How we wish we could rekindle the greatest summer of our lives
When Wales kick off their Euro 2020 campaign against Switzerland today it will bring memories flooding back for the thousands of fans who descended upon France to experience the greatest summer of their lives.
The year 2016 was one we will never forget. In stark contrast a second successive appearance at the European Championships will be a very different experience for all of us.
The global pandemic has decimated Welsh fans’ hopes of witnessing their heroes at another major international tournament, something those long suffering fans who had experienced continual disappointment through the decades would have thought inconceivable.
Today I’ll join friends to watch the game, but it won’t be the humid climes of Baku that will provide the backdrop, but the rather more temperate surroundings of a mate’s house. Like many I returned match tickets, got refunds on hotel bookings and flights, when I finally realised my hopes were dashed, and any hope I had of attending games just weren’t feasible.
When I gather today with those lifelong friends who made the journey to France such a special moment for all of us, no doubt we’ll reminisce about a tournament that we will never tire of talking about.
It will also provide some sort of psychological catharsis no doubt, for the fact that this Euros will sadly be one like no other.
It’s just the sort of historical Welsh football ‘luck’ that we qualify for another tournament and the world is overtaken by a global pandemic.
Back in 2016 things were oh so different.
If I had seen a doctor on returning from France, tests would possibly have revealed that my blood count was 80% beer, 20% baguette.
After spending 12 days on tour with the massed ranks of Wales football fans, my body had been pushed to its limits in some kind of hedonistic ironman competition, where swimming, cycling and running had been replaced by singing, dancing and drinking.
On returning to work I wasn’t so much going cold turkey as cold croissant – I was tired – very tired, a little emotional, but oh so happy.
Those of us who decamped to France will testify to the glorious festival of football that unfolded, where fans mixed freely, friendships were forged, lifelong memories created and world records for hangovers set.
Let us not forget that the default position for any long-suffering Welsh fan is to slump to their knees, hold their head in their hands and cry “dear God, not again” in a display of raw emotion that would have had you nominated for a Welsh BAFTA.
This, after all, is Wales – the country that hadn’t qualified for an international tournament since 1958; the international football equivalent of a smashed mirror, walking under a ladder, putting your shoes on the table, opening an umbrella indoors and not saluting a magpie all rolled into one wretched stretch of bad luck.
But nothing was going to detract from the biggest Welsh football party for more than five decades.
As a man of advanced dotage, I’d supported Wales through thin and even thinner. Through final-hurdle qualifying heartaches in ’77, ’85, ’93 and ’03, never believing that the epochal day would ever arrive when I would witness Wales playing in a major finals.
That there was previously more doom and gloom surrounding the history of Wales in qualifying tournaments than there is on the Sisters Of Mercy’s Greatest Hits only ensured that what occurred in France was certain to be on a scale hitherto not experienced by Welsh football fans. And so it proved.
When the Welsh army marched on Bordeaux, the invasion couldn’t have been more welcomed by the locals, who embraced the visitors from Pays de Galles with open arms, a warm smile and the words “Gareth” and “Bale” never far behind.
While English and Russian hooligans were competing in the World Plastic Chair Throwing Championships, Welsh supporters were winning hearts and minds with a show of good humour, grace and drinking prowess. Pubs were drunk dry and bar owners contemplated the purchase of a fleet of Lamborghinis.
The anthem at the Slovakia match was emotional. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I was again in tears when Hal Robson Kanu slotted in the winner, screaming wildly in a pitch only dogs could understand.
The magic of Bordeaux set the tone for a trip that was every bit as eventful as I’d hoped it would be. Unorthodox moments with a community of Welsh fans hell bent on enjoyment abounded.
At the opening game alone the following happened: I was sitting near a Welsh fan with a burger for a head who made me think I was either a little over-hungry or someone had spiked my Perrier; my mate was interviewed live on Thai television at the game, introducing the watching Far East to the joys of drunken Welsh football fans; I spotted Gordon Strachan and took great delight in sarcastically informing him it was nice to see someone from Scotland at the European Championships, and as we headed to the trams to transport us to the city centre I randomly struck up a conversation with a fella who I discovered was from Tonyrefail, now lived in Australia and had worked with my brother-in-law in Dubai.
