New Tredegar fans 'Cuckoo's Nest' themed flag for EURO 2016
Well, who would have thought it? Every major sporting event has it's fair share of drama and upsets, agony and ecstasy. But the way Euro 2016 is shaping up, this could top them all. At least for Wales. It was an achivement for us just to qualify for the tournament, and while a few eternal optimists harboured aspirations of somehow negotiating a path out of a difficult group, the truth is most Welsh football fans were happy just to be there. With Wales not qualifying for a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup, it was a new experience for us. What has happened so far in France is the stuff dreams are made of.
In the days leading up to Wales' opening match, fans descended on the picturesque port city of Bordeaux in southwest France in their thousands. I'm proud to say I was one of them, and by the time I arrived, the city was teeming with Welsh. Every bar and restaurant was full, despite the extortionately expensive beer, and everywhere I looked were red dragons and St. David's crosses. Come match day, 24,000 of us crammed into Stade de Bordeaux to see our boys take on Slovakia. At least that's what the official figures say, but anyone who was there or even saw the game on TV will tell you that red shirts out-numbered the Slovak supporters by at least 2-1.
Welsh fans at Bordeaux for Wales v Slovakia EURO 2016
It could all have gone so differently. Virtually straight from the kick off Wales surrendered possession, Slovakia cut straight through the heart of their defence, and fired a shot on goal. It flew past reserve keeper Danny Ward, and only a despairing lunge from Tottenham defender Ben Davies kept it out of the net. Minutes later, Wales were awarded a free kick in the opposition half, up stepped Gareth Bale, and promptly scored with Wales' first shot of the match. Indeed, their first shot at a major tournament since 1958. In the second half Slovakia equalized, and enjoyed an extended spell of dominance. An air of inevitability began to settle over the stadium. We'd come this far, but were about to be found wanting by a more experienced and, it has to be said, technically savvy team. Then something beautiful happened. As if on some unspoken signal, the first bars of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau rang out. More voices joined in, and as the anthem built into a crescendo, it sounded like every man, woman, and child in the stadium was singing. A few of the players looked up into the stands as if they couldn't believe what was happening, then responded with renewed vigour and enthusiasm. As the clock ticked down to the final ten minutes, Hal Robson Kanu broke through the Slovakian defence, but scuffed his shot. Lady luck was shining on us, and the ball squirmed past the 'keeper and nestled in the corner of the goal. 2-1 Wales. Cue pandemonium.
The bars in the centre of Bordeaux were alive that night with thousands of Welsh voices, all in good spirits and still singing hours after the game finished. I saw a group of dejected Slovakian supporters walk through the square, only to be called in to a bar to drink with a group of jubilant Welsh fans. The next time I saw them, they were singing our songs and Yachi dar-ring like locals. This was in stark contrast to the shameful images of England and Russia fans fighting on the streets of Marsielle flooding the TV screens. The Welsh supporters were so well-behaved they drew praise from all quarters, including the police and the French national press (1). It proved once and for all that we don't need to shed blood to have a party.
From the highs of Bordeaux it was directly to the lows of Lens. This was the game most of us had been waiting for, the showdown with the English. In the build-up, Gareth Bale did his best to unsettle Roy Hodgson's men by claiming Wales had more pride and passion than the Old Enemy. That didn't go down too well, but on the evidence of Wales' mighty win against Slovakia and England's tepid draw with Russia in their opening game, it was fair comment. At a subsequent press conference, Bale was asked how many England players would get into the Welsh team. It was a deliberately loaded question, the kind often asked my members of the press to provoke a reaction and generate headlines. 'None' Bale replied with a smile. The comment was obviously tongue-in-cheek, and besides, what was he supposed to say? The English press didn't see the funny side and descended on Bale with a fury (2). The touch paper was lit, and it was game on.
