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Summer loving – Revisiting Wales’ Euro 2016 Campaign

Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 Wales. 10/10/15.

The full time whistle blew. The news trickled in. Wales had forfeited their unbeaten record in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, and a proud nation exploded with joy. The 58 year wait for qualification to a major tournament finally had an expiry date thanks to a 2-1 Cyprus victory over Israel. Decades of false dawns, negligence, mismanagement and apathy faded into irrelevance as Chris Coleman’s history makers achieved what several generations of Welsh footballers had previously failed to. The barren years had been littered with gut-wrenching defeats. Scotland 2-0. Romania 2-1. Norway 3-1. Russia 1-0. Serbia 6-1. Defeats which punctuated the ash-cloud of lethargy which encompassed Welsh football.

The 2-0 defeat in Bosnia was shrouded in glory, a scarcely conceivable achievement. Wales had made it, a zombie nation shuddering itself to life, setting past disappointments ablaze. During my time as a supporter, international tournaments would represent the bi-annual invasion of St George crosses onto Welsh soil. Without Welsh representation to inspire a nation of football lovers the Dragon would hibernate. But Coleman had a dream. A dream to inject vitality into the side, to reject mediocrity, to not fall short. To take what the late Gary Speed started and persevere. A dream that was now reality. We’ve surpassed expectations, lit a fire under a dormant beast. Grab your passports, Wales are off to France. Whatever happens next doesn’t matter. Not really. But what if? What if we do a Greece? Do a Denmark? What if the dream doesn’t end? What if we shock the world? What if.

Wales 2-1 Slovakia. 11/6/2016.

As the tournament approached, the excitement blended with an odd fear. One that I had never had to contend with before. What if we get shown up? What if we get bombed out of the group stages without a single point? What if we become the laughing stock of the continent? What if. The warm up games were played more like cool downs and did nothing to stifle this dread. Defeat to the Netherlands, Sweden, Ukraine and a draw against Northern Ireland made for anxiety-inducing viewing, as Coleman’s previously mercurial outfit wilted. Just give us something to cheer about, I pleaded in the build up to the first game. Make this great, long-suffering football country bounce. Let the noise be heard from Anglesey to Cardiff. Just give us something. I think they must have heard me.

The game started at a frantic pace, both sides keen to fire out of the blocks. A duel for supremacy between star men Hamsik and Bale was won by the latter, as he flicked a swerving free kick into the back of the net, sending the travelling Welsh faithful into raptures. 58 years of waiting and we’re ahead after 10 minutes. What if? While Bale grabbed the goal, Ben Davies stopped a certain equalizer from Hamsik as Wales dragged their lead through to half time.

The equalizer came. 1-1. Dread. We’ve been here before, you know. Seen how this ends. Is this going to be another one to add to the list. Nails were gnawed to dust as both sides pushed for a breakthrough. Resilience was at the heart of the Welsh performance, the likes of which had been seldom seen in recent years. Something is different here. And then it fell to Hal Robson-Kanu. His scuffed shot seemed to take an age to trickle past the keeper and hit the back of the net. But it did. The first of many beer-soaked celebrations in the summer sun began, as arms swayed of their own accord and grown men bopped enthusiastically. They held on. Wales won their first ever European championship match. And then the singing. The soundtrack of the summer emanated not only from the Stade De Bordeaux, but every bar back home. They had given us something. Whatever happens next doesn’t matter. Not really. But what if?

England 2-1 Wales. 16/6/2016

And so to Lens. Battle of Britain. The pick of the fixtures when the draw was made. Anticipation had reached fever pitch for this clash, animosity stirred up further by the media. As if it needed to be. Old enemies colliding, the story writes itself. The match took place at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon, much to the delight of publicans up and down the UK. The Welsh entered the melting pot with a certain swagger, top of the group following Englands draw with Russia. For once the coverage wasn’t all about the England nation team, with the match representing an opportunity for Wales’ coming out party. A chance to move as far away from their shadow as possible, a chance to force our way onto the back pages. A chance for Wales to be taken seriously. The match was colossal, and two pints wouldn’t be enough to calm the nerves. It would have to be several.

