EURO 2016 - THE BEST SUMMER OF MY LIFE

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EURO 2016 - THE BEST SUMMER OF MY LIFE

We were sat there, at the Stade des Lumieres in Lyon, Portugal fans all gone. Welsh fans still singing "Men of Harlech", which had been roaring out non-stop for the last 20 minutes of the match, and about half an hour after. It was over. Would I ever experience such a journey again? Probably not. Would I ever see Wales, the underdogs, see off all competition to reach a semi final of a major tournament again? Probably not. Will I find myself thinking "What if Ramsey wasn't suspended?" at least once a week for the rest of my life? Probably, yes.

The journey started over 2 years ago, with non-stop highs, something that can't be said about Welsh football too often. But this was different. The feeling in the games was that of excitement and optimism. This was our year. 

Fast forward 2 years of qualifying, and we were there. We were ready to take part in an international tournament, not watch on from the sofas as England fail year after year. We would be a part of it.

Paris & Bordeaux

Paris Fanzone - Opening Ceremony

Paris Fanzone - Opening Ceremony

My brother's stag. I was best man. I had organised the stag for the opening weekend of the Euros, so off we set, a 22 strong group of Welsh fans, just happy and excited to be there. The first night was incredible. The Paris fanzone seemed like something you'd only dream of seeing on TV. Under the setting of the mighty Eiffel Tower, we drank the night away, watching France win their opening match, with thousands of French fans, but it was the next day that the journey really began......

Wales 2-1 Slovakia

Wales 2-1 Slovakia

Bordeaux. What a city. What a place. "We'll always have Bordeaux" quickly became the motto of Welsh fans throughout the tournament. What this city now means to Welsh fans can't be described, unless you were there. I remember thinking before the tournament, 'I just can't wait to sing the national anthem at a major tournament, that would be enough, and IF I can experience a goal, just a single goal, to celebrate, my expectations of the tournament would be met'. A Ben Davies goal line clearance, a Gareth Bale free kick goal, and a gloriously bad winner from the legend Hal Robson-Kanu meant that there were genuine tears for the first time this tournament (and certainly not the last). Hugging and kissing strangers seemed like the most normal thing to do. The locals LOVED the Welsh, and the Welsh certainly fell in love with Bordeaux on that day.

The stag group in Bordeaux

The stag group in Bordeaux

Biarritz (a little break...kind of)

"Quiet time" in Biarritz...

"Quiet time" in Biarritz...

We hadn't managed to get tickets for the England match, so took a little trip to Biarritz for, what was meant to be a relaxing 4 days, however, the weather didn't get the memo. This "forced" us (Mark and I were particularly happy with this) to go to the local pub and watch 3 games a day. So, 4 days later, too much wine consumed, a horrible crushing last minute defeat to England, a lot of sore heads, and we were heading to Toulouse with spirits slightly dampened from the ecstasy of Bordeaux...

Toulouse

We'll always have Bordeaux quickly turned to "We'll always have Toulouse". Wales v Russia. A must win, to presumably come second in the group behind England, or a draw to maybe sneak in through the new rule of best 3rd place. Revenge from 2003, when a performance enhancing drug taker took our place in Euro 2004. A late kick off, a glorious sunny day. This only means one thing when away watching football - a whole day drinking leading up to the game. We were having such a good day, singing and laughing in the streets of Toulouse that I had genuinely forgotten about the game at hand. 90 minutes later, arguably the best performance ever seen by a Wales team, a 3-0 victory and we were guaranteed a second place finish. If this was a joyous moment, the moment the other results came through on the big screen was something else. England 0-0 Slovakia. We had only gone and bloody won the group. "Wales won't even make it out of the group", "Stop Bale and you stop Wales", "You can't count on one man to take you through a tournament", "The group will be a warm up for England before the real tournament starts" they said...What we were singing can't be repeated...

Wales 3-0 Russia

Wales 3-0 Russia

Paris (again) 

A win's a win. Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland.

A win's a win. Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland.

Back to work for a few days, then a nice easy drive out for the second round in Paris where Northern Ireland awaited us. It was a nervy day. Wales were favourites, something we haven't dealt well with in the past. The day after Brexit, so spirits were low. Early kick off, so not much time to even drink the nerves away. Saying that, we made the most of our time here, and weather was stunning, so the amount of time we had leading up to the game was great fun. It was an awful game, full of mistakes, and Northern Ireland thoroughly deserves to win. It speaks volumes that it was an own goal which eventually decided the match. 1-0 win. Take that and move on....

