The last time that Feyenoord were Eredivise Champions, nobody wrote about it on Facebook, because Facebook didn’t exist. Nobody at the stadium took a picture on their iPhone, because that didn’t exist either. Bill Clinton was president, and everyone was starting to worry about the Millennium Bug.
In that time leading up to the 2016/17 season, the club genuinely nearly died. Humiliated 10 – 0 by PSV, and a season spent facing relegation. Many supporters believed that not only would they never see Feyenoord win a title, there might not even be a Feyenoord.
But this is a huge club, and one that can’t be held down forever, no matter how long it might take. With the sunshine beating down on a packed and incredibly noisy De Kuip, the 50,000+ supporters inside knew that this was it – this was the day. Win against Heracles Almelo and they’d be champions. Any other result, and the title would almost certainly be lost. Not only would it be lost, but it would be lost to Ajax.
The 14th May is a date that has a tragic connection to Rotterdam. In 1940 it was the date on which the city was mostly destroyed in the Second World War, and a silence is held every year to observe the date. These would be the only two minutes all day that Rotterdam would be silent, as the 14th May also wrote itself into the history of the city as a day of triumph.
Varkenoord, one of the most popular spots for supporters to gather before games, was full on insanity before the match. I’ve been there before matches against Ajax, a Champions League qualifier against Beskitas, playoff matches, some huge Europa League nights…and nothing has ever come close to the scenes of mayhem that were unfolding. I was still five minutes walk away when I first saw the clouds of green smoke, and more flares were on show than a disco hall in the 70’s. Some supporters were already wearing shirts with ‘Kampioen 16-17’, and I had also seen people online buying replica trophies in the weeks before the game. I admired their confidence, because I was absolutely certain we were going to let in a 94th minute equaliser and throw away a magical season where many teams had been blown away.
A 5 – 0 win on the first day set the tone for the season, and I also equalled my record for most goals seen in a game (8 – 0 against Go Ahead Eagles, which I enjoyed much more than Peterborough 4 – Cardiff 4). Feyenoord spent the entire season top of the league, something that has only been done once before in Dutch football history. However, last week had been a warning. The title could have been secured with a win away at Excelsior, the club that had once been Feyenoord’s feeder club, and had not scored a single goal against their Rotterdam neighbours since 2010. Well, they had not had that trouble this time around, winning 3 – 0 and ruining planned parties all across Rotterdam.
So, I was anxious. I think most people wouldn’t be willing to admit it, but I’m sure deep down everyone else was also a little worried that this day of destiny would turn sour. I got in to the stadium with an hour to go until kick-off, a sure sign that it’s a big game. I consistently say that De Kuip has one of the best atmospheres in the world, but it was far beyond anything else I had seen before. 18 years of hurt were being released by a crowd which was absolutely desperate for success, and were doing anything they could to help achieve the ultimate goal. When Feyenoord came out to warmup they were greeted as if they had just won the treble, and when Heracles came out they were greeted as if they had just walked in to your house on Christmas Day and taken a dump on the presents, while wearing an Ajax shirt and kicking your dog. It was the most hostile atmosphere I’d ever seen, and at this moment, 30 minutes before kickoff, I knew we weren’t going to lose.
The players emerge, for real this time, and the stadium is engulfed in fire and flames. Hundreds of flares and dozens of smokebombs are ignited, while thousands of streamers are thrown. I looked around and saw 50,000 people completely and utterly losing their mind, while 11 people wearing Heracles shirts looked like they just wanted to go home.
Kick off. Smoke engulfs the pitch, and the roar is the loudest I have ever heard. A mistake. Kuyt has the ball in the penalty area. A second of silence.
The stadium literally feels as if it’s about to collapse under the strain of the celebrations. A guy who has just got to his seat with a cardboard beer holder dumps all eight of them over his own head. The people behind me are suddenly the people in front of me, and the people in front of me are suddenly the people behind me. It is pure, complete and joyous chaos. This is not just one section of the stadium losing their minds while the rest politely applaud and take videos on their phone, but instead a stadium full of people having the best moment of their lives.
For me that feeling game in Lille almost one year ago as Wales went 3 – 1 up against Belgium with minutes to play, and it was a huge honour to share it with the city of Rotterdam. Because of course, despite the fact I have followed Feyenoord for the last four years after finding myself without a club, this title was not for me. This title was for every kid who had gone to school and been made fun of by the Ajax fans because they never won the title. It was for every supporter who witnessed the 10 – 0, and it was for everyone who welcomed that same team as heroes a week later. It was for the 30-year-old who was 12 the last time this happened. For the child who was born on the day of the last league victory and is now an adult. For every single member of Het Legioen who has suffered, and suffered, and suffered. For Dirk Kuyt, who promised to come back and win the league, and did it.
