed’s fluid passing game.

After the shocking tragic passing of Speed, Coleman stepped in to mixed reaction, and after a faltering start, guided the national team through an unprecedentedly successful qualification campaign, playing sharp, delightful creative football and magnificently achieving qualification.

Which brings us back to Bordeaux…

Group B – Wales 2 Slovakia 1 – Stade Atlantique Malmud, Bordeaux – Saturday 11 June

Not sure if it was because it was the first game of the first international championship that we had qualified for – in most of our lifetimes – but Bordeaux was a blast from beginning to (almost) the very end. Early reports that the city had been drunk dry on Friday night of course made you quietly proud – as long as supplies had been replenished.

From the moment we arrived it was clear that the Welsh were here in vast numbers – everywhere a sea of red with pockets of Slovakian blue and white co-mingling with uniform good cheer. The tone was set in Bordeaux, and was barely re-calibrated throughout the campaign.

Pre-match

Welsh fans wooed and won the locals and the opposition fans with a loved-up boozy bonhomie that was a joy to witness. I’ve never seen 20,000 football fans on Ecstasy, but I’m guessing it would look something like this.

And that was throughout France for the whole tournament. And everywhere the singing – full-throated, lusty and lung-bustingly loud. It made your heart swell. Over the whole four weeks, I barely saw a drink spilt in anger by Welsh fans – and that’s not the view through dragon-tinted spectacles – those are the facts Jack.

The 6pm kick off helped. Plenty of time beforehand to set up in one of the numerous cafes/bars/restaurants in the beautiful city centre, soak up the sun, enjoy a couple of cold drinks and some top-notch food. And plenty of time after the game…

A quick shuttle bus to the stadium with the atmosphere intensifying, the singing getting louder. We’d managed to pick up two Cat 1 tickets on the morning of the game from the UEFA website for €25 a pop – face value €145 – first result of the day for two of our ticketless party.

Soon became evident that tickets were not going to be a problem – the walk to the stadium from the shuttle saw us pass people selling fist-loads of tickets. Which all seemed a bit weird given the stresses and tensions that accompanied the Welsh ticket application process.

Inside Stade Atlantique Malmud

The new stadium at Bordeaux is a stunning architectural beauty – clean white columns everywhere – a gleaming geometric work of art. Once the “Red Wall” took up position on the pristine white banks of seats, the effect was stunning. And then the singing started. And didn’t stop.

First job to get the banner up was none too easy – lots of spaces gone so moved sideways and affixed rather precariously to the electric cables running alongside the barrier.

Not for the last time, we had perfect seats – middle tier, corner, hemmed in by thousands upon thousands of Welsh fans. And everywhere you went, you bumped in to people from back home – from work, from the pub, friends of friends.

It all starts to hit home during the mini-opening ceremony – as the large Welsh football shirt is unfurled on the pitch the realisation of where you are and what is about to happen solidifies. The anthem is sung at glorious volume. Spines are tingled. Nerves and excitement kick in.

Team selection a surprise – Ward in for injured Hennessy, Edwards for Ledley, and Jonny Williams playing instead of Kanu.

No worries in the stands – Coleman knows what he’s doing. The game is close, edgy, Slovakia are slick and nifty up front – Hamsik in particular a threat whenever he gets the ball. But the Welsh are unfazed. Gareth Bale scores a corker of an early goal and we are off – in dreamland.

Slovakia come back into the game and, almost inevitably, equalise early in the second half. Wales are on the back-foot, play too deep and the tide seems to be turning against us.

But rallied by the fierce noise from the crowd, Wales get back into the game and deservedly snaffle a horribly messy goal from delirious substitute Kanu. The last 19 minutes last a long time, but we are there, 3 points on the board, top of the group, for now.

Heroes

The celebrations start in earnest. The bus back to town is literally rocking as the first chants of “Undefeated for 58 years” go up.

The bemused locals are smiling and waving at the vast motorcade of blissed-out Wales fans, and our driver is beaming, beeping along to “Men of Harlech” as we nosily stream back into the city centre.

So this is what it’s like we think, slapping our collective faces with a wet haddock, winning at the Euros! Bring it on. At the fanzone, not many people are watching the England Russia game, we are too busy celebrating the achievements of our own country.

But when the final whistle goes, England have managed only a draw, we are STILL top of the group – there is a mighty cheer – from Wales, France and Slovakian fans alike.

The rest of the evening pans out in predictable fashion. We clink glasses with the Slovakian fans, whilst Welsh and Slovaks play football in the square.

We learn a few words of Slovakian – they seem content to repeatedly stick to “Fuck Russia!” and “Fuck England too!”. Two hours roaming the streets to get a taxi, and then bed. Next up Ingerland.

