Sporting anniversaries are often ten-a-penny, but here’s one worth stopping to reflect on. Owen Morgan salutes that unforgettable night, now 12 months ago, when Wales beat Belgium and a middle-aged man believed he could fly.
Is it really almost a year since I leapt out of my seat in a South Wales valleys constitutional club and threw myself into the arms of a burly stranger enjoying a pint at the bar?
Having double checked the calendar, apparently it is.
July 1, 2016: Belgium 1 – Wales 3. European Championship Quarter-Final.
Wales? European Championship Quarter-Final? 3-1? Belgium? Really?
Even 12 months later the bare facts take some believing.
When Hal Robson-Kanu out-Cruyffed the great Johan and bewildered the entire Belgium defence with his turn and shot to put Wales 2-1 up, I experienced a remarkable physical transformation.
Having just passed my 50th birthday I have fallen into a habit which afflicts almost everyone in middle age.
When I rise from a chair, or lower myself into one, I emit a rather strange sound. No, not that one! This is a little moan that people of my age, or older, seem incapable of suppressing when negotiating a sitting or standing manoeuvre.
It is generally combined with slow, exaggerated movements as you haul yourself up from your seat or gingerly lower yourself into one. Usually accompanied by a wholly involuntary cracking of knees.
But as Robson Kanu’s effort bulged the Belgian net on that wonderfully mad June evening, there was no moan, no cracking, no crunching – just an explosion of movement as I shot out of my chair and half way across the bar of my local constitutional club like a startled Usain Bolt.
In fact, no. I would have left Bolt – a notoriously slow starter – for dead. I reckon I would have pipped Colin Jackson – who famously used to start on the ‘B of Bang’ – to the first hurdle.
Talking of hurdles, the first obstacle I faced as I tore inexplicably through the crowded room was a rather large gentleman standing at the bar.
I had a split-second decision to make as I hurtled towards him. Do I go round him, over him, or through him?
Having taken off at such speed, there was no immediate way of halting my momentum.
The gentleman in my way had been slightly slower than me in reacting to Hal’s humdinger. While I was already up out of my chair and well into my celebratory sprint. He was only half way to raising his arms in jubilation.
In my wildly ecstatic state, I took his outstretched arms to be an invitation, and literally took the greatest leap of faith of my life as I launched myself into his hairy, tattooed arms.
This could have gone horribly wrong. Large, bearded gentlemen nursing half-finished pints in industrial south Wales drinking clubs aren’t known for throwing welcoming arms around screaming loons leaping headlong into their ample midriff.
Fortunately, he was also lost in the moment of Robson- Kanu’s cracker and caught me with all the skill of a principle ballet dancer plucking his prima ballerina out of the air at the Royal Festival Hall.
Not so familiar at the Festival Hall is the sight of said ballerina being swung around like a six-foot-two- inch rag doll.
My legs were flailing from side to side as my newly made bosom-buddy swung me around in celebration, clutching me tightly to his man boobs.
After what seemed to be an eternity, especially as all but the last of my breath had been crushed from my chest, he decided to put me down.
As our composure crashed back over us, barely a glance passed between our eyes as he turned back to his pint on the bar and I returned to my chair, knowing that we had shared a special moment, but also resolving that our brief encounter would never be spoken of again.
I gingerly lowered myself back into my seat, letting out a little moan as I did so, which almost, but not quite, drowned out the cracking sound in my arthritic knees.
For one fleeting moment, Hal Robson-Kanu had not only transformed himself into a world class striker, but he had turned back the hands of time, transporting me to my pre-arthritic physical prime.
But, I shouldn’t have been surprised, it had been a month of memorable, magical and mystical moments.
I watched each of Wales’ matches at a different venue. Unfortunately, only one was in France.
But what a venue. I was at the first match in Bordeaux.
Due to all kinds of financial, family and work obligations I was only ever going to be able to go to one game.
So, being a typically pessimistic Welsh football fan, I chose the first fixture. My thinking was: “Well, at least everything’s still to play for. If I go for the Russia match, we may already be out. But with the first game, well, anything can still happen.”
Oh me of little faith! Happen it most certainly did.
Even though there were further unexpected glories to come, Bordeaux was a trip and an occasion I will never forget. Having followed the fortunes, or perhaps more accurately the misfortunes, of the Welsh football team for more than 40 years, just being in Bordeaux was a dream come true.
To win the match? Well, that was the stuff of fantasies, let alone dreams.
And there were plenty of surreal scenes in the hours that followed the match. Such as the sight of a startled, silver-haired, middle-aged gent in a suit finally giving up his futile attempts to enter his plush Bordeaux hotel as the red swarm of celebrating supporters surrounding him launched into their umpteenth chorus of “There’s only one Ian Rush . . .”
