Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Welsh Footballing France Euro '16! (Paul Bodin...all is forgiven!)

One of my earliest blog posts spoke of the long-running heartache of being a Welsh football fan - the pain of which could be encapsulated in the Paul Bodin penalty miss in the crucial Wales Vs Romania qualifier for USA '94.

Reading it back now, it does come across with a rather bitter undertone - one of a fan looking for a scrap, just a scrap of light at the end of an interminably long tunnel.

France Euro '16 Qualification!
Well, now we have it!

It was with some incredulity but utter delight that I watched Wales qualify for our first footballing finals since the days of John Charles and Ivor Allchurch back in Sweden '58! Come next summer in France, Wales will line-up with the continent's best for the first time in 58 years since that summer of '58!

There was hope at the start of the campaign. But then of course, there always is. It's the quick extinction of that hope early on in qualifying campaign after qualifying campaign that has  made the whole art of watching our national team so frustrating and wearisome over the years.

This time round it was almost extinguished in its infancy in the most embarrassing way possible. Only a late winner from Gareth Bale overturned a 1-0 reverse to a 2-1 win at minnows Andorra. But it was a win. Dim hope remains.

Then an early double - a stoic 0-0 home draw against top seeds Bosnia and days later, a gritty 2-1 win against Cyprus despite being down to 10 men for much of the match. I was away in Amsterdam at this time and recall taking time out from my first wedding anniversary get-away to get as many updates on the Cyprus match as possible. The 0-0 against Bosnia had given more hope of sniff at a top 3 finish but that would be extinguished without a win against the Cypriots. The dogged resistance shown by the team meant that as early starts go, hope remained. Always that hope.

That doggedness saw us through what should've been our toughest encounter. Another stoic performance in Brussels saw a 0-0 draw against Belgium. Watching it in Aberystwyth, the rear-guard action and subsequent clean sheet was one of the best I had seen from a team in red. Suddenly, 8 points out of 12 and unbeaten having played each of the top two seeds gave us something to really hold onto. Couldn't shake off that hope.

Israel & Belgium
Then a winter break before a tough match away to group leaders Israel who were 3 out of 3. Another point would be good here. Listening to Radio Wales from our farm in Eglwyswrw, I was bouncing around the cafe as Wales secured a massive 3-0 win. Suddenly, mild optimism was turned into genuine hope. That bloody hope again.

Gareth Bale celebrating a qualification
game-changer against Belgium!
But next up was Belgium at home in June. Again, a draw would be fantastic here and keep the unbeaten start to the campaign going. Watching from home in Cardigan, I erupted as Gareth Bale pounced on Belgium defensive uncertainty and scored what proved to be the only goal of the game. UN-BEL-IEVABLE JEFF!

Now with 4 wins and 2 draws from 6, this thing was now most certainly ON - but whisper it very, very quietly. Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. We are Welsh after all.

One Foot in France
Summer was taken up with talk of what could now be. Wins against Cyrpus and Israel in September would guarantee a top two finish and the exotic highlands of final tournament play in 2016. But a defeat to either let alone both would bring utter panic back to proceedings!

Watching the match in Nicosia from my Aneddfa sofa in Cardigan, I was hoping that we could take 4 points from the two matches to put a foot in France. With the same coming to a close at 0-0, I was resigned to what was a good, albeit slightly disappointing, point. Then, again...GARETH BALE! When his bullet header struck the back of the net with minutes to play, my roars woke up everyone upstairs!

What a result! A win at home to Israel would seal the deal and in preparation, I bought a very last minute ticket for the final match against Andorra. As far as I was concerned, the win in Nicosia had basically done the job. Only a tragic run of results could continue our ruinous qualifying run spanning back decades. Even we weren't that unlucky...surely?!

It was clear from their performance days later that early pace-setters Israel had accepted that we were going to qualify despite the fact that a win for them would've put them right back into the mix. They parked the bus looking for a point to boost their play-off hopes and duly achieved that end. But qualification was only minutes away later that evening when Belgium themselves scored a late winner in Cyprus. The champagne was put back on ice. 

The End-Game - Qualification
So it came down to two matches with only one point needed for qualification. A tricky away tie in Bosnia against a team scrapping for a play-off berth and the match against Andorra in Cardiff that if necessary, would surely be enough?!

Celebrating Qualification in Tenby on 'Super Saturday'!
It was 'Super Saturday' with my old University friends and I watching Wales Vs Australia in the Rugby World Cup and then the Bosnian match in Tenby Rugby Club. The Guinness flowed, the atmosphere was superb and the tension as ever, sky high!

After 58 years of pain, it was probably only apt that it could only be us Welsh who would eventually triumph through defeat! Wales lost in the rugby and Bosnia inflicted a first qualifying defeat on our brave Dragons with a late 2-0 win. But it mattered not! The biggest roars of the day in Tenby Rugby Club were on the two occasions when Cyprus came onto our screen with goals in Israel!

Wales had lost - but we had qualified! AT LAST!!!!

Party Time!
Time to party at Wales Vs Andorra!
Back in September, I'd bought one of the final few tickets still available for the final match in Andorra. A win in Cardiff against Israel a month earlier would've secured qualification in front of a raucous home crowd but it wasn't to be. Instead, it was the hard-core of long-standing Welsh fans who would travel the world to see Welsh away matches who deservedly started the party in Bosnia, despite the defeat on the pitch that evening.

But the first home-coming celebratory match for our conquerors would be against Andorra - and I had a ticket! I've seen Wales play in qualifying campaigns for Euro 2000, Euro 2004 and Euro 2008 in Wrexham and Cardiff (oddly, I've never been to a World Cup qualifying match) and for over 20 years, had kept a close but sad eye on misadventure after misadventure. So I wasn't going to miss the party to end all parties for anything!!

The match was an anti-climax. Andorra parked their bus and reached Half-Time for the first time all qualifying, at all-square. But the celebrations really kicked off with Ramsey and Bale's 2nd Half efforts. The 33,000 strong sell-out crowd gave their Welsh Dragons a wonderful reception throughout and the after-match celebrations were akin to winning a Premier League title or FA Cup! It was a magical atmosphere!

Post-match, it was back to the city for more celebrations and in the good company of old friend and adopted Welshman, Northumbrian Matt Close. We went back to Clwb Ivor Bach where the Welsh fans congregated and celebrated into the early hours in style! Player anthems were sung with gusto and hits from the Ska/Reggae era blared out in glorious technicolour. The highlight for me was easily the many emotional renditions of Andy Williams' Welsh anthem from that failed 1994 campaign, 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You' in memory of Gary Speed. I took a few moments out of that mad, mad night of celebration to record this clip to give a sense of that raw euphoria that after decades of pain, could now be released in joy unbound!

It was truly a night to savour. One of those 'I was there' events which as a long-suffering Welsh football fan, I couldn't, couldn't miss.

I finished that melancholic blog post in 2010 with the following words...
"As a friend mentioned on Facebook last night after the result, 'A World Cup or a Euro Finals once in my lifetime, that's all I ask Wales'. So wept a whole generation of Welsh football fans last night".
Well dear friends, last week, a whole generation of Welsh football fans wept once more. But this time, they were tears of joy! We're going to have our moment in the sun in France 2016 and whilst we're going to bring colour and music to the party, we're not going to do so just to make up the numbers - we're turning up to ruffle a few feathers!

Paul Bodin...all is forgiven!

Wales? I love you baby!