Later on that evening we played 250 a side football in the streets and met a group of England fans who had bought tickets for the Slovakia match so they could witness Wales’ first game in a major international tournament for 58 years.
It was that sort of trip.
The England game in Lens rolled around and “trepidation” was the word to describe how I approached the game. My friends and I decided to stay in Bordeaux and watch the match at the pub that had become the citadel for Welsh football fans – the Charles Dickens, rather than venture north for the inevitable maelstrom of madness that accompanies any game against the auld enemy.
But imagine being in the pub, 87 minutes have elapsed and you believe your team are going to hold on for a huge point in the face of insurmountable pressure. Then there’s a power cut. Six minutes later the electricity comes back on, the big screen flickers and the score appears. That score. Sickening.
Moving quickly on – Toulouse, understandably, couldn’t come around fast enough – mainly because we were going to witness the majesty of Welsh football madheads Super Furry Animals headlining the Rio Loco Festival in the city’s stunning Prairies Des Filtres park; the perfect warm-up to Wales’ crunch clash with Russia two days later at the Stadium de Toulouse.
That it descended into one giant Welsh football shindig – a sea of Wales fans in bucket hats clearly putting the disappointment of the England result behind them – was perhaps inevitable. People describing this as the greatest SFA gig they had ever witnessed underlined that magic can occur in the unlikeliest of places.
If wizardry had been obtained on stage, second-level sorcery and songs from heaven were served up as we returned to the city for a night that will live on in all our memories. The Red Army crushed Russia, and sent us spinning deliriously and unexpectedly into dreamland as group winners.
The “golden generation” they dubbed this Wales squad, and against Russia they were 24 carat.
There was Aaron Ramsey – a man who spots a pass like Stephen Hawking discovers black holes; Gareth Bale – a superstar who gets changed in phone boxes and the sole reason that from now on half the children born in Wales will be called Gareth, and that includes the girls; Joe Ledley – whose hips are powered by some futuristic disco overlord, and Ashley Williams – a man who resembles an Easter Island statue with a turn of pace. And then there is Joe Allen – a higher being who covers more grass than grass itself, and who with his beard and flowing locks resembles a tiny Messiah with a locker full of miracles to boot.
When the entente cordiale was rolled out in Paris against Northern Ireland, it was an own goal that decided a match that saw Chris Coleman’s men relying on more reserves of grit than RCT Council’s planning for a particularly icy winter in the South Wales Valleys. Also fair play to the NI fans for their 27 minute version of that endless Will Grigg song that embedded itself in your head like a particularly persistent earworm.
So to the quarter final clash with Belgium, which even now still sounds ridiculous. Wales in the quarter final of the European Championships. It was absurd and the match even more so.
When Nainggolan fired in a nifty screamer from 35 yards there was fearful trepidation. When Ashley Williams headed in an equaliser and beat the 100m world record sprinting towards the Wales bench, there was hope.
In the second half there was a script that only someone on heavy duty psychedelics could have written.
Hal Robson Kanu, a man without a club, scored a goal of such impudence and skill, momentarily channelling the spirit of Johan Cruyff to send three Belgium defenders searching for their internal SatNav, that it no doubt caused his agent’s phone to self-combust.
When Sam Vokes rose like a particularly muscular salmon to head in the third, if you weren’t Welsh and crying, you really needed to have a world with yourself.
“Go and wake your kids up! Something special is happening here tonight!” screamed Robbie Savage, in a moment of rare accuracy for him.
But the half man, half wig, was spot on. It was another moment walking in a footballing dream that we never wanted to wake up from.
So to the semi-final against Portugal and the end of a glorious journey. Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies suspended, and Ronaldo choosing this game to prove that he really should have his own Marvel franchise, it was a bridge too far for a team that were everyone’s favourite second team.
It was the wildest of rides, the most glorious of journeys. How we wish this month we could have experienced more of the same.
But then at least this summer I won’t need to launch a Kickstarter for a new liver.