It is odd being a Welsh football fan. We share the limelight but are overshadowed by the Rugby, and like our countrymen we too are prone to gallent defeats rather than crude victories. Nevertheless there is often a band of brothers who attend every game, no matter what, to see the team play. Often it’s about where you go, as these are usually trips with your mates with the small inconvenience of a football match half way through. So much was related to this that when the draw for the Euro 2016 qualification Chris Coleman was talking more about the trips: the cultural hub of Brussels, the beaches of Cyprus, and the mixture of both in Tel-Aviv and Barcelona (yes, Barcelona, we’d be crazy to stay in Andorra).
Except – for the first time since 1958 – the football did matter. Wales – thanks to a resolute defence, Gareth Bale’s magic and Jason Demetriou banging in an 80th minute winner against Israel for Cyprus – actually qualified for Le Rendezvous in France. Wales will actually be competing at a major tournament, and get to experience all that they can – the half and half scarves, the paragraphs about the team in the build up, and Chris Gunter swaps in the Panini Sticker Album.
It’s unknown territory for the players and the nation, but also for the fans, who aren’t really sure just quite how to behave. 1958 probably didn’t see large swathes of the country decamp to Sweden for a few weeks, and usually Wales away trips are short affairs. Hit a city’s alcohol supply for a good 2 or 3 days, and then return. No. This is different, a more prolonged effort is required. Shudder to think too, we’ll need to factor in days of “taking it easy”.
But there was no easy days in Bordeaux. Whilst the largely English based media was whetting their appetite at the thought of a Home nations clash with England vs. Wales, most Welsh fans instead were wanting to be at one game: Slovakia. The first game in a major tournament since 1958 – 35 years before their opponents existed as an independant nation.
I arrived on the Thursday – hotel space was a premium so I stayed a bit outside the city in a budget L’Étoile Bleue in Merginac. It was cheap but nice enough. Although I skipped the swimming pool.
I headed to the town and the first night was a bit muted, but the second night saw a massive change. The town was full of fans – Welsh mainly, but a fair few Slovaks who were making noise. Later in the early hours of Saturday morning fans had commandeered the main square, and making noises as cars were driving through a sea of people. Songs were sung, plucked from the Welsh library of songs which are often reworkings on 1980’s disco classics. The atmosphere was friendly and peaceful, if slightly boisterous.
Eventually though people headed to bed for the day after – waiting for the first game for Wales at a major tournament in nearly 60 years.
So gameday came, and whilst a few drinks were had in the city’s fanzone before the game, it was slightly muted. Wales had the slightly later kick off of the day (sandwiched between Switzerland vs. Albania and Russia vs. England), and without being at a major tournament we were unsure quite how to act. Do we get to the game early? Or wait until the last minute? We took the former option: arriving early to take in the scenes and make absolutely sure nothing of the experience was missed.
So what of the game? Well, most people would’ve been happy if Wales gave a good account of themselves, and we’d have love to see at the very least a goal so we have something to celebrate. In our wildest dreams we did not expect to become the first home nation side to win their opening game at the European Championships.
But that what happened, when Aaron Ramsey managed to feed Hal Robson-Kanu to scuff a shot past the Slovakian keeper late in the game, to send the Welsh fans (who were already full of voice) into absolute delirium. I was covered in beer, and I got my top off in public. I was that happy, and I can only apologise for my behaviour for doing that.
So yes, after the game, which saw Welsh and Slovak fans mingle with no trouble, we headed to the fan zone in Bordeaux, where I ditched with the traditional post match pint and instead hit the Vin Rouge. 2010 actually. Chateau de Bale. Cracking vintage.
The day was made all the more sweeter with the auld enemy – England – conceding in the final minute to send Wales to the top of the table in Group B. The Eiffel Tower were lit up with Welsh colours, and – it’s fair to say – most Welshmen were a lottery win away from the perfect day, and maybe in about 9 months a fair few babies named Hal will be born in Cardiff and across Wales.
Singing continued late into the night, with Welsh fans not wanting to go to sleep as it will then all be over. But sleep we must, as it’s a long tournament. As I write this, Wales are 24 hours removed from their second game where they suffered an agonising defeat against England, leaving Wales with a chance to qualify for the next round. By the time this post does go live we may be in the last 16 or on the way home. Either way though, this tournament has exceeded expectations. Welsh fans have been in good voice and with no trouble, with Bordeaux media reporting how much they loved the Welsh fans. Love was reciprocated by all Welsh fans who were there, as the 3 or 4 days most Welsh fans were there saw a lot of love shared. Stories will be told about this trip for generations. It felt special, and if this was what being in a major tournament is like, by God, it was so worth the wait.