When I started blogging properly back in September 2010, I took this opportunity to lambast the woes of the Welsh footballing team down through the years. I returned to the same theme on a wonderfully happier note only last October when Wales qualified for their first major footballing tournament for 58 years.
Well this weekend, I was one of around 25,000 fans that made the pilgrimage across the water to see that history being re-written as Wales not only made its debut in the European Championships, but went and won against Slovakia with style, passion and plenty of guts and determination to boot.
A gang of my old University mates had decided when the tournament draw was made that we'd have to make every effort to get tickets for the opening match. Not only was it a favourable opening tie against Slovakia, but it was also in equally fashionable Bordeaux but critically, was on a Saturday which meant we could work around our work commitments to make it so.
We had been fortunate to draw 2 tickets out of the FAW draw allocation and purchased 4 others from those selling tickets online when their team had not been drawn to play in that particular fixture. So a hire car arrangement saw 6 of us drive down on the 900 mile, 17 hour drive through France to reach our literal goal on Friday night/Saturday morning. It included an unplanned, SatNav detour through the heart of Paris at 3.30am - at least the roads weren't too busy at the time!
|With our Slovakian Cousins!|
Arriving at 9.15am, we had a McDonalds breakfast whilst keeping a close eye on a narrow defeat for Wales in the rugby against the All Blacks and after checking-in early to our hotel, made our way down on the 4 or so mile walk to the town centre. It became quickly apparent that the reds of Wales were clearly going to be outnumbering the blue and whites of the Slovakian supporters and as we made our way towards the centre, enthusiastic local French drivers kept beeping their horns in encouragement and support - it's a good thing they won in the opening match of the tournament the night before otherwise they may not have been so welcoming!!
On arriving in the town centre, we went to the huge 'Fanzone' for some early drinks, to sample the building atmosphere and to watch the first half of Switzerland Vs Albania. It was very quickly apparent that there was a great sense of camaraderie between the Welsh and Slovakian supporters who were mingling freely with each other throughout the Fanzone and indeed the entire town, with no hint of concern for any potential flare-ups. For me, it was simply a privilege to be able to mix with our European cousins as Wales dined at the top table of European football in a way they had not done since that World Cup in Sweden in 1958 when Pele famously broke our hearts in the Quarter-Final.
So we took it all in and I took the opportunity to contact and catch-up with a number of old friends who were also making the trip - so many it was too easy to lose track of who was in Bordeaux this weekend!
We set off after 3.30pm to get to the stadium on time in a crammed tram - despite the French's best efforts to scupper our plans by hosting a series of public transport strikes over the weekend, extra trams were set aside to deal with the volume of transporting over 40,000 fans to the stadium some 5 miles north of the city centre.
Singing was the order of the day and en-route, I managed to easily coax a tram full of Welsh fans into song by starting up both 'Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau' and 'Calon Lan'. Whilst they were fewer in number, we also applauded and welcomed the intervention of our Slovakian friends as they also gave us a song! The locals on the tram meanwhile, seemed to be willing to put up with this heady, joyous outpouring of mild mayhem with an amusing look of bewilderment!
Because these are moments you can't script. You can't make them up. They were just the the reactions of Welsh football fans delirious at the prospect of watching something that had been promised so many times before but that had cruelly been snatched away from our grasp each time. The match against Romania in 1993 and against Russia in 2003 obviously stand out in my mind but for those from an older generation, the match against Yugoslavia in 1976 and against Scotland in both 1977 and 1985 as well as the failed folly against Iceland in the run-up to the 1982 World Cup and again against Yugoslavia in 1983 added to the list of glorious failure that had become frustratingly synonymous with Welsh football.
We arrived in good time at the stadium to take in the carnival like atmosphere and to prepare ourselves for what was to come.
From our fantastic vantage point in the corner directly opposite the main bulk of Welsh fans, we saw a great opening display before the teams arrived and the opening strains of 'Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau' could be heard around the stadium.
It is difficult to put into writing the enormity of the feelings that came over me when a stadium so full of Welsh fans sang our national anthem in such passionate, full voice. This remember, was the first time that it had EVER been played in a major footballing tournament - in 1958, the team led by John Charles, Ivor Allcurch et al were introduced each time by God Save the Queen. It was spine-tingling and many shed tears at that moment. I confess that none of the tears were mine - I was too focused on singing our anthem out as loudly and as proudly as I could, Which I did!
On kick-off, any nerves that we had amidst the excitement came to the fore when a 3rd minute goal-line clearance saved us from an early disaster. But it didn't take long before anxiety turned to jubilation as a Gareth Bale free-kick in the 10th minute put our Cymru into an incredible early lead. ABSOLUTE PANDEMONIUM!!!! I was hugging all those around me - whether I knew who they were or not mattered not one jot!!
It settled our nerves and dared us to dream of the icing on the cake - an opening match victory?!?! Surely we're not that lucky - we're Welsh!! But confidence grew and an assured first half saw us retain that lead at half-time despite having had a stone-wall penalty appeal turned down during that period.
|In the Stadium!|
It must have worked because within 5 minutes, Ledley's precision ball to Ramsey found its way to Robson-Kanu who beautifully scuffed the ball into the back of the Slovakian net! 2-1!! PURE ECSTASY ONCE MORE!! Cue more hugging of those same nearby strangers!!
Yes, the dream was back on and despite Slovakia's late striking of the post, we weren't to be denied this time. Because this Welsh team have got a belief and confidence in themselves as an unit, having qualified in the first place, that was missing from those squads past. The resolve and sheer bloody determination that got them to France to begin with, now saw them through to 94 minutes with that newly won back lead still intact.
|What a result!|
FULL TIME - VICTORY!!
It took 58 years for Wales to get back to where they left off in 1958 and having earned that chance, the boys weren't going to just show up for the party. The commitment shown by the whole team, backed up by a fanatical, ecstatic support, saw the Dragons in red ROAR their way across the line for a win that will go down in Welsh sporting folklore.
The 3 points now puts us firmly planted with one foot in the last 16 of the competition. But then, there lies complacency. Another point is needed against England or Russia to make sure but that is for this coming week.
The hear and now saw us march back to town (by foot, the entire way!) with thousands of likewise jubilant Welsh fans, revelling in what we had just witnessed. Did that really happen? Was this for real? Oh yes it was!!
We could only stay in the Fanzone for a few hours to watch Russia equalize in injury time against England before we had to make our way back to the hotel ready for an early start back home. So whilst our compatriots drank into the night, we had a relatively alcoholically relaxed time of it as time was pressing against our 24 hour flying visit. What was clear though as the weekend developed and into the following Sunday was that the Welsh fans had been wonderful representatives of their nation. Full of beer? Without doubt. Full of song and good humour? Without question.
Bordeaux turned red this weekend in what was a Welsh celebration of footballing redemption. No-one was going to spoil the party. The result just made it an even more special atmosphere than it already was!
We set off after a light breakfast at 9.30am on the Sunday, barely 24 hours after we had arrived. We were back in Folkestone via Rouen at 6.30pm and we were back in Wales before midnight.
It was a whirlwind, rollercoaster 72 hours in my life that will remain indelibly marked in my memory. Whatever happens now, those ghosts of Welsh footballing pasts have been well and truly dispelled with. It shouldn't be another 58 years before we qualify for a major footballing tournament but hell, even if it is, there will be 25,000 Welsh fans who will be able to say, to quote Max Boyce, that 'I was there' when Wales did actually strut their stuff with the best of the best and showed that we were in good company.
The best night in Welsh footballing history? Quite probably so. A night and weekend to remember? Without a shadow of a doubt!