The dragon rises
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”
Wales fans know that our campaigns inevitably end in heartbreak. The 1 – 0 defeat to Russia in the playoffs for Euro 2004 remains the worst I have felt after a football match, while those older than me have suffered equal tragedy against Romania and Scotland. And yet, still we dare to dream. Still we cling to the hope that this time it might be different. This time it won’t all end in despair, forced to watch our neighbours head to tournament after tournament, while we sit at home thinking about what might have been.
But something is happening in Wales. Something beautiful. Where once we would have crumbled like lambs to the slaughter, instead we stand up and fight like dragons. The result was a rainy night in Brussels that nobody who was there will ever forget.
From the very start, this campaign has been a battle. We very nearly slipped up to Andorra on what was surely the worst pitch ever to grace international football, before a late winner from Gareth Bale and a joyous pitch invasion, then came a titanic clash with Bosnia. Both sides had plenty of chances and we very nearly won it, but in the end a hard fought point was obtained. Next up, Cyprus at home. Wales were cruising to victory, before a red card threatened to derail the campaign once again. The visitors got a goal back, but the defence held firm from that moment on, and the three points were confirmed. The inspirational Gareth Bale could not hide his delight, he’s only 25, but he has already done more for Welsh football than previous marquee player Ryan Giggs ever did.
So on to Brussels, with Wales leading the way in the group on seven points. Belgium have some of Europe’s finest players, and had been tipped as potential World Cup winners. They eventually came undone to Argentina in the quarter-finals, but they will certainly be one of the countries expected to challenge for the trophy in 2016 when the tournament arrives at last.
Courtouis, Hazard, Benteke, Vertonghen, Witsel, Belgium had a huge number of quality players in the side that Wales would have to face, and also Marouane Fellaini. But this Wales side is different. It doesn’t fear these types of team anymore, and from the first minute you could see that the yellow-shirted Welshmen had taken the field feeling like equals, not underdogs. Ramsey, Bale and Williams are used to playing against this type of player these days, while Joe Ledley also experienced Champions League football with Celtic for a time. It means that they see it as a challenge, rather than a problem. It means that every time Belgium dared venture into the Welsh half they were immediately closed down by a flood of Welsh players, fighting with everything they had to reward the supporters who had suffered so long.
And the supporters. They came from every corner of the country, with dozens of flags on show at the front of the Welsh stand. I saw flags from Newport County, Wrexham, Cardiff City, Swansea City, Merthyr Town, Barry Town, and more. Indeed, there was even a Feyenoord flag on display (I wonder who that could belong too?). Last year we came to Belgium at the end of another disappointing campaign, expecting to lose heavily. This year, we came here not just hoping to avoid humiliation, but in search of at least a point.
With the entire away end on their feet, and many of them standing on the seats in the same way which regularly causes such chaotic goal celebrations at my home stadium De Kuip. After the flawless rendition of the national anthem, the singing just got louder and louder with every passing minute. Indeed, Wales actually had the first real chance of the game, Gareth Bale winning a corner after 15 minutes. With the amount of Belgian beer which had been consumed, it was probably for the best that the resulting effort was cleared, the scenes that would have followed a goal would almost certainly have left a few people in hospital.
Belgium were on top, but it wasn’t the kind of one sided battering we have had to watch in previous years. Every time the clock ticked over another minute, the person in front of me shouted how many minutes were left to hang on. This would have been understandable if he had started in the 80th minute, but starting the countdown after 20 minutes was perhaps a little defeatist. For the rest of the Wales fans, they were in mood for the game to be over just yet. “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home, I just don’t wanna go to work, I wanna stay here, drinking all the beer, please don’t, please don’t take me home” was the chant of the night, soon being sung by the entire away stand as they watched their side take on one of the finest that Europe has to offer, matching them every step of the way.
Half time arrived, with the scores still level. Not only was it a great result, but a deserved one. Sure Belgium had had a couple of chances, but there were no moments in the first half where you felt that the Welsh goal was in serious danger. Compare this to the hammerings we have received from Serbia, Slovakia and others in our recent history where it looked like we would concede every time the ball went into our half (and sometimes even when it wasn’t), and the change from the dark days of John Toshack and Bobby Gould is obvious.
While the result at half time was good, it was nothing compared to what took place during the break. For some delightful reason, the Belgians decided to blast hardcore techno for the 15 minute interval, with the 2,800 or so Wales fans able to get a ticket (over 3000 were in Brussels without tickets) having a full blown rave. To put it politely I am not usually much of a dancer, but there was something about the atmosphere and the Welsh performance that made me feel it was a good idea to stand on my seat doing the ‘big fish, little fish, cardboard box’ dance. It was definitely all to do with the Welsh performance, and certainly not anything to do with the pre-match beers we had enjoyed
With Wales continuing their brave resistance after the break, not to mention creating chances of their own, Belgium grew frustrated and began to make a few mistakes, their usual slick passing going astray. The lowlight was a cowardly elbow from Fellaini on Joe Allen, how much times can this human toilet brush get away with such ‘challenges’ on fellow professionals? After a few years at Everton where he was an exceptional player, he now has a style of play which would be better off in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Allen was left dripping with blood following the ‘accident’, with Fellani doing almost as much damage to his face as he did to David Moyes’ career last season.