Instead, the former Liverpool and Wales legend started po-going up and down in unison with the sea of red, green and yellow bucket hats bobbing around him as he literally started singing his own praises: “ . . . walking along, singing a song, walking in a Rushy wonderland!”
It was certainly a case of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”!
It was impossible not to get drawn into the infectious celebrations which swept around the French city after the 2-1 victory over Slovakia, even if you were a European Cup-winning, record Welsh goal-scoring, footballing legend.
Eventually, two burly hotel doormen waded into the bobbing, chanting crowd and escorted the fans’ hero into to the sanity and serenity of the ornate hotel lobby.
Magical moments. As someone said afterwards: “We’ll always have Bordeaux.”
Come to think of it, technically I watched the first two Wales matches in Bordeaux. Well, one-and-a-half at least.
Having spent the best part of a week singing “Don’t take me home . . .” ad nauseam, Easy Jet decided they would comply with my plea . . . courtesy of a French Air Traffic Controllers strike.
This meant we were put up in a rather smart Bordeaux hotel for two nights and eventually flew out of the city on the evening of the England game.
We watched the first half in the bar of our hotel – scaring the living daylights out of a couple of puzzled guests booking in at the front desk when Bale scored. Then, surreally, we listened to the second-half commentary in French on the taxi driver’s radio on the way to the airport.
Now my French isn’t great and his English wasn’t perfect, but between all of us we were just about able to follow events aided by the background noise of the crowd.
The Russian match was watched in the far more familiar territory of my lounge, if not in entirely familiar circumstances.
Down the years, my family have become used to me watching Wales matches, tensely prowling around the room, unable to sit or stand still for more than a few minutes and occasionally cursing (ok, cursing regularly).
Sometimes listening from the safety of the kitchen, unable to watch the action (I never actually retreated behind the sofa, but that’s only because its back is flush to one of the walls).
But this time, from the moment Neil Taylor managed to score after cleverly playing a one-two off the Russian keeper, I was a vision of serenity. I was actually enjoying a Wales game!
They were playing the type of football you would ask for if the genie ever popped out of the lamp and offered you a sporting wish.
When the final whistle sounded, I just sank back in my chair, face wreathed by a serene and contented smile, shaking my head in a mixture of delight and disbelief. The disbelief was shared by my family.
All the old tensions and worries were back for the Northern Ireland game, though.
That match also inspired a whole new range of emotions. It’s been said in the past by West Bromwich Albion fan Adrian Chiles that “it’s the hope that kills you” when you support teams that endure more disappointment than success.
But this time, it was the expectation which was killing me. We were actually expected to win a last 16 match in a major tournament! The world had truly gone mad.
I watched the game at a friend’s house, and not even regular visits to his kitchen (this time to raid his heavily cider-stocked fridge) could calm my nerves.
Even when that Welsh hero Gareth (McAuley), produced his moment of magic, I couldn’t relax until the final whistle and the “other” Gareth (Bale) frolicked around the pitch in celebration with his daughter.
I’ve already related the events of the magical Belgium match. But, of course, that set up a semi-final clash with Portugal . . . Cristiano Ronaldo et al!
It was thus I found myself standing in a field in Swansea with around 10,000 people bedecked in a kaleidoscope of red green, white and yellow flags, scarves, hats, shirts, and shorts, with the occasional inflatable daffodil breaking the tree-lined horizon.
We had come in our thousands to Singleton Park, back to basically watch Wales play football on a giant television. Remarkable.
I can remember a time years before when I stood in a half-full Vetch Field, just a few hundred yards from Singleton Park, to watch Wales play Finland in a European Championship qualifier.
The abiding memory of the night was watching Swansea and Cardiff fans fighting on a sparsely populated North Bank, while the handful of Finish fans situated on the other side of the stadium tried to work who the Welsh supporters were fighting against.
How times had changed.
Throughout the month-long European Championships, supporters from Swansea and Cardiff, North Wales and South Wales, East Wales and West Wales, had all united to build that unbreakable red wall.
It didn’t matter if you were from Grangetown or Gorseinon, Mon or Mynwy, Newport, Pembs or Newport, Gwent, everyone came together to support the team, whether it was in home fields, in clubs or community centres; or on foreign fields, charming the entire French nation on the other side of the channel.
It took a gravity-defying Ronaldo to eventually end the dream, but it took a lot longer for the Welsh nation to come back down to Earth.
Some of us still haven’t, even if it is almost a whole year since Hal’s humdinger sent an arthritic, middle aged man soaring out of his seat and into the arms of a burly stranger.