With the nerves lifted inside 40 seconds, De Kuip goes in to party mode. A little over ten minutes later and Kuyt scores again. Now it’s happening, it’s really happening. Supporters direct a chant at Ajax sponsors Ziggo, an internet provider in the Netherlands who had promised free internet and TV to the Heracles players if they managed to stop Feyenoord from winning. “ZIGGO, ZIGGO…..ZIGGO, ZIGGO….ZIGGO ZIGGO….WE WORDEN KAMPIOEN!” Even if you don’t speak Dutch, you can probably guess what that means.
Ajax are winning their game against Willem II, but it doesn’t matter, and it won’t matter. Heracles do come into the game a little more in the second half, but they never really have a serious chance on goal. With six minutes to go, it really is all over. A foul in the box that might not have been a foul results in a penalty, and who else but Dirk Kuyt steps up to take it. On the line is not only a hat-trick, but confirmation of the league title for the club he loves. If he was nervous, he didn’t show it – rolling the ball into the bottom corner and putting the seal on a day that will never be forgotten by any who witnessed it. Kuyt takes off his shirt and puts it on the corner flag, lifting it high into the air in salute to the masses of celebrating supporters.
Heracles actually pull a goal back, by far the best goal of the day, but nobody really even notices. A few minutes of running down the clock in the corners, and it’s all over. Kuyt sinks to his knees in tears, while the other heroes of the season run over to celebrate the greatest triumph of all. There has been Jens Toornstra, a passionate and hardworking player who has contributed plenty of goals. Nicolai Jorgensen, a Danish striker in his first season at the club who will be the top goalscorer in the league. Brad Jones, a player seemingly set to drift into anonymity after leaving Liverpool who has been sensational for the majority of the season. Tonny Vilhena, a product of the youth system who overcame the death of his mother halfway through the season to be one of the star men. In truth, every player on that field will be remembered as a hero. There were even chants which informed Lionel Messi that Miquel Nelom was coming for him.
About twenty minutes after lifting the corner flag high into the Rotterdam sky, Kuyt was able to do the same with the Eredivise trophy. The jokes and taunts which had haunted these supporters for almost two decades melted away in one single perfect moment, and the wait was over.
When did Feyenoord last win the league? Right now.
The celebrations in the stadium went on for around an hour after the game. As people finally drifted away, the party spread to every corner of the city. My tram from De Kuip to the city centre had to stop because it was bouncing so much, and everywhere you turned there were happy faces. There are many shit things about football, but there is also nothing else in the world which has a power quite like it. To see one city united in joy, from small children all the way up to little old ladies, there is simply no comparison to the joy football can bring. People were dancing on top of tram stops, climbing statues and lampposts, hugging random strangers in the street or simply crying their eyes out with pure happiness. Most people who have followed a football club for a long time have had that moment which is simply so perfect you can’t stop crying for about three days (I’ve had about four of those moments, I cry more than a Colombian soap opera when Wales are good at football), and the whole of Rotterdam was currently experiencing that moment.
I jumped (ok, carefully stepped) into the fountain at the heart of the city, where hundreds of people were already celebrating. From bright blue, the water had turned muddy brown from the feet and shoes of countless celebrating people. Eventually I had to go home, with my walk through the city to the station one of the happiest things I have ever done. Hours after the game and everyone was still celebrating, and I passed an old couple who must have been 70 or 75 years old who were walking down the road holding hands, drinking cans of beer and joining in with the chants of “Komen wij uit Rotterdam?”. If there has ever been an image that better sums up why football is the best thing in the world, I haven’t seen it.
Ken je dat niet horen dan? Feyenoord Rotterdam. Champions.
It’s over. It’s finally over.
As I sat in tears in an emptying stand in Lyon, I thought back on a journey. A journey which began in Andorra two years ago and called at Cardiff, Brussels, Haifa, Nicosia, Zenica, Bordeaux, Lens, Toulouse, Paris and Lille finally terminated in Lyon, end of the line, all change.
All change are the right words, because this campaign really has changed everything. It has changed Welsh football forever, from top to bottom. Once the laughing stock of world football, we have become one of the most respected international sides in Europe. For our players too, nothing will be the same after this. Hal Robson-Kanu, the man without a club after leaving Reading has scored what will be the goal of the tournament, barring something even more spectacular in the final. Chris Gunter has become a legend, his reliable play a big help for the team, but his special attitude and passion makes him more like a supporter than a player, he just happens to be much better at football than those of us in the stands. James Chester, Ben Davies, Aaron Ramsey…all of whom had magnificent tournaments when they do not always get the appreciation they deserve at club level.
But despite their stupendous efforts, it is not the players who will remember this the most fondly. Gareth Bale has won two European Cups already and will surely win a few more before he quits, Ramsey has lifted the FA Cup and many of the squad has played in major finals before. But for us, the supporters, there has never been anything like this. There has never even been a fantasy of something like this. How could there have been?
