Enter the Dragon: An Englishman’s tale of following Wales

The author and his sister-in-law outside the Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille (Credit: Andy Crisp)

West Ham fan Andy Crisp moved to Cardiff some years ago. At Euro 2016, he even travelled to Lille to watch that quarter-final with the Welsh fans. This is his story…

Everyone knows that changing the team you support – or, to give it its more common name, glory hunting – is the ultimate supporter’s crime. Players can arguably be forgiven for swapping the badge they kiss in return for a bigger bank balance, but supporters have no such incentive.

Do they?

Last summer, on a balmy night in Lille, I learned that glory hunting on an international level could deliver an experience of such raw, unbridled joy that football really can come home. Or, as my new Welsh brethren would say, mae pel droed yn dod adref.

For an Englishman living in Cardiff the Euro 2016 draw, pitching the land of St George side by side with the land of the Dragon in the group stages, was always going to pose some challenges. I’d been living in Wales for around five years, tempted over the bridge by my wife with the promise of a new life and the chance to discover that Gavin & Stacey wasn’t that far away from being a documentary. I’d been welcomed by everyone I met, even made some friends and conceded defeat in the debate over the nationality of our first born child.

But I was still in no doubt as to my allegiances when it came to international sport. On 16 June 2016, as Daniel Sturridge danced his way through a static Wales defence in injury time and slotted in at the near post, I couldn’t have been more English. Right down to the stiff upper lip I adopted in order to stifle my victory roar in a room full of dejected Wales fans.

Nine days later my levels of smug had gone back to normal, just in time for a message from my sister-in-law, a former Wales Under-21 International, asking if I fancied joining her in making the trip to Lille should Wales get past Northern Ireland and into the quarter-finals of the competition.

By now, football fever had swept through the nation. The normally rugby-mad local media had gone big on the round ball, and confidence levels had reached proportions unbefitting a nation that had let Jamie Vardy score against them a week and a bit ago. I’ve always been a sucker for a bandwagon, so just over 90 minutes later I was in possession of one match ticket, one Eurostar ticket and a lot of compelling excuses why leaving my wife holding our nine-month-old baby whilst I went off to support her nation was a good idea.

A sea of red in Lille’s Grande Place pre-match (Credit: Andy Crisp)

I began to rue this sense of adventure at 5:30am on 1 July, blinking through tired eyes out of the window of a National Express coach on the road out of Cardiff. Next stop was London, before a Eurostar to Lille and an inevitable drubbing by Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ that evening. I was surprised to find myself the only person on the bus who seemed to be travelling to the game. Maybe the estimate of 20,000 Wales fans was a little overblown?

But the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras made me wonder if it was in fact, too low. Football shirts were everywhere, sported by fans of all ages, sexes and sizes. Tannoy announcements were drowned out by sporadic renditions of “Don’t Take Me Home”, Wales’ unofficial tournament anthem. It was like Cardiff’s ‘Chip Alley’ on a match day, with slightly fewer people being sick in doorways.

I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing (there goes my one sheep gag allowance), since my sister-in-law had insisted that I needed to display some allegiance to my adopted home. Whilst she accepted that putting me in a Welsh shirt was perhaps a step too far, little did we know that my crisp white t-shirt, emblazoned with the colourful visage of Cardiff’s very own Gareth Bale would prove such a beacon in a sea of red Wales shirts. My carriage companions on the Eurostar were first to spot I wasn’t quite the real deal, yet listened to my story with good grace and accepted me into the travelling contingent with barely a second thought, other than to mention Kerry Katona and Peter Andre’s favourite frozen food retailer.

Arriving in Lille about six hours before kick off, we followed the crowds and the noise. Wales fans had travelled in their numbers, driven by the once-in-a-lifetime feel of the occasion and the need to even up the odds, since Lille’s close proximity to the Belgian border meant the Red Devils fans were expected in their masses. As we walked into La Grande Place it was clear that we were vastly outnumbered. Pockets of happy Welsh fans were evident here and there, but the prevailing image was the teeming crowd of red, black and gold. And the noise. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Smoke bombs, flares and the threat of flying footballs all added to the occasion.

With every “nice shirt” from a stranger and with every rendition of Land of my Fathers (I’d learned the words by then) I could feel my Englishness slipping away. I began to care more about the outcome, wanting to see smiles on the faces of my adopted countrymen and to see more than 100,000 arrogant Belgian fans go back across the border with their tails between their legs. I realised that any outcome other than a Belgium win was pretty unlikely, and every Welsh fan I spoke to seemed to be of the same mind. But they had hope. We had hope. It’s the hope that kills you, so the saying goes. That’s if the cheap French booze didn’t do the job before kick off.

On arriving at Stade Pierre Mauroy the afternoon sunshine had given way to a deluge of biblical proportions. The rain had driven people into the stadium earlier than usual, so we took our seats about an hour before kick-off to join a surprisingly plentiful crowd. Our tickets gave us a brilliant view of the Welsh fans – at the other end of the stadium. We were very much in the midst of the opposition, and my Englishness returned as I prepared myself for 90 minutes of polite and reserved viewing in the hope of going largely unnoticed. The Belgian anthem signalled the early onset of hearing loss, as it became clear just how few fans in our section were familiar with the footballing works of Chris Gunter.

The noise only increased as the game began, and as Nainggolan rifled in the opener for Belgium on 13 minutes the stadium around us erupted. Yet that nagging hope prevailed. Wales weren’t being as outclassed as some had thought, and actually found their way back into the game through Ashley Williams, a goal scored less than 20 metres away from where we sat. We shed the shackles of politeness and leapt out of our seats, to find other Wales fans around us blowing their own cover too. At half-time the mood around us was very different. We were no longer there to be patronised.

Post-match reaction (Credit: Andy Crisp)

The history books will tell you what happened in the second half. Which is good, because I’m not sure that I could ever hope to do it justice. As the final whistle approached, with Wales winning 3-1, the stadium was emptying around us. Belgian fans were making their way to the exits, pausing only to offer career advice to manager Marc Wilmots. To their credit, many took the time to interrupt our raucous renditions of the entire back catalogue or Welsh football (and rugby) anthems to offer congratulations and a handshake.

For our part, we were giddy, riding on a wave of Robson-Kanu and the va-va-voom of Vokes. The childlike glee on the face of my sister-in-law made every penny spent getting here totally worthwhile. In one moment, as Vokes wheeled away upon putting the game beyond doubt, her face told me just how much this meant. It summed up the pure drama of football, the raw emotion, the ability to transcend day-to-day cares and render them meaningless – if only for a fleeting moment.

The thing about joy is that it’s infectious. I wanted to be part of that feeling. In truth, it was impossible not to be part of that feeling. It didn’t make me any less English. It probably made me a little more Welsh. One thing’s for sure and that’s that it gave me an experience that I knew would likely never be bettered and a story to tell my daughter when she’s old enough to realise the significance of my crime.

 

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