For all the pre match posturing, the Welsh started as though they’d indulged in several pints themselves. England could have found themselves two goals to the good in the first 10 minutes, with Raheem Sterling missing a sitter. Wales struggled to find their stride, and were outclassed for most of the first half. Until the refs whistle indicated a free kick. Up stepped the talisman, the main antagonist of England in the buildup. Gareth Bale. He questioned their passion, their desire. And now he’d question Joe Hart. And then came the welcome return of the beer-soaked celebrations, as a looping free-kick squirmed its way into the bottom corner. Delirium. Joy. Disbelief. England 0 Wales 1. There’s still 45 minutes to go. But what if?

The half time interval came and went in a mist of giggling, excitement and refilling of pint glasses. The magnitude of victory here would be significant, qualification for the knockout stages would be more or less wrapped up. Hold on. A sense of déjà vu from Bordeaux as Jamie Vardy poked in an equalizer. A glance at the time left indicated that the Welsh backline would need to dig in deep. Having looked bereft of ideas going forward for large parts of the game, Wales rested on their laurels, admirably so. Until injury time. A dagger to the heart of every Welshman, as Daniel Sturridge forced his way through and snatched victory. Silence. Scowls. Disbelief. England 2 Wales 1. Chris Gunter signals that we must keep our heads held high although this will sting for some time. But it won’t take 58 years. Russia next. What if?

Russia 0-3 Wales. 20/6/2016.

I remember November 2003. I was there, 11 years old in the Millenium Stadium, yet to be wearied by footballs cruelty. Second leg play off following a goalless draw in Russia, and Wales were going to book their place on the flight to Portugal for Euro 2004. Except they didn’t. Vadim Evseev proved all dreams don’t come true, and scored Russia’s winner. Devastated.

Thirteen years on and the chance for revenge reared its head. Russia stood in the way once more. I had grown accustomed to footballing disappointment by this time, but tonight would be different. Wales are a different beast. Russia are no match. But what if? What if uncertainty creeps into the players heads? What if Russia break our hearts once more? What if.

Twenty minutes in and there were no questions. Just singing, and cheering and empty pint glasses. Aaron Ramsey and Neil Taylor had thrust Wales into a two goal lead. The deflation of the England defeat had evaporated; Wales were vanquishing their demons. A Gareth Bale third, and Englands inability to breach Slovakias defence sent Wales through top of the group. Top. Of. The. Group. 58 years of hurt. 13 years of hurt. Gone.

The impact of the group stage was remarkable. The travelling Welsh fans had been a credit to a nation, filling French cafes with song rather than demolishing them. The media were awash with praise, and Wales had become the stand out story of the tournament. Football captured the zeitgeist of a nation craving a reason to show pride. Wales is a passionate nation, and when given a reason to come together, the results are special. We’d seen it with Rugby, and now we were seeing it with Football. The combined will of a nation behind 11 men. Just how far can we ride the wave. What if?

Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland. 25/6/2016

It took a ten hour cramped car journey from North Wales, and an overnight stay in Calais, but we arrived in Paris fresh. Glorious sunshine lit up the city of love, the beer was cold and Wales were set to take part in the last 16 of Euro 2016. I’ve had worse Saturdays. In spite of falling short in the first battle of Britain, there was a sense of optimism heading into the clash with Northern Ireland. We’re the better team, this should be a walk in the park. But what if? What if th – Ah, enough of that, time for a pint and a sing song.

Under the imposing Eiffel Tower, a party took place. A flat first half of football hadn’t created the carnival atmosphere that one might have expected. But at half time, it erupted, and every person with Welsh blood in their veins burst into continuous song, coming together like a well-trained choir. Maybe it was the sun, the lager or Joe Ledleys immaculate beard which inspired the switch in atmosphere. But at half time, the Welsh contingent took over the Paris fanzone, and refused to relinquish their control.

Somewhere amongst the flailing limbs and the odes to Hal Robson-Kanu a goal went in. They tell me it was an own goal. All I know is Wales took the lead, sparking scenes which encapsulate the power of football. Primal screams of joy and relief, two figures collapsed to the ground clinging to one another, embracing with strangers. Football, and all sport, provides an individual with an escape from reality. For 90 minutes, you are embroiled in a battle between us and them, and for Welsh supporters it had so often been ‘them’ who triumphed. Not anymore. Wales were through to the last eight, and the dream showed no signs of dying. Reality would have to wait.

That night, Parisian streets were taken over by a jubilant crimson sea. Portugese fans halted their own celebrations to film the Welsh in action. While the mere mention of ‘Don’t take me home’ sparks PTSD following the endless loop of the chant, it was apt. The Welsh weren’t going home. They were having too much fun for that. This is what national football is all about. The inevitable lows and the inexplicable highs. Pride and passion. Gwlad, gwlad, pleidiol wyf I’m gwlad.