I have a couple of mates who I travel all over the world to watch Wales with, and last October we were all in Bosnia to see qualification be confirmed. “This is the greatest day ever!” we said. “Nothing will ever beat this!” It was a conversation that we would have again. And again. And again…
My first ever Wales match was back in 1996 when my dad took me along to a game, so it was a great feeling to be with him at our first match at a tournament since 1958. This was actually the year he was born, being just two months old when we got knocked out by Brazil, he can genuinely say he had waited his whole life for this. On a beautiful day in a beautiful city, Wales faced off with Slovakia at the brand new stadium in Bordeaux. The people of Bordeaux fell deeply in love with our supporters over the few days we were in the city, and the feeling was more than mutual.
Even if we had lost, Bordeaux would have had a special place in Welsh football history forever. The fact that we actually won makes it quite simply legendary. It was only right that star man Gareth Bale scored the first goal we ever scored at a European Championships, indeed, with our first shot on target at a European Championships!
Slovakia were a tough opponent, which was fitting when you consider the struggles our team has had to overcome just to get here. They equalised and looked more likely to win the game for about 20 minutes, but two substitutions from Coleman would prove to be the key to victory. Joe Ledley came on to steady the midfield, but it was to be Robson-Kanu who would have made himself the hero of the Welsh public if not for the fact that he already was long ago.
It wasn’t a pretty goal visually, but the resulting scenes were truly beautiful. Sheer, sheer delight. We’re talking tops off, kissing strangers 15 rows away, bruised shins for three weeks kind of delight. The final whistle went about 15 of the longest minutes in recorded history later, and the celebrations long into the night could begin. The DJ at our chosen celebration venue played zombie nation and that was it, the whole place lost their collective minds and danced the night away, joined by dozens of locals who came to experience the party and laugh at the drunken dancing of our 35,000 supporters.
The defeat to England in Lens was expected but painful due to the timing (if I ever see Daniel Sturridge wiggling his arms again I might need emotional support), but the telling moment came not just before the final whistle, but just after it. The squad huddled together in a show of unity before coming to applaud our fans, and Chris Gunter gave his now iconic ‘chin up’ gesture. You knew the squad were upset, but equally you could see they were determined to make things right against Russia.
Making things right against Russia. That’s something we have been waiting to do since 2003, when performance enhancing drugs stole our place at Euro 2004.
I went to Toulouse thinking we were in good shape to take a point and finish 2nd or 3rd in the group, with 4 points likely to have been enough to steal a place in the knockout stages thanks to the silly rules about third place teams. What I got instead was the most dominant performance I have ever seen from a Welsh team. I’ve seen us play San Marino a couple of times, and we didn’t even dominate them in the way we dismantled Russia. Two quick goals meant the game was over early, with the remainder of the 90 minutes a huge celebration. We scored one more, it could have been five.
Winning the game meant we were guaranteed to finish in the top two, and the party really went into overdrive with the news that Slovakia had been held to a draw by England and we had won the group. I was stood in the front row of the upper part of the stand, with a raised concrete block at the exact height of my shins. I’ll remember it in the way that US veterans remember being ambushed in Vietnam, although this probably caused me more injury.
The celebrations after the game were long and weird. I saw my mate Nick in our arranged meeting spot before he saw me, unfortunately for him I went for a jumping spear hug and sent him to the ground, resulting in a pile on of Welsh fans.
Toulouse police had forced every bar to close early due to the threat of violence from the Russia fans – a threat which turned out to be absolute nonsense, with the Russians being some of the friendliest people we met at the entire tournament – but when Nick and I meet at Wales away we only ever have a completely ridiculous time. After drinking until 7 in the morning at an Elvis themed bar in Sarajevo when we had qualified, we celebrated winning the group by drinking champagne in a bizarre wine bar which was decorated with pictures of fancy lions, and then found a bar which was allowed to stay open due to the loophole that they also served food, resulting in numerous orders of 12 beers and a portion of chips from the Welsh fans.
To make the night even more bizarre, Ian Rush was absolutely hammered inside the bar and repeatedly said “This is fucking brilliant lads” when we bothered him for a photo. Never trust a drunk photographer by the way, because the resulting image turned out to heavily feature the wall of the bar, without any sign of us or Ian Rush.
Thankfully I had been optimistic enough to include the Last 16 in the time off from work I had booked, and even better I was able to get my dad a ticket at the last minute – getting it in my hands less than 24 hours before the game. I’m not sure how much he spent on the Eurostar to get there, but I think when I go home for Christmas we might have moved into a cardboard box.
It had looked like we would probably play Turkey, but some unexpected results meant we would face the much friendlier and far less stabby Northern Ireland. As mentioned I had already booked the time off work, so there was no problem with being able to attend the game, apart from the fact I had long since booked and paid for travel and accommodation in Nice, where the group runners up would play. An eye watering train ticket to Paris and an even more eye watering hotel later, I was on my way.
Wales have played in some truly brilliant games during this run, and when it comes to the Northern Ireland match it is fair to say that this…was not one of them. A dreadful game full of nerves and mistakes, livened up by the great support from the green and white army. They were the best opposition fans we faced by a distance, even if they really do need to learn a few songs that aren’t about substitutes being on fire.