Sensing that Wales might be about to come to Brussels and take away a point for the second time in two years, the final 20 minutes were a procession of Belgian chances. Benteke entered the field to try and grab them the crucial goal, and the Welsh players were forced to defend like they have never defender before. Wave after wave of Belgian attacks were thrown at the goal, and each one of them was thrown straight back. In 1997 the English team secured World Cup qualification with a heroic draw against the odds in Italy, a night which turned the team into heroes amongst their supporters.
This night could prove to be the Rome ’97 for Wales, the pride and love that the Welsh supporters have for this team is something which many felt would never happen again after Gary Speed passed away. His tragic death tore the heart out of the side for a couple of years, but it is now back and beating prouder than ever. If Gary Speed can indeed look down on this team, he would certainly do so with immense pride. Speed played with courage, pride and determination every time he wore the Welsh shirt, and this is a side which plays in his image.
So now we were down to the final ten minutes, with the man in front of me taking his countdown to new heights. He would countdown from 10 at the end of every minute, before bellowing “NINE” (and so on) before leaping up and down to celebrate. If we had scored a goal, I’m pretty sure him and I would have been legally married in some countries with the level of celebration. Wayne Hennessey pulled off a couple of great saves, while younger George Williams was inspired after coming on at half time. If it wasn’t for the existence of a certain lad who plays for Real Madrid, you feel that Williams could be the star of this team for years to come. Not only is he clearly hugely talented, but he really, really annoyed MK Dons with his transfer to Fulham. What’s not to love?
Still the minutes ticked away, and still the Welsh fans roared on their team. “Coleman had a dream”, “Calon Lan” and the national anthem were all sung with great heart, while the song about not wanting to go home was repeated again and again. The line about not wanting to go to work was especially true for me, with all my holidays used up already, I was catching a 4am coach home from Brussels and going straight to the office.
Into injury time now, and a moment where it looked as if the immensely brave battling would all be for nothing. Just seconds to go, and the ball finds Benteke in the kind of range he would usually be sure to score. I was about to turn away in disgust and have a permanent dislike for waffles, chocolate and Stella Artois, but somehow it was blocked on the line, and the point was safe. The final whistle blew a few minutes later, and the Wales fans celebrated in a way that would make you think we had won the European Championships themselves, never mind picking up a huge point in the battle for qualification. The away end was literally rocking from the celebrations and the Wales fans jumping over the seats and one another to qualify, and you could see the players were loving it. The entire team walked over to the away end, throwing their shirts into the crowd and saluting their magnificent support.
Compare this to the days when the Welsh squad would be announced, only for 70% of it to pull out with mysterious injuries in the next week. The job is not done, far from it, but for the first time this campaign, I truly believed. I haven’t let myself feel this way about a Welsh team since my teenage confidence after beating Italy in the 2004 campaign, but I really believe it now. If we can take 4 points from the next two games (Israel away and Belgium home), there will surely be no stopping us. Challenges still lie in wait on the way, but we have come away from the most difficult game on the group still unbeaten, and still in an automatic qualification place.
There was time for one last rave after the final whistle, with the choice of music after full time being the hardcore classic ‘Zombie Nation’. And how the away end bounced. People who haven’t been in a nightclub for 40 years were up and dancing on their seats, and even Sky Sports journalist Bryn Law could be seen bouncing away. Welsh defender Chris Gunter also showed off some of his moves, dancing shirtless in the rain in front of an away stand full of delirious fans performing a full range of questionable dance moves. Just imagine what it will be like in Sarajevo or Cardiff if qualification is secured, the scenes of our last two games in this campaign.
If we do qualify, it is not just for the 20 or so players who make up the squad. It is for Gary Speed, who put the fire back into Welsh football. It is for Ralph, who travels to every game from the Czech Republic. It is for Mark and Matt, who love the Welsh side more than anyone I know. It’s for my friends Ali, Declan and Jon, who sung themselves hoarse with me through the streets of Belgium and into the stands. It’s for the fans from North Wales who make long trips just to see a home game, never mind an away trip. It’s for the people who have become my close friends as we followed the side from Sofia to Wembley. It’s for every single Welsh fan who for years have travelled to games knowing we’d get destroyed, but have gone anyway.
England have already secured qualification after winning their opening four games, while at least one of Republic of Ireland and Scotland will join them, and Northern Ireland look as though they have a strong chance. There is a chance that this tournament could feature a full contingent of British and Irish sides. If Wales are amongst them, it will mean more to our fans than any promotion to the Premier League, any Champion League win, and probably just as much as it does to the supporters of the side who end up lifting the trophy in Paris. There is a saying in Welsh which has accompanied the Welsh side on their plight for many years – “Fi godwn ni eto”, or in English, “we will rise again”.
That time is coming. That time is now.