A hungover 10-hour journey home was exacerbated by a four-hour delay in Calais. But Wales were through to the quarter finals, so swings and roundabouts. Somewhere in the Midlands we learnt who our opponents would be. Belgium thumped Hungary 4-0 and looked in ominous form. We always beat the Belgians, it’s alright. Kevin De Bruyne? Just a poor mans Jonny Williams, mate. And if we come up short, they can’t take this journey away from us. Whatever happens next doesn’t matter. Not really. But what if?

Wales 3-1 Belgium. 1/7/2016

By now the days between matches were 24 hours too long. The entire nation had reached fever pitch. Belgium were overwhelming favourites going into the tie. But what if? The prospect of duking it out for a semi-final place was too much for a sober mind, so it would have to be several pints again.

Radja Naingolaan had gifted Bale with a goal when the two sides met during qualification, but he was not so generous this time around. His spectacular 25 yard drive sailed past Wayne Hennessey, stunning Chris Colemans men. If they were to truly make this the greatest night in Welsh football history, then they would have to respond. And respond they did. The skipper Ashley Williams crashed home a towering header on the stroke of half time, and Wales were back in business.

How resilient. How robust. How bold. Wales were going toe to toe with their superior opponents, surging forward with every opportunity. Belgium would have been forgiven for focusing on nullifying the threat of Gareth Bale, who had a quiet evening. But they didn’t think to focus on Hal Robson-Kanu, and when the ball dropped to him on 55 minutes, a memory was made. Thankfully my screams of “lay it off to Taylor” didn’t carry to Lille. The then-free agent pulled off the unfathomable, and Cruyff turned his way past three Belgian obstacles before slotting it past Courtois. Having the speed of mind to consider that turn is an option, but having the audacity to actually pull it off is another. Not only did Robson-Kanu make his name there and then, but he’ll never have to pay for a pint of Brains in his life. Give the man the keys to the country, never mind the city. There are certain moments which inspire a generation during these tournaments, and the Hal Robson-Kanu turn and goal will have been replicated on playgrounds and training pitches throughout Wales.

Belgium responded, and looked dangerous. Wales may need a third to put these away. Up steps Sam Vokes, nodding in a glorious header to complete a famous night. Ramseys yellow card and subsequent suspension would prove a turning point heading into the semi finals, but that was of no concern at the time. Cymru bach had made it to the semi finals. We’d been to the edge of obscurity. Now we are world beaters. Needless to say, the remainder of that night is something of a blur. A pungent odour of stale beer emanating from my Wales top the next day suggested that we had a bit of a celebration. It’s ok to wake up, this is not a dream. Wales are through to the semi final. We’re punching above our weight, we shouldn’t be here, and we’re loving every single minute of it. Whatever happens next doesn’t matter. Not really. But what if?

Portugal 2-0 Wales. 6/7/2016

Welsh football fans used to dream of simply qualifying for a major tournament, now they were on the brink of reaching the final. The stock of Welsh football had never been higher, and the palpable buzz around the country was an anomaly. However, football can be cruel. Portugal had been poor throughout the tournament, and yet put a halt to the Welsh freight train in the semi final stage. Second half goals from Nani and Ronaldo in a three-minute flourish meant there would be no beer-soaked celebration, no final, no trophy. But what Wales took from the game was far greater than most achieved. And that is uniting a nation, leaving with pride and enthusiasm for what can be achieved in the future. In spite of the undeniable positives of the tournament there does remain that lingering question – what if? What if Ramsey hadn’t been suspended? What if the lethargic French performance of the final came up against Colemans dynamic side? What if they won the lot? What if.

The legacy of Euro 2016 is there in plain sight. Kids proudly wearing their Wales kits, trying to emulate the heroes that were made over the summer. In years gone by those kids might have been wearing a white kit instead. Coleman’s soldiers made a name for themselves, and the ovation given to cult hero Robson-Kanu during the recent Moldova game is evidence of that. While certain more cynical – and of course English – corners of the press chose to criticise the homecoming, the fact that Cardiff came to a standstill to show appreciation for the adventure that the squad took us on is testament to the extent of Wales’ achievements. Portugal may have left with the trophy, but for a summer football belonged to Wales. We may never come this close again. But what if?

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