The breakthrough finally came from great work from Gareth Bale, who else? His cross from the right hand side of the box was impossible to deal with, Robson-Kanu would have scored for certain if the ball had not been diverted into his own net by Gareth Mcauley. Jubilant scenes once more in the Welsh end, we had come here hoping to score one goal and now we had seven. It would prove to be the only one of the game, and we’d won. Quarter finalists. Wales. Quarter finalists. What the hell was going on here? Making the tournament had been brilliant, winning the group was unbelievable and this…I’m not sure I’ll ever have the words to properly describe how it felt. I dropped to my knees at the final whistle, the concrete of Parc des Princes taking the impact of my disbelief at what had happened. “We’re not Brazil we’re Northern Ireland” is the second most famous song from our opposition, but it genuinely did feel like we were celebrating a win over Brazil such was the enormity of what we had achieved.
After hours and hours of celebration around the Eiffel Tower (I won’t grass anyone up, but if you were there you’ll know about the lorry driver and his lifelong regret at his choice of route), I had a sobering thought. Shit! I haven’t got the day off work!
Luckily I checked my WhatsApp, and among the 100 or so messages were some from my Italian boss with no real interest in football “Go Ben! Go dragons!” I suspected at this point they knew I wasn’t going to be in the office on Friday, and the time off was quickly approved. I did actually head home for two days, living in the Netherlands meant it was easy to get down to Lille on the day, giving me just enough time to tackle the 9000 emails that had been waiting for me since June 9th.
It was soon time to run off and leave Kathy to do my work for me while I drank beer and chanted about Hal Robson-Kanu again, and I caught an early morning train from Amsterdam to Lille on the day of the game. A train which stopped in Belgium a couple of times, and therefore meant I was not particularly popular. I was even less popular when I put up my Feyenoord and Wales flag in the city centre, with one Standard Liege fan coming up to tell me “Feyenoord? I shit Feyenoord”. While that sounds both uncomfortable and something for his doctor to examine, plenty of other Belgians posed for photos with the flag and told me they like De Kuip.
With Lille so close to Belgium, it was no surprise we were hugely outnumbered. I’d estimate there were 6,000 Wales fans there, compared to about 70,000 Belgians. We’ve played Belgium quite a few times recently and their fans have always been great, but this time there were more than a few who were overly arrogant. “You had a nice tournament but tomorrow you go home” and “Sorry for the beating we give you tonight” were just some of the comments we got, while one came up to us brandishing a tinfoil trophy and shouting “Belgium champions!” We’ll see about that.
After heading to the stadium, it was clear this was an away game rather than a neutral venue. At least 75% of the stadium were Belgium fans, and probably closer to 85 or 90%. Not a good sign for us taking the frankly ridiculous step of reaching the semi finals, and neither was the fact we went 1-0 down with just over 10 minutes played. It was an absolute screamer of a goal from the player who had made the mistake that allowed Bale to score the winner in Cardiff during the qualifiers, and this seemed like the kind of ‘circle of life’ thing that happens so often in football. I don’t think many of the crowd gave up hope at this early stage, but there was certainly some acceptance that this might end up being the end, and what a great time we had had.
Only nobody told the players that this was it, and after taking a beatdown worse than a Rocky film for the first 20 minutes, back they came. God, we were just brilliant. To continue the boxing comparison, Belgium were well on the ropes now and it was only a matter of time before someone in a red shirt scored. Would it be Bale? Ramsey? Maybe Ledley?
None of the names you might expect, but instead it was our heroic captain Aahley Williams. In the Northern Ireland game he had stayed on despite picking up a nasty looking shoulder injury towards the end, but he had recovered enough to not only play, but score. He ran to the bench to celebrate with Coleman and the squad, an image almost identical to the iconic one of Bale in Cyprus after the result which just about sealed our place at the tournament.
Absolutely wild. I was standing next to an older couple, and in my efforts to not send them flying with my enthusiastic celebrations, sent myself flying instead – I was picked up in the next row by a man called Matthew, he himself had been somewhere else a moment ago. I remember thinking, “Bloody hell, I just got to celebrate a goal in a European quarter final!” And somehow, it got better.
Hal Robson-Kanu. Reading fans think he’s useless, while Wales fans think he’s the second coming of Jesus, but much better at football and with nicer hair. It’s hard to explain what he did here. To call it a great goal is like saying that Van Gogh was alright with a paintbrush or the statue of the Christ the redeemer statue in Rio is pretty impressive. He left the entire Belgian defence for dead with a perfect Cruyff turn, before firing into the net with the goalkeeper left helpless. I’ve never celebrated a goal like it before. I would have gone mad at this goal if we scored it in a friendly against Luxembourg, to do it against the side recently ranked by FIFA as the best in the world to take the lead in a quarter final…forget about it. You’ve probably heard the term ‘limbs’ to describe a goal celebration before, well this was limbs, torsos, vital organs and indeed the entire ward of the hospital. I can still see it now when I close my eyes.
