I had given up.
I had given up on Wales qualifying for a tournament, and that was OK. In the same way that most men give up on becoming astronauts or professional footballers, I’d come to the conclusion that Wales featuring in a Panini sticker album was never going to happen. It’s a well worn cliche, but supporting Wales has never been about results, as we’ve achieved very few of them over the years. I was fine with what the Wales national team was, and what it represented.
If you’ve ever watched one of the home nations away from home in a far-flung eastern European destination (especially Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland), you’ll often hear the commentator praise the loyal band of hardy followers who have trekked all that way, often for so little. You’ll hear the commentator praise the supporters for sticking with the side. What you’re unlikely to hear is that those fans are having a whale of a time, win, lose or draw. Few traveling fans will watch the TV and be thankful they’re not there.
I traveled to Skopje only 18 months ago to see a lacklustre Wales side lose 2-1 against Macedonia. It was a great trip. We sought out Darko Pancev’s coffee bar and saw the man, now in his late 40s, beer belly, long-shorts and a pair of shades enjoying his retirement in the Balkan sun. His bar his aptly named “Number 9” and the walls are covered in photos of his European Cup win with Red Star Belgrade. We stood in the crowds in Skopje city centre watching their basketball side best Serbia in a European Championships finals game. It was a genuinely good weekend away. Going to watch football is rarely about the football. In Brussels I saw grown men dancing on tables at 2am singing songs about Ashley and George Williams after Wales had secured a 0-0 draw. Qualification was still a distant dream, people were just having a laugh.
Somehow Wales being able to get a point from the last two games always felt on a visceral level unlikely to me. Even when the evidence suggested otherwise. When I placed my own certainty of Wales never qualifying for a tournament, against the bookies odds of Wales’ near certain qualification, my pessimism always won. It was only when I (and the hundreds of other Wales fans) saw Bryn Law, like a modern day John the Baptist signalling the dawn of a new era, miming 2-1 on the touchline and lifting his arms aloft, that many of us could truly embrace reality. Wales would be going to France.
A lot has been written about Gareth Bale and his impact on the Welsh national side. He’s an undoubted talent and a world-class player. Easily the best Welsh international I’ve had the privilege of watching, however he offers more than just lung-busting runs and fantastic free-kicks.
Bale sets an example to the rest of the team. He could be forgiven for sulking on the halfway line, hands on hips, awaiting service from his less illustrious team-mates. But he doesn’t. He runs, he harries, closes down, he clears the ball of the line in Belgium. I’m convinced that Wales wouldn’t be as successful as they have been if swapped for another great talent like Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Wales lost the game in Zenica. They were beaten by a Bosnian side who needed the points. But in reality Wales’ qualification was already secured. The fantastic wins against Belgium at home and Israel away will be viewed as the most impressive victories but the win in Nicosia against Cyprus was the true measure of the team. Wales always struggle in Cyprus. They normally struggle everywhere, but especially in Cyprus.
Bale’s goal in Nicosia, a thunderbolt header from a Jazz Richards cross that a Roy of the Rovers cartoonist would have to tone down (the header and Jazz’ name) were he to depict it in comic form. Bale celebrates wildly. But not alone. He runs to the halfway line to embrace his manager Chris Coleman, to embrace David Cotterill (Birmingham City) and Tom Lawrence (does anyone know?). The embarrassingly corporate slogan of #TogetherStronger is somehow made flesh. If Jazz Richards never again plays for Wales, he will be remembered for his lofted cross, playing Blackie Gray to Bale’s Roy Race.
It’s easy to view Wales as Bale and ten others. However, the whole squad is of a measurably better quality than it has been for many years. In addition to Bale there’s the excellent organisational qualities of captain Ashley Williams, the creative talents of Aaron Ramsey and the two Joes in midfield (Ledley and Allen) who are a significant upgrade on the two Carls (Fletcher and Robinson) who spent years toiling in the Welsh engine room.
The game in Zenica concluded and we had our moment. We all wandered through the Bosnian rain back to Bar 72. When we entered the bar we were greeted by a round of applause from the drinkers inside, congratulating us on Wales’ qualification. A truly remarkable moment, though I’m unsure if they’d have been so welcoming had Wales stolen victory. We sang songs. La Marseillaise, Viva Gareth Bale, Hal Robson-Kanu (they named him three times), and their was an aborted attempt at singing Bonnie Tyler’s “Lost in France”. A beautiful night. Somehow, somewhere our trips to the football, that were never about the football had become about the football.
This qualification campaign was the first I’ve been able to take my (now seven year old) son along to matches. As we were walking out of the stadium after beating Belgium 1-0 , he heard a few people using the acronym “WNQ” and singing “We Never Qualify”. He asked what “WNQ” stood for, and I explained. “Not, We Never Qualify Dad, its We Never Quit.”.
Wales are in the draw for the 24-team Euro 2016 finals that takes place in Paris on Saturday at 5pm and nothing will ever be the same again.