The Blog

Wales - A Nation Walking on Air

I must confess that a couple of years ago my passion for the game of football had seriously waned...

I must confess that a couple of years ago my passion for the game of football had seriously waned.

A long term declining interest in the top level club game took a fatal blow when, in a display of extraordinary arrogance, the owner of the club I'd supported for many years stripped it of much of its cherished, long established identity.

The truth is though that the rot had set in much earlier for me. Forking out big sums of money every season to watch half interested millionaires kick around a bag of air for a club and city that most of them had no emotional attachment to was losing its appeal. The game was beginning to eat itself.

When it came to international football - the one aspect of the modern game that still retained some integrity - the dark clouds from the utterly tragic and unfathomable death of Gary Speed continued to envelope the Welsh team and its supporters.

Speed's successor Chris Coleman had an absurdly unenviable task and after a pretty dreadful start to his time as Wales manager, results and performances slowly began to improve. An exciting group of young players, many of whom were given their international debuts as teenagers by John Toshack, were starting to click.

The qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 was a white knuckle ride. Fiercely committed players led by the combative Ashley Williams and talismanic Gareth Bale, roared on by a Welsh public with a renewed interest in their international side finally managed to make it to the finals of a major tournament for the first time in almost sixty years.

So to France...I'll be honest before the tournament kicked off, I was just ecstatic that we were there. If we could somehow sneak a draw, nick a lucky winner, not get hammered too heavily in a group game, then maybe, just maybe, we could squeeze into the last sixteen as a best third placed team...

The thrilling win against Slovakia and the bonkers scenes of celebration in Bordeaux and here at home got us all believing that a little more may just be possible. Defeat to England saw us reaching again for the calculators as we tried to work out if a narrow loss to Russia might still see us through. Such is the mindset of the average Welsh fan. I should state that such thinking is not Welsh negativity but deeply ingrained 'Celtic realism' after years of crushing disappointment. We need not have worried, Russia were played off the park in a performance of spell binding brilliance. Ramsey and Allen turning in arguably two of the finest performances ever witnessed in a Welsh shirt. Bingo, we'd only gone and won the bloody group!

For most us this was mission accomplished. Into the knockout stages. Happy flippin' days. But there was more to come.

In a gnarled, ugly, mess of a game game against Northern Ireland we snuck through by the odd goal. Pretty it wasn't, pretty ecstatic we most certainly were. Suddenly old ladies in bus queues were beginning to talk about the merits or otherwise of defensive back fives. Call centre workers with minds meandering to events in France were signing off calls with 'have a Ledley day.' School kids up and down the country were practicing Balesque free kicks and singing uproariously about wanting to stay here, drinking all your beer.

There may have been collective panic over the Brexit result but the Welsh were walking their home streets and those in France with their hats at a jaunty angle, cheerily whistling 'men of Harlech.'

Wales, yep, Wales. Little Wales who never qualify for anything. Serial chokers Wales were in the quarter finals. Next up Belgium. Number two in the world Belgium. Surely, this was where the journey would end?

Like thousands of others, on Friday evening I made my way to one of the many fan-zones up and down the country. Two hours before kick off the queues to enter the zone in Cardiff were stretching for hundreds of yards. Welsh football had arrived and in an atmosphere of frenzied passion the locals were lapping it up. As for the match itself, that's been described in huge detail elsewhere but it's not an overstatement to say that that was the best performance I've ever seen from my country. Skill, guile, guts, determination, moments of swashbuckling genius (Sir Hal Robson Kanu, take a bloody bow mate) and above all else togetherness. Togetherness from the players, the supporters, the backroom staff. The unity of purpose is almost tangible.

When I first started attending Wales matches more than twenty five years ago, there were petty factional club rivalries that sometimes spilled over into violence. There was also the rivalry with rugby union. A sport deeply ingrained in south and west Wales culture. Well, throughout the tournament traditional club rivalries have been long forgotten. Whether you're from Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Wrexham or Merthyr no one gives two hoots. Rugby icons like Sam Warburton and George North have been proudly tweeting pics of themselves in Wales football shirts. Rarely, has our small country with its bloody awful north/south road network, generally crap infrastructure and generations of petty squabbles and snobberies been so united. One people, one cause. Together stronger.

And, it's not over. The magnificent freewheeling Welsh supporters, who in their tens of thousands, have made legions of friends in every French city they've visited aren't coming home just yet. The bandwagon or maybe that should be bandragon (I know, I know...) rolls into Lyon on Wednesday. Whatever happens against Portugal this has been the ride of our lives.

C'mon Wales!