Time was ticking on and on, and still Belgium did not score. Just like the qualifier last year, we counted down each second, and every minute felt like an hour. We could have scored a few more, and Belgium should have added at least one of their own, but with five minutes to go the score remained 2-1. Chris Gunter crosses the ball. Sam Vokes rises to head it. It loops over the head of Courtois. Goal. What. WHAT?
Genuinely, I hardly celebrated the goal. Instead I was just screaming like an absolute maniac. AAAHHHHHHHH AAAHHHHHHHH AAAAAAHHHHH. I hadn’t dared to let myself think about winning from the moment Belgium had decimated Hungary to set this game up. But we’d done it. We’d actually done it. The final moments would have taken an eternity with a one goal lead, but they flashed by in an instant thanks to the killer third goal. The final whistle blew, and we cheered and cried and cheered some more. I can speak a little Dutch, and sung the Belgians song they had taunted us with before the game. “Where is the party? Here is the party!” Sullen faced Belgians slumped by in a daze as me and my friends reunited outside the stadium and jumped all over each other like a syndicate who had won the lottery. But this was better than winning the lottery. You can dream about doing that. We’d never have imagined this if we’d spent a month taking LSD and licking frogs in the rainforest. Wales. Semi finalists. Wales. Semi finalists. It’s already happened and still it looks like a lie.
Portugal would be the opponents for the biggest game in our history, and for the first 45 minutes we more than matched them. The Cristiano Ronaldo happened, and a moment later the second goal arrived and that was that. You might not believe me, but I wasn’t even slightly upset by the goals. Even when the final whistle blew and we were officially out, I was fine. When the squad came over to applaud us and we sang the national anthem again and again, I was fine. But then the players eventually left the pitch, and it was really over. The most amazing journey of my life, of all of our lives, was over.
I untied my flag, sat in my seat and cried my eyes out. I’ve cried tears of joy a few times during this campaign, but it was the first time in years and years I had cried because I was sad. When Germany lost their semi final the next day, they knew they would have another one soon, and they’d win a trophy soon, probably more than one. For us, maybe we won’t even qualify again. Despite the huge amount of pride I felt, and the amazing memories that will live with me forever, I couldn’t help being just really really sad.
Two of the French stadium volunteers came to see if I was alright and give me a hug, and I left the stadium with my equally crushed mates, and equally crushed countrymen and women. The long journey back to the city centre was very, very quiet, and after drinking half a beer each we turned the lights off and tried to sleep. I don’t know about them, but I certainly didn’t for a while. So close. Just, so so close.
The morning came, and the emotion I felt was not one of sadness anymore, but immense happiness. Most people don’t ever get to see the greatest moment of the team that they love. In the past month, I’ve seen the top three. From the bliss of Bordeaux to the disbelief of Toulouse, from winning our first ever knockout game against Northern Ireland to knocking out one of the tournament favourites in what was basically an away game…and let’s not forget, the fact that we actually qualified!!! The whole thing has just been perfect. I couldn’t be more proud if we had gone on to win the whole bloody thing, and now that the sadness and the “over one game too soon” feeling has gone away, I’m left with the knowledge that June and July 2016 will be remembered forever as the best of my life.
I ended my report on the Slovakia game with the lyrics from Andy Williams hit ‘Can’t take my eyes off you’, and I was thinking what song could do justice to the experience I’ve just had. Sadly Williams doesn’t have an obscure B-side called “Holy shit I can’t believe that happened”, and if I hear that David Guetta song once more I’m going to murder someone, so instead I’m going to say thank you.
Thank you for reading this far, of what is essentially an essay about why I love Chris Gunter. Thank you to the friends I’ve shared these memories with, and the new ones I met along the way. Thank you Gary Speed. Thank you Chris Coleman. Thank you to the dozens of people who have never even been to Wales but sent me support and congratulations throughout the tournament. Thank you to the pretty barmaid in Toulouse who sold me some beers when she wasn’t supposed to. Thank you to the Wales fans who joined me in looking for that discotheque, we never did find it. Thanks to Mark, for supporting Wales with the passion of a thousand people. Thanks Jessica Serviat, for telling me how to spell the title of the article correctly. Thanks Lucy Mason, for arranging the tickets for our supporters so well and giving thousands of people the best day of their lives. Thank you France, for being the perfect hosts and taking Wales to your hearts. And once more, thanks Bordeaux. You’ll always be our first.
When is the end not the end? When something lives with you forever. Gary Speed is sadly no longer with us, but his memory is well and truly alive, his name sung at all six of our matches. Eventually this squad will retire. New faces will be there at every Wales away game, and new names will pull on the red shirt and play for the dragon. Who knows, maybe rather than the end, this is just the start? Welsh football is a joke no more. Against impossible odds, the dragon stood up and roared, and the whole world couldn’t help but hear.