Lille

My bed....

My bed....

Lille...LILLE! My God. "We'll always have Bordeaux", "We'll always have Toulouse". No no no. "WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE LILLE". We were warned that Lille was small and rubbish and had no night life. Whoever had given these memos were definitely in a different Lille to us. After I drove the whole way there (from Cardiff) in one day, we parked up and headed out. We found a street that was more like Ibiza than a "quiet, boring town in France". Arriving home at 7am and sleeping in the bath was not in the plan....Somehow we managed to get up and have breakfast ready for game day. Another late kick off - perfect. Wales v Belgium. Belgium, ranked second in the world. Lille, right on the border of Belgium. This felt like an away match such was the dominance of Belgian fans in numbers. This didn't stop it being an amazing atmosphere on the street of Lille, and being another late kick off, again, with all the fun, I had forgotten that we were about to play in the QUARTER FINALS OF A MAJOR TOURNAMENT. It was fine, I was happy for the journey to end here. We'd had much more than we had ever hoped for. As long as we gave a battling performance, defeat today was fine...

1-0 down in less than 10 minutes, being absolutely battered. Maybe a battling defeat was even too much to ask for? Even though the stadium was 80% Belgium fans, all you could hear was the huge repertoire of Welsh songs, filling the stadium. Then, just before half time, 1-1. Captain Ashley Williams. The celebrations are a blur. I had, I don't know how many pints thrown over me, and I ended up about 10 rows in front of where my actual seat was. This was the pinnacle of supporting Wales, a goal in a quarter final of a major tournament....until about 20 minutes later. Hal Robson-Kanu, who didn't even have a club at the time of the game, pulls off the most ridiculous skill you'll ever see. It left 4 defenders for dead, so much so that I presumed play had been stopped for some reason. I have never seen scenes like this in my life, and most likely won't again. This time, I ended up in the front row (we were in row 20 something), and when I got back to my seat, I realised I had lost my shoe, and there was lots of blood quickly seeping through my jeans....Where on earth was my shoe?? I didn't care. (I found it later in the front row). Time went so slowly after this, until, a third goal. A. THIRD. GOAL. Against the second best team in the world. In the quarter finals of the European Championships. Again, I found myself in the front row (I found me shoe!!). There were literally tears on every face. Grown men, football fans, sobbing like babies. I walked back to our seat, and found my brother inconsolably crying and hugging some random man, who was trying to hold him up. This wasn't normal. This must have been a dream. Except, I would never ever had dreamt of a moment like this.....

Wales 3-1 Belgium

Wales 3-1 Belgium

Lyon

Another fantastic day, with Welsh fans dominating the streets of Lyon. Lyon was a gorgeous city, definitely the nicest one we had been to on our travels, and the fact the temperature was in the 30's certainly helped this day to be brilliant. Just like Bordeaux, Toulouse and Lille before, the party had started early with the 'Red Wall' taking over another French city. But this was one step too far. It took Ronaldo, the best player on the planet to stop us, after more than matching the Portugese, the eventual champions for the first 45 minutes.

Lyon - a beautiful city

Lyon - a beautiful city

And now we're back to where I started this blog...I sat, and cried, the first tears of sadness along this amazing journey. I'm going to take the next quote from another blog I read, as it described the feeling of that moment absolutely perfectly.

"I untied my flag, sat in the seat and cried my eyes out. I've cried tears of joy a few times during this campaign, but it was the first time in years and years I had cried because I was sad. When Germany lost their semi final the next day, they knew they would have another one soon, and they'd win a trophy soon, probably more than one. For us, maybe we won't even qualify again. Despite the huge amount of pride I felt, and the amazing memories that will live with me forever, I couldn't help being just really really sad". (Supporters Not Customers - Allez les rouges).
Portugal 2-0 Wales

Portugal 2-0 Wales

Wales had come as underdogs, as a one man team. It's quite telling we had two players in the "Team of the Tournament" and not one of those was our "one man", Bale. We left France as heroes. The country had fallen in love with us. No longer would I go on holiday and people thought Wales was a part of England. I went to Borneo, Malaysia a couple of weeks ago and was asked by a taxi driver where I was from. When I answered "Wales", his reaction was excitedly saying "YES YES, Gareth Bale. Do you know him?". Wales are firmly on the map.

World Cup, Russia, 2018....maybe, just maybe?