Lightening never strikes twice…does it?

I thought after going to the Championship Playoff final in Wembley last month I was pretty much done with football.  To be honest it has been a hard season and a half.  We have had incredible highs, like the last minute goal from Wayne Routledge against Reading in 2020 which sent Swansea through to the Playoffs in the last minute of extra time.  We have had incredible lows…the drive home from Wembley at the end of last month.

That’s me done with football – May 2021

But I was wrong!

Its amazing how quickly you can bounce back from a sporting disappointment even with the promise of more heartache over the coming weeks.  Euro 2020 started last night with the opening game In Group A between Turkey and Italy, but the competition really starts this afternoon when Wales take on Switzerland in Baku.

For the next month there will be almost constant football on our televisions.  Every 2 years we go through the same pattern.  As the Euros or World Cup starts you find yourself watching every game for the first few days.  Most of the games are pretty dull as teams try their best not to lose too early in the competition.  By day 4 or 5 you find yourself missing a kick off or 2, or maybe bailing before the end of a match. 

Once you get to the knock stages the games take on much greater importance and that’s where the excitement really starts.  By week three you can’t believe there’s only one game on today and there are no games on tomorrow at all!!

I’ve been tournament obsessed since Mexico 1970.  I remember getting up early for school to see the breakfast show updates live from Mexico with David Coleman.  By 1974 I was watching matches wearing my brand new Johann Cruyff Puma Kings with gold stripes.  In 1978 I almost failed my ‘A’ Levels because swotting took a back stage to the World Cup in Argentina.

During the 80’s I fell out of love with football as life and making a living got in the way a bit.  By the time 90’s came around, with 2 sons equally football obsessed, I managed to convince myself that sitting next to them on the sofa watching the game was quality time with my boys.

Great to see time invested in my children bearing fruit – June 2016

But there was always something missing.  Every tournament we had to decide who we were going to support.  I always rooted for Brazil in the World Cup and Holland in the Euros.  In the early years as a dad my boys were committed Premier League fans.  Most of their idols were English players so we supported England.  I remember tears being shed when Argentina knocked out the Three Lions in 1996.  

I had grown up with the echo of the 1958 World Cup very much in my mind.  I suppose the fact that one of best friends in school was Jeremy Charles.  His dad Mel Charles had played in those finals and had marked the 17 year old Pele. As teenagers who had only seen Pele on television we would love to ask Mel about that World Cup.  He always thought Pele slightly miskicked the goal that broke Welsh hearts.  He would tell us Garrincha used to wear his boots on the wrong feet to allow him to make the ball bend and swerve. Even now I’m not sure whether he was teasing us.

Although it was wonderful to hear about Wales in a major tournament we always dreamed that maybe one day we would get to see it happen again in our lifetime.

The summer of 2016 was full of big changes.  On 23rd June Britain voted to leave the European Union and many were trying to work out what would happen next.  In the US Donald Trump was starting to make his mark on the presidential trail and people were starting to talk seriously about him becoming the next US President.

If these changes weren’t enough one other momentous thing had happened.  Wales had qualified for the final stages of a major competition.  There was talk about how we had actually got to the knock out stages in 1976 when we played Yugoslavia over 2 games home and away but that didn’t quite feel the same as Euro 2016.  In 2016 we were going to get 3 games and our fans, who had waited over a generation for the opportunity, were going to turn France red.

Even watched the odd Euro 2016 game with my mum

It turned into a golden summer that people in Wales, football fans or not will always remember.  The group stages saw us beat Slovakia with a terrific free kick from Gareth Bale. Hopes were high when we went up against England.  Gareth Bale again scored a wonder goal from a free kick for us to lead at half time.  Vardy’s equaliser meant the second half was tough to watch but the defence was brilliant.  As the board went up for added time you felt we had done enough, and we were going to hang on to all but qualify for the knock out stages.  I can still remember the feeling of a fist to the stomach when Daniel Sturridge scored the England winner.

To guarantee qualification we needed to win our last match and how we won it. Beating Russia 3 nil is a result we sometimes forget in Euro 2016 but to beat a nation with a population of nearly 150 million is not a result to be sneezed at!!

Winning the group brought us up against Northern Ireland.  I think up until this point we had been the underdogs in every game. To be favourites, well it didn’t suit us.  The Irish even out sang the Red wall that day, but a fluky own goal took us through to the quarter finals. 

Belgium were many pundits favourites to win the competition and when they took an early lead many thought the dream was over.  But something quite magical happened that evening.  First Ashley Williams got a scruffy goal back.  Then in the second half Hal Robson Kanu performed a Cruyff turn that sent 3 Belgium defenders completely the wrong way and with the air of a man whose moment of greatness had arrived he calmly slotted the ball into the corner of the goal. It was a hot night and our windows were open and I can still hear the screams coming from houses up and down our street.

When Sam Vokes headed the third it felt surreal.  Here were Wales, not only in a competition but taking it by storm.  The only negatives were second yellow cards for Ramsey and Ben Davies and whilst it didn’t ruin the evening I think we all felt it might come back to haunt us.

Friends from Wales meeting up in France – Kevin Johns and Gwen Hughes

By this stage the whole of the country was football crazy. Whilst English and Russian fans had fought running battles on the streets of France the Welsh fans had made the whole tournament fall in love with the Red Wall.  Football fans who had booked a couple of weeks off found themselves staying in France week after week. ‘Don’t take me home’ became the theme song of fans who couldn’t quite believe what was happening to them. Even some of the players were starting to think about making changes to their summer plans.  Joe Ledley was due to get married on the day of the final.  Rumour was he was trying to see how much he would get back if he had to cancel.

Of course, in the end Ronaldo scored for Portugal to beat us in the Semi Final to take them into the final.  At least we could say we were beaten by the eventual winners.  But the memory of that glorious summer will, stay with our nation forever.

Could it happen again?  No, lightening doesn’t strike twice…does it?  But as I get settled for this afternoon’s game I still have a hope that maybe it will.