What happens when you get everything you ever wanted? When everything you’ve ever dreamed about while spending a 15 hour delay sleeping on the floor of Kiev airport comes true? After spending 20 years watching your team be the laughing stock of Europe?
11th June, 2016 – Bordeaux. That was the time and place that I would find out the answer to all of these questions. On a beautifully sunny day in the south of France, the dragon would sleep no more. And when it awoke, it breathed a fire that made the whole of Europe sit up and take notice.
Ever since I had watched Wales qualify in Zenica last year, this was the day I had waited for. The opponent was rather ironic, in that they were also the opposition for the worst Wales performance I’ve ever seen – a 5-1 demolition at home in a Millennium Stadium that started half empty and was soon even less full than that. Slovakia is one of the names that brings back very bad memories for long term Wales fans, along with Russia, Romania, Moldova and plenty of others.
Even though Gareth Bale was in the team that day, this was by no means the same Wales team. Back then he was a scrawny 17 year old at Southampton, now he is a world elite playing at Real Madrid – and with his emergence into stardom has come Wales.
Many times I have seen Wales play at with less than 30,000 people, yet here we were taking that many people to an away game. The atmosphere in the streets had been absolutely amazing all day, especially when the time came to board the trams and buses to the stadium. I can’t have been alone in feeling as though this wasn’t really actually happening. Not to us. Not to Wales.
But it was. It really really was. I had planned to get into the stadium early (not quite as early as the famous Matt the Jack who was probably in the stadium in March) and was at the ground two hours before kick off. As I was walking to the gate I found a local brass band playing music to a crowd that was in two very distinct groups. The fashionable locals, standing in a circle and applauding politely, and the Welsh, completely off their face and jumping about in the middle like maniacs. Once again, my nation made me incredibly proud.
So I took 40 minutes to jump about with dozens of others, twirling bemused locals around to the strains of Cotton Eye Joe and singing along to the French anthem with the worst pronounced French the area has possibly ever seen.
It was soon time to enter the stadium, and I did so with the biggest smile on my face imaginable. I looked around at the others who were coming in at the same time as me, and they looked just the same. You often hear smaller countries players and coaches talking about “not wanting to be happy just to be there” but it’s clear that’s exactly what we were.
It had been pretty clear from the streets of Bordeaux that Wales had far more supporters in the city than the Slovakians, but the full extent of the Welsh invasion could only be fully appreciated once inside the ground. About 75% of the stadium was red, and most of the locals also seemed to be behind us. The behaviour of the Welsh fans and the warmth of the locals has certainly created a love affair between Wales and Bordeaux that will last a very long time.
10 minutes to go before kick off, and local kids helped to present a giant Welsh shirt on the pitch, before finally the players emerged. For the first time since 11 heroes trooped off the pitch in 1958 having lost the World Cup quarter final to Brazil, Welsh footballers stood on the field at a major tournament once more. The noise and emotion from our fans was something else, with 30,000 or so people having the same thought. FINALLY. Finally it’s our turn.
After a great rendition of the Slovakian anthem from the very loud but outnumbered fans at the other end of the ground, it was time for the moment I’d dreamed of for years – singing the anthem at a major tournament. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was in tears by the end, as were the two guys next to me, one a Swansea fan and one a Cardiff fan but united as one – the days of club rivalry at Wales games left behind in the last couple of years.
The game kicked off to a huge roar from the Welsh fans, and an amazing atmosphere. It was almost cut short within minutes however, as the dangerous Marek Hamsik turned our defence absolutely inside out and shot the ball beyond Danny Ward in goal. I was utterly convinced we were 1-0 down, but Ben Davies made a frankly unbelievable block on the line that I celebrated more than most goals I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched the highlights a few times since and I still don’t know how he did it.
A few minutes pass, and Jonny Williams is fouled just outside the box. That Slovakia game I mentioned earlier was the first time that Bale ever scored for us, and he did so with a free kick…Football doesn’t work like that, I told myself. There’s no way it could happen like tha…YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
My seat was at the very end of the back row in the bottom tier, and not really knowing what to do with myself I charged down them while jumping on anyone I could find in the middle. It wasn’t really a joy celebration, it was more of a “holy shit that actually happened” celebration, and much of the game seemed to pass in a blur after that. I know Slovakia played well and created some chances, while Wales and particularly Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey produced some passing so good that it should be on an adult website, but that is about it.
Half time soon arrived, and by chance I happened to see a friend called Haley, someone I’ve seen at Wales away games for a long time. She had almost no voice left but simply said “What is happening?” I couldn’t answer, because I was just as dazed myself.
Slovakia came back strongly in the second half, they really are a good side (bad teams don’t win 3-1 in Germany) and it seemed like a goal was certain despite my confidence in our defence. It arrived after 15 minutes of the second half, and we couldn’t say they didn’t deserve it. 1-1 then, and for a few minutes longer we were being overrun. My pessimism built up over a lifetime kicked in, and I was just waiting for them to go ahead.