In hindsight, Bale's perceived disparaging remarks had the opposite effect. Far from spreading doubt through the English ranks, they only served to galvanize the team and they came at us with a point to prove. Wales were second to every ball, and were thoroughly outplayed for most of the match. Even so, there was still cause for celebration when Bale thundered in another free kick to give the underdogs an undeserved lead and for a short time at least, we had reason to believe. Then reality bit. Hard. Leicester City striker James Vardy popped up with a equalizer at the beginning of the second half and despite some heroic defending it was only a matter of time before England got their winner, which they duly did with just thirty seconds left to play. To call it gut-wrenching would be an understatement.
That result would have knocked the stuffing out of most teams, but not the Welsh. In the final group game we faced the might of Russia, a country with a population of over 143 million that we had never beaten at international level. Going into the game everything was still up in the air, but Wales knew that a draw would be enough to take them through to the last sixteen of the European Championships for the first time in history. Most spectators were expecting a war of attrition. What they weren't expecting was for Wales to turn on the style in such a way as they did in Toulouse. By the time the game was twenty minutes old, Wales were 2-0 up thanks to goals from Aaron Ramsey and the rampaging Neil Taylor, the 27-year old Swansea City full-back scoring at international level for the first time. In fact, it was his first goal at any level for more than six years, the last coming when he played for Wrexham against Grays in the Blue Square Bet Premier League in front of 298 people. At least there were a few more here to witness this particular strike. Over 28,500 more, to be precise.
Instead of rallying as one might expect from such an experienced team, instead Russia capitulated and Wales tore through them time and time again, playing with a freedom and ferocity rarely seen in international football. The midfield combination of Ramsey, Joe Allen, and Joe Ledley, who had broken a bone in his leg just five weeks previously, was outstanding. Had it not been for the Russian goalkeeper, it could have been a cricket score. Mid-way through the second half the inevitable happened and Bale was put through to make it 3-0 with his third goal in as many games, making him joint highest scorer at the tournament. In all honesty, it was the most complete team performance I have ever seen from the national team. Solid in defence, dogged and creative in equal measures through midfield, and utterly lethal in attack.
With England stumbling to a goalless draw against Slovakia in the other game played simultaneously, the 3-0 win sent Wales soaring to the top of the group, and into the hearts of the French public and the larger footballing world. The sports newspaper L'Equipe claimed that Wales boasted, “Magnificent supporters in the stands and warriors on the pitch.” The Welsh impact at Euro 2016 cannot be understated. In fact, it has been so great that fashion bible Vogue voted Aaron Ramsey the most stylish player at the tournament (4) leading our hipster contingent to suggest that results don't matter any more as we've already won Euro 2016. It is exactly what a country, so blighted by tragedy and disappointment in the past, needs. The phoenix is rising from the ashes.
So what happens now?
Well, those draws against Russian and Slovakia cost England dearly as they fnished in second place in group B behind Wales. Not so bad, you might think. Until you consider that the way the tournament is split. While Wales have an eminently winnable game against Northern Ireland for a place in the quarter-finals, England find themselves in the same half of the draw as Spain, Italy and Germany. That's assuming they get past unbeaten Iceland, who themselves have proved a hard nut to crack. The Republic of Ireland, who sneaked into the last 16 of the European Championships for the first time via a late win against Italy, have the most unenviable task of all in taking on hosts France. Tickets for the Northern Ireland game are already changing hands for £1000 (5), and as we march on into history, those odds of 80-1 on Wales to win at the start of the tournament is beginning to look like a very good bet indeed.
New Tredegar-born C.M. Saunders began writing in 1997, his early fiction appearing in several small-press titles. Following the publication of his first book, Into the Dragon's Lair – A Supernatural History of Wales (2003), he worked extensively in the freelance market, contributing to over fifty international publications including Fortean Times, Loaded, Record Collector, Nuts. In addition, he has written several novellas and had over thirty short stories published in various magazines, ezines and anthologies. He taught English and creative writing in China for five years, before settling in London where he works as a writer and editor in the sport, fitness and men's lifestyle sectors. He is represented by Media Bitch literary agency.