Allez les rouges
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.