Thankfully Chris Coleman didn’t panic so easily. I’m happy to admit I didn’t initially support his appointment and thought he deserved to be sacked early in his reign, but he has developed a management style that will put him on the list of Welsh football immortals.
With about 20 minutes to go, two very important moments happened. The first was the introduction of Joe Ledley and Hal Robson-Kanu – two key players from the campaign who had not started due to injury – Ledley had broken his leg just over a month ago and yet somehow he was here! These players helped our tired side to get the momentum back and to turn the game back in our favour. But it was not just the players who did that.
The crowd also had their say, replicating the famous win over Belgium in qualifying by singing a stirring version of the national anthem. To a man woman and child it was belted out at the top of our lungs – the press in Bordeaux would later say that the song would echo around the city forever.
Nine minutes to go. Aaron Ramsey stumbles but somehow manages to keep going. He finds Robson-Kanu, who doesn’t catch the ball cleanly. But hang on, it’s beaten the goalkeeper…oh my god it’s going in…
And there it was. The perfect moment. The moment you create in your head or on a video game, because of course it would never really happen. But it did. It has.
Three quarters of the stadium is in absolute delirium. Most of the people around me are swinging their shirts in the air above their head. Suddenly I realise that I am also doing that. I hug the people around me, many I’ll probably never see again and yet somehow will see forever, because they were part of the best moment of my life. For them also, I’m just a stranger with who they shared two hours, but two hours that will echo into eternity.
I’m writing this report a few days later in a dodgy hotel room in Paris, and even as I try and shut out the sounds of sirens and pissed off taxi drivers outside, the hairs on my arm stand up as I think about it. That it really happened.
There was still time remaining in the match, and the four minutes of stoppage time seemed to last as long as the wait from 1958 to 2016, the period of time we had waited for a moment like this. But the whistle did come, and we did win.
After celebrating with everyone around me, I suddenly needed to sit down. I sat on the floor in the middle of the stand, back against the wall where one of hundreds of Welsh flags had flown. As people began to head out of the stadium to celebrate, the words of one of the songs sung at every Welsh game came to my head.
At long last love has arrived
And I thank God I’m alive
You’re just too good to be true
Can’t take my eyes off you
Pardon the way that I stare
There’s nothing else to compare
The sight of you leaves me weak
There are no words left to speak
But if you feel like I feel
Please let me know that it’s real
You’re just too good to be true
Can’t take my eyes off you
Dreams do come true. I know, because the dreams of a nation did. At long last…
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. That’s the difference between a free country and living somewhere like North Korea, China or the UK under the Tories. Every football supporter you meet has opinions, and even people who don’t like football almost always have opinions on it. The problem is, the vast majority of these opinions are utterly terrible. After watching the Scottish Cup final between Rangers and Hibs yesterday and hearing the Sky Sports (don’t worry, it was an illegal stream) commentators wetting their knickers with rage at the end, I decided it was time to list these terrible opinions in all their non-glory. Here’s the top seven ways to make yourself look like a right tit while talking about football.
This is of course excluding the ultimate worst opinion of all which I have already written about – “Soldiers should get footballers wages”.
Without further ado, here we go:
7 – “How can you complain about ticket prices when (insert club) charges more?”
This is one I see pretty often, but most recently aimed at Manchester City and Liverpool supporters. The City fans were protesting the ticket prices at the Etihad, while Liverpool were boycotting Hull City away. Social media was quick to remind them of their foolishness however, by rushing to state “How can you complain about ticket prices when they are also expensive at your club?!!!1” It’s almost as though they aren’t the people in charge of that decision. Until the day comes that Big Chris from Toxteth gets a call from the commercial department at Anfield asking how much they should charge Crystal Palace next week, this is an utterly pointless argument. Ticket prices are an issue which impact on everyone – that’s kind of the point. The working class is being driven out of its own sport by people named Tarquin who are just at the game in a desperate bid to look cool to their mates at the legal firm they work at, and complaining about people trying to do something about it is exactly why they can get away with it.
6 – “I know exactly what everyone wants to watch before the FA Cup final – Tinie Tempah!”
No, we don’t.
5 – “Anyone who does something I don’t like isn’t a true (insert team) fan anyway”
The “No true Scotsman” defence is one of football’s favourites, and can be seen multiple times a year. For example there was the time Chelsea fans threw a black man off a train in Paris, which caused hundreds of people to proclaim “They aren’t Chelsea fans anyway” – well what were they doing in Paris supporting them then? Have you ever tried to walk to the supermarket and accidentally found yourself in another country singing songs about a football team you don’t like? I experienced this one personally when I gave up on Cardiff City in 2012 following the rebrand, with people rushing to tell me that I was never a proper Cardiff fan anyway. I wish someone had told me before I went to 54 games the season before that. For more examples, see the reaction when a few bottles of Stella bounced off the side of Manchester United’s bus.
