I told James, 9, very categorically months ago that we were definitely NOT going to France for the Euros. No way. He begged and pleaded and I trotted out all the reasons I’d made my mind up. It’s during school time, we already have a summer holiday booked, I’m not made of money blah blah blah.
It was tough saying no to a kid who lives and breathes the beautiful game. We’d been to most of the qualifiers, have Cardiff City season tickets and when he isn’t playing for Cardiff City kids, Canton Liberals or his school he’s kicking a ball around in the street or in the park. But the Victorian mam in me took over. Besides, I never expected us to get out of the group stages and I had work commitments.
And then we went and beat Russia to finish top of our group, and his ecstatic little face at final whistle was all it took to change my mind. That night, when we got home from the Fanzone in Cardiff Castle, I booked Eurostar tickets and an Air B&B in Montmartre, and surprised him the following morning with the news that Cinderella would go to the (foot)ball after all. I don’t think he’s ever hugged me quite as tightly.
It was our first time on Eurostar so it was all a real adventure for both of us. James, a big fan of a lie in, didn’t even mind the 5am start to get us to London on time. Out came all the gear we’d bought during the qualifiers; flags, red beret, red white and green garlands. The Eurostar was packed with red shirts and we excitedly chatted to fans from all over Wales heading to the match.
We were lucky enough to get tickets for the game, and it was an experience that we’ll treasure forever. It was a mad rush to get to our apartment, drop our bags and get to the stadium in time for kick off, but it was worth every second. Both sets of fans were brilliant, trying to out-sing each other, with plenty of friendly banter going down. The atmosphere was just magical, and it was the same inside the stadium.
When McAuley scored his own goal, James exploded with joy and we hugged and danced like total fools. At final whistle, the atmosphere on the long walk to the hotel where we were meeting friends was spine-tingling stuff. Spirited renditions of Calon Lan, the anthem and other hymns rang out on the streets of Paris – something we’ll both never forget.
Back at at the hotel, James played football with a gang of Welsh boys on the concourse for hours. We also met some of his Welsh footballing heroes; Owain Tudur Jones, Kevin Ratcliffe and Iwan Roberts who happily posed for pictures. Already we’d filled just a few hours with brilliant memories.
We spent an extra day in Paris to cram in some sightseeing, and watched the France V Ireland game in a bar, which was lots of fun. It was such a brilliant experience that we didn’t want it to end, so on the Sunday evening as we watched the Belgium V Hungary match in our apartment I decided to book a trip to Lille for the next match. I booked the Eurostar again, turning to trusty Air B&B for a budget place to stay, having decided to share with friends to cut costs.
After four nights back in Wales we were off again, on a direct train to Lille this time. We didn’t manage to get tickets so decided to soak up the atmosphere in the city centre, where plenty of fans were in the fanzone or packing out bars and restaurants.
We ended up in a bar full of Belgians where we were the only Welsh people. When Ashley Williams equalised half an hour in (a beautiful moment) I felt a warm splash on my leg, and turned around to realise that a worse for wear Belgian had thrown up all over my flag, tights and new daps. It’s testament to how happy I was that it barely registered. There was no way I was missing a second of the match. Not now. It could wait until half time.
And then we only went and won the thing. Bois bach. Wales, Cymru Fach, in the semi finals was more than anybody had ever imagined or dared to dream. We practically skipped to the metro past hordes of downcast looking Belgian fans.
We spent the Saturday sightseeing, and had booked the Eurostar to return on the Sunday. But how could we go now? How could we leave France when Wales were one game away from the final of a tournament we had waited nearly 60 years to qualify for?
So the decision was made. We’d miss our train home and book a new one – to Paris, and then on to Lyon. By now all hotels in Lyon were fully booked or astronomically expensive. So we managed to find a small room in a couple’s apartment a few metro stops from the city centre. To date we’d been renting entire places to ourselves, but beggars can’t be choosers; it was cheap and looked clean and easy to get to.
We had run out of clothes and were swiftly running out of money, but I didn’t want the adventure to end for James. So we waved goodbye to our friends at Lille train station and travelled on alone to Lyon on the TGV train. Whizzing through the beautiful French countryside at high speed in the sun, sat on the upper deck, felt like a real adventure.
We had three days to fill in Lyon and were lucky enough to meet a local who spoke great English and had lots of ideas and tips for us in terms of things to see and do. So we crammed in as much as possible.
We bought bread and cheese from Carrefour to save money on food (after an incident on night one where I accidentally ate tripe, googled it, and felt all wrong for a few hours). I picked up a four-euro dress in a local market, and worried it would last as many minutes as it cost in euros. It turned out to last just fine.
We wore our daps out exploring the city on foot, and loved the Basilica Notre Dame and UNESCO world heritage site in Croix Rousse, the working class district looking down onto the two rivers on which the city is set.
Parc De La Tete D’Or (Golden Head?) park was an oasis, with a great zoo and land train, and we stopped on the banks of the Rhone to cool off our heat-swollen feet and eat our baguettes on the way home.
For a totally unplanned trip (I couldn’t even place Lyon on a map before we went) it was brilliant. I felt guilty for keeping James out of school (he didn’t mind one bit of course, but still…) so I asked him to do a project about the trip to show his teacher back at home. And fair play, he worked on a Powerpoint diligently every night before bed. It combined tales of our travels with fact files on his favourite Wales players in random but enthusiastic fashion.
When the city started filling up with Wales fans we bumped into lots of friends from back home – it felt like the entire country had relocated to Lyon. Of course there was no way we could miss this match having made all the effort to stay in France, and thanks to my mum’s generosity I managed to buy two tickets for the game. I’m 34 years of age and my mum had to help me out to get us to a football match – the shame of it. But I’m so eternally grateful. Diolch mam!
We’ll never forget the scenes in the old town square and across the city as excitement built on match day. We walked for miles to drink in the singing, the revelry, the atmosphere. Once in a lifetime stuff, and I wanted to absorb as much of it as possible. And then, after a disco nap back at the apartment, it was off to the match…
It just wasn’t to be I guess. At 87 minutes James realised there was no way back for us and started to sob. I had to comfort him, explaining how lucky we’d been to see them get this far. And when he finally stopped crying and final whistle went, it was a total role reversal as I started to cry too. The emotion of the last few weeks just took over. It was a mixture of excitement, pride, tiredness and gratitude at being able to be there, on the last part of the journey with a team who had worked so damn hard and really put Wales on the map. A team who’d made us both feel really proud to be Welsh, and showed such commitment and determination. A team who clearly love each other’s company and put in 110% for each other (are you watching Lloegr?).
I’m always telling James that there is no dream too silly, too big, or too crazy. I’