The press coverage of the Welsh fans, internationally, is superb, rightfully so. L’Equipe were all over us:

The anthem was “A hymn to give you goosebumps, never-ending singing and the impression all you can see is red: the show was also in the stands, yesterday at Bordeaux, where Wales beat Slovakia (2-1) in its first major tournament for 58 years.

“After such a long wait, the fans were thirsty for victory but not only that. The Welsh are many, noisy, sometimes a little rowdy but mostly peaceful.

They must tolerate drink better than others. The coach Chris Coleman and the players have all paid tribute to this extraordinary popular support, of the kind that gives you strength and an indestructible confidence”.

The Bordeaux Tourist Office don’t want us to go, and are praising the Welsh fans for days.

Group B – England 2 Wales 1 – Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens – Thursday 16 June

The Big One, the Battle of Britain, blah blah blah. When we applied for tickets for all the group games, the R16 and the QF (who dared to dream that we would go beyond that?), it was no surprise that we didn’t get them for the England game, and a small part of me was happy that we didn’t – fearing an ugly furniture-throwing conflagration.

Events in Marseille spun all this on its axis, as the England fans’ recidivist hooligan behaviour – smashing up bars and abusing / fighting local youth was trumped by the “proper” hooligans from Russia.

The advice for England and Wales fans to stay in Lille the night before the game (the location for the Russia Slovakia game) suddenly seemed like a recipe for disaster. Inevitably there was disorder in Lille, but the Welsh fans thankfully seemed to have avoided any trouble.

We watched the game in a sleepy bistro in the Dordogne. Our French hosts had chosen their side early (not England) and helped us position our flag well before the game started – a bit of a shock to the handful of middle aged England supporters holidaying nearby who dropped in to watch. We sat with a family from Yorkshire, husband had been instructed not to wear his “colours”!

French TV coverage of the football is great. I particularly enjoyed the pen portraits of the players – Dele Alli – “weak point – he is English”, and we settled down to what we knew would be a bumpy ride.

Are you watching Angleterre?

As expected, England had a lot of possession, but Wales defended superbly, to a man, and when Gareth Bale scored that incredible free kick, the place erupted.

Second half was a not a particularly joyous experience, tense and nervous, we battled, scrapped, hung on, but got pushed further and further back.

There was hope that we could tough it out and grab a tumultuous victory, but reason and logic suggested that this wasn’t going to happen.

The equaliser knocked us off balance, but as minutes ticked away a creditable draw looked on, and for the defensive performance alone, would have been deserved.

But not to be – a late late Sturridge goal flattened the team and the fans, but still there was much to take from that performance – we had three points, and that may already be enough to go through – and still one game left.

Group B – Russia 0 Wales 3 – Stadium de Toulouse, Toulouse – Monday 20 June

Onwards to Toulouse, and a long drive south. As we approached the town, it became clear that the French police were not going to be taking any chances with regards to crowd disorder, in the wake of the Russian ultras’ rampage in Marseille.

All Welsh vehicles went past two armed checkpoints – unsmiling robocops searching cars and sending us on our way.

The atmosphere in Toulouse could not have been any more different than that in Bordeaux – there were riot police everywhere, which in itself added an edge to things.

As it happens, the Welsh were in fine form, congregating in large groups, but well-behaved, and the Russians (massively outnumbered) were peaceful and gregarious, and with no apparent signs of mouth guards and knuckle dusters.

Night falls – Toulouse

As far as the football went, this is the moment where it took off. Playing with a breathless speed, fluidity, freedom, energy, creativity and passion, Wales carved Russia inside out and upside down till their heads were spinning and their hearts were lost.

Aaron Ramsey was monumental, unlocking the leaden defence at will, Joe Allen was everywhere and Gareth Bale caused mayhem whenever he strode forward. Our superb 5 man defence was impregnable.

It was a masterclass, and one of the best Wales performances any of us had seen (so far). The goals were a delight – Ramsey’s cheeky dinked shot after just eleven minutes, followed by Taylor’s second inside the first quarter and the game was effectively over.

This was a demolition, a calling card, a statement of intent – no we are not here as tourists – we are here to compete and play some wonderful football.

 Flag Up!

Bale’s ice-cool clipped finish midway through the second half, after a sensational assist from Ramsey, ended the game, and rocketed Bale to the top of the goalscoring charts.

The Red Wall sang their heroes through to the final whistle, and the players soaked up the adulation. As if things couldn’t get any better, England’s bore-draw with Slovakia means we win the group – and instead of a Runners’ Up game in Nice (personal pre-tournament prediction), we are off to the capital as Group Winners! How do you like them apples?

Post-match celebrations outside the stadium continued long after the final whistle, musical accompaniment provided by the ever-onhand Barry Horns.

A couple of late night beers in one of the few bars that seemed to be still open, then back to the hotel to try and process all this. Things were getting serious. Now the wait begins to see who our 3rd placed opponents will be. Mood: optimistic, euphoric.

We are top of the group!

R16 – Wales 1 Northern Ireland 0 – Parc des Princes, Paris – Saturday 25 June

Most Welsh fans are pleased (not cocky) that our opponents are Norn Iron, for a number of reasons. On a purely footballing front, this is an eminently winnable game.

On top of that, the Green and White Army have earned their own set of plaudits for their passionate fans. It will be loud, it will be intense. It’s the last 16.

There are loads of English supporters in Paris – many offloading their Group Winner tickets (the arrogance, the entitlement), or swapping with Welsh fans for the Nice Runner-Up game.

Parc des Princes

Once again, there are thousands upon thousands of Welsh fans in Paris – some say up to 50K. The atmosphere everywhere is perfect and inside the ground the sing-off is loud, rowdy and won by the Welsh – who outnumber the Green and White Army.

The game is, frankly, dire – a Britfest of dogged attrition. Northern Ireland threaten early on with a couple of chances, but it swiftly becomes clear that they have no firepower and will never score – their gameplan is to stop the Welsh playing. From as early as midway through the first half it looks like they are playing for penalties.

 Flag in Paris

Wales are unable to profit from their territorial advantage – their game is compressed and lacking spark and end product.

The breakthrough comes late – a marvellous run and pinpoint cross from Gareth Bale is turned into his own net by McAuley. Crowd go batshit crazy and sing the boys home in traditional style.

This is now starting to get silly. We are in the Quarter Finals on merit, scoring freely, playing (at times) some superb stuff, and there is no sign of this ending any time soon.

Aaron’s tweet/our flag

The players salute the fans, bring on the kids for a kickabout, and after many minutes of deafening choruses of “Don’t Take Me Home” – we’re off again – drinking with the Norn Iron fans, who are gracious in defeat, congratulating us and wishing us well for the QF – and teaching us some great Norn Iron songs.

It’s a long late night, plans for the next stage of this crazy adventure facilitated by €8 pints of Kronenbourg.

WE ARE NOT GOING HOME!

Lille next and Belgium.

In the meantime some much needed R and R in Spain – where we learn of the England Iceland result in grinning disbelief.

We are no longer in a place where we define ourselves by a chippy antipathy to our former colonial oppressors and noisy neighbours, but boy does it feel good when the final whistle blows. This just keeps getting better.

Quarter Final – Wales 3 Belgium 1 – Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille – Friday 1 July

Things have started to get complicated – but in the greatest possible way. Hotels in Lille are scarcer than an England tournament victory – luckily whilst we partied long into the night in Paris our Cardiff-based support and logistics team grabbed the last three hotel rooms in Lille – at €200 a pop it’s not cheap, but by now nobody cares – it’s too late to stop.

The dynamics have changed in Lille – the city is swamped with Belgians – estimate 150,000.

For the first time, we are outnumbered, massively. The atmosphere is a little lairy in the city centre – flares going off, huge crowds of very drunk Belgians everywhere.

We head towards the stadium and bunk off the metro two stops before the ground and end up at a relatively quiet concrete jungle housing estate with a bar which is sparsely populated with a nice mix of convivial Welsh and Belgians.

A few beers and a plate of frites and off to the ground. Huge queues to get in, lots of Belgians heading back to town having failed to snaffle a ticket, and we’re in. This time the Red Wall extends all around the stadium – Devils have maybe 40,000 to Wales’ 10.

Stade Pierre-Mauroy

Flag in position behind the goals, brief disagreement with Belgians who broke the international football flag protocol by draping their tricolour over ours – but all settled amicably with handshakes and bilateral good luck wishes (didn’t really mean it!). Once again, the singing from the Welsh end is huge, inspirational.

Flag in Lille

We are apprehensive, but the last two encounters with Belgium have proved than we can match and beat them. And we have improved as a team.

As the game kicks off, it is clear that the team ranked second in the world mean business – they are swamping the Welsh defence, which is creaking at the weight of the wave after wave of Belgian attacks.

C’mon Cymru!

They stand firm – throwing their bodies heroically in the way of everything – a spectacular triple clearance at one stage. The Belgian goal comes early – an unstoppable screamer of a shot from Nainggolan.

Momentarily heads drop in the Welsh end, but soon we are singing again – roaring on the Welsh team.

There is no noticeable dip in the Welsh performance – if anything they step it up massively and slowly take control of the game – Ramsey and Allen bossing the midfield – with Bale marauding with menace.

Taylor goes tantalisingly close. The equaliser is a screamer – beautiful corner from Ramsey and a bullet header from Captain Fantastic Ashley Williams – an explosion of exultation from the Welsh fans. We have taken control of the game, the Belgian fans have gone very very quiet, already.

Second half just gets better. Incessant singing from the Welsh, not much from the Belgians. Kanu’s second is a genius bit of skill from the unfancied Reading centre forward – a beautiful Cruyff turn liberates him from three defenders and he crashes the ball perfectly past Courtois. Bedlam ensues.

KANU! On the telly.

There is more to come. There is a Belgium fightback, but it is fractured, sporadic. Hazard has been frozen out by the defence and midfield and limited to ineffective lateral runs across the pitch.

Fellaini the enforcer comes on to throw his elbows around but is largely ineffective. Wales dominate peerlessly. The only noise is from the Welsh fans – they are euphoric, disbelieving. Wilmots has given up. The Belgians are arguing amongst themselves. We are sailing into the Semi Finals!

With five minutes to go the magnificent “chin-up” Chrissy Gunter steams down the right wing, floats a delicious cross into the box and Vokes produces a world class glancing header to outwit Courtois. Game over.

The celebrations are prolonged, the players and fans ecstatic. This has been a worthy win. We have dismantled one of the great international teams with a breathtaking controlled performance of beautiful, dynamic football.

Whatever happens next, there is widespread agreement that this has been the greatest performance by a Welsh national team, ever.

Portugal next in the Semi Final, but how can we fear that? Ramsey and Davies are out after second yellows, but tonight we celebrate and look forward to more of the same.

The morning after – Belgian-style

Semi-Final – Portugal 2 Wales 0 – Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon – Wednesday 6 July

Home for a change of clothes, barely time to read the papers and let it all sink in and then back out again. Flight from Bristol to Palma, night by the sea, and then early flight to Lyon, with a lot of Welsh fans onboard.

Lyon is predictably buzzing – it’s hot and there are hordes of Welsh fans around – once again outnumbering the Portuguese in the city and in the stadium. Surprisingly, there are lots of tickets floating about too – the price has put many off, many are seeking to capitalise – as the game draws near they are going for less than face value.

Semi Final Time!

The Wales fans occupy one corner of the ground and are all over the rest of the stadium. The singing is immense, there is another passionate anthem and before we have time to think about the fact that WE ARE IN THE SEMI FINALS OF THE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP, we are off.

For some reason that only UEFA policy wonks in Zurich, and sports kit manufacturers in Los Angeles will be able to fathom, we are both playing in our away kits.

Freedom for Tooting!

Portugal start brightly – they are controlling possession, Ronaldo is the hub around which everything turns, but both Sanches and Nani are looking threatening. This is a different, more purposeful, aggressive and adventurous Portugal.

We are missing Ramsey and are outgunned in midfield, but still are having a decent amount of the ball, and are making some inroads.

At the back James Collins is an able replacement for Ben Davies – he makes many well-timed challenges, and looks alert, composed. Bale is desperate to impose himself upon the game, and in the absence of his platinum-barneted head honcho, occasionally overdoes it.

Next to the Barry Horns – keep the noise down lads!

The Welsh fans are happy with 0-0 at HT, we have time to regroup and try something different, as Portugal are edging this. Five minutes into the second half  it is not a huge surprise when the first goal goes in.

Ronaldo rises imperiously above Chester and Collins and as if suspended in mid-air, rockets an  unstoppable header past Hennessy.

Wales do not waver, they dig in, but within minutes they are two behind. A sloppy scuffed shot from Ronaldo is covered by Hennessy, but diverted past the despairing keeper by the toe of Nani. It’s a cruel blow, a soft goal, and it knocks the stuffing out of team and fans.

They soldier on, but a fightback looks beyond the team, who start to look leggy and are plainly running out of ideas. Coleman gambles with some late substitutions, but there is no route back – Portugal are on the way to the final and we are (finally) on our way home.

It’s difficult to swallow, having come this far and having looked capable of beating anyone – but the result cannot be argued with. We can have no complaints, no regrets, only appreciation of this mind-boggling journey, which has scaled ridiculous heights that no-one could have anticipated.

The Wales players were clearly distraught at the end, but the ovation they received from the Welsh fans when they came over to thank us (you’re thanking us?) – was something that I will remember long into my dotage.

Men of Harlech rang out relentlessly for a good 15 minutes. As we had throughout the game, we outsang the celebrating Portuguese – who could not be heard.

It was a deafening, uplifting, warrior-defiant anthem – everything this magnificent group of players deserved.

How can you possibly be disappointed with any of this? It was electric, a trip of a lifetime, so much joy wrapped into so many special nights.

Even through the tears (of gratitude, of pride, of passion) you knew that.

End of the road…for now.

Words and photos (c) Paul Davies 2016

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