This is also something frequently seen with Arsenal fans who want Wenger to leave the club – if they aren’t Arsenal fans, why do they care who is the manager of Arsenal? Further examples include when people decide to sing sick chants about Hillsborough, Munich, Bradford, Ibrox, the death of the two Leeds fans in Istanbul or whatever the tragedy may be – it doesn’t matter because the people who did this aren’t real fans anyway, despite the fact they had tickets and are standing inside the stadium where that team is currently playing, this is totally a coincidence. By refusing to accept that people who do things you don’t like are still supporters of your club, you just look silly.
4 – “The Champions League is the best competition in the world”
For who? Certainly not for supporters, who can’t drink in the stadium, have to pay sky-high prices and sit next to a row full of tourists taking selfies in their half and half scarves. Sure the money is good for clubs, but how many of them can actually win? Unless you’re called Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Real Madrid, the outlook isn’t looking bright. Atletico have done brilliantly recently (they’ll play their second final in three years next week, and I hope they win), but for everyone else the only reason to be in the competition is because the accountants will be happy. I don’t want to meet the football supporter who is buzzing over a bank balance, and thankfully I’ve never seen an away end go mental because the end-of-year tax return looks good.
The Europa League is much better for supporters, even though you can only see your team win it if you support Sevilla. I followed Feyenoord in the Champions League and then the Europa League a couple of seasons ago, and the Europa League games were miles better – it wasn’t even close. A few years ago I would have said the FA Cup was the greatest of all, no question, but with many clubs disrespecting the competition, the final being played at 5:30 and such statements as “It’s only the FA Cup”, I think that has been lost.
Instead, I think the title has to go to the Copa Libertadores. It’s had nine different winners in the last nine years, the atmosphere at the majority of games is something that Europe can only dream of, and it’s very common for matches to end in the second best thing behind a pitch invasion – a 22 man brawl. Sorry Gazprom, but this is the best.
3- “Let’s hope it doesn’t go to penalties”
Obviously when they involve your team they’re the worst thing ever, but can anyone honestly say they haven’t desperately searched for a stream because you’ve just noticed the Romanian Cup final is level in the 117th minute? Penalties are brilliant as long as it doesn’t involve your club, because you know for sure you’re going to experience the only valid reason to watch a football game on TV – getting to see a close up, slow motion view of people in the crowd crying their eyes out as they realise having hopes and dreams is pointless – and that’s what football is really all about.
2 – “Hahaha, they’re celebrating like they’ve won the league!!!”
This is the one which confuses me most of all. There are thousands of football clubs in existence, and only one of them can win a major trophy every year (or every four years), so what is everyone else supposed to do? Football is mostly a cycle of disappointment, losing and having to go to Barnsley, so when a moment comes up worth celebrating you can bet your life I’m jumping down six rows of seats while swinging off my mates neck and then rolling about on the floor in some 15 year old chewing gum and cigarette ends. This particular opinion is one used all the time, but I saw it most recently being aimed at Sunderland for celebrating their survival while sending down Newcastle. As every football supporter knows, there is only one thing better than something good happening to your club, and that is something hilarious happening to your rivals. This season Sunderland were lucky enough to enjoy both at once, and if anything they should have celebrated it more. I would have liked to see an open top bus parading around Sunderland waving a cardboard cut-out of Jack Colback looking sad, because it is these moments that makes being a football supporter worth it. So be free, celebrate your last-minute winners away at Doncaster, hanging on to a point away at Chelsea or bad things happening to Ajax – because that’s what it’s all about, and it’s something the celebration police will never understand.
1 – “Nobody wants to see scenes like this”
Why do you think I am watching a League Two playoff semi-final between Torquay and Crewe unless it’s for the possibility of seeing some grown men gooning about on the pitch while someone from Sky Sports tells us how awful it is? If you want to see sickening scenes of respect and unsegregated stands – go and watch rugby. Hibs fans running all over the pitch, sitting on the crossbar, digging up the turf and generally going absolutely mental was the only reason most people had tuned in to watch the game (apart from Celtic fans, who had tuned in to tell people that Rangers died), and was the most fun I’ve had watching football that didn’t involve my team for ages.
While everyone I know was talking about how amazing it was, the Sky Sports commentator was busy telling us how nobody wanted to see this and how the behaviour was utterly sickening. There is no excuse for attacking players during a pitch invasion unless it’s Robbie Savage, but this was a very small number of people amongst thousands. The way the pundits were talking, you would think that Kenny Miller had been decapitated in the centre circle while the entire Hibs section had announced they were joining ISIS and were telling people they’d just met they were vegan for the 14th time. If Sky Sports really understood football fans they would commentate on this stuff like we would “Hahaha, that one just fell over, what a silly bastard! They’re on the goalposts look, brilliant”. By pretending otherwise, you’ve won the award for the worst football opinion of all time – be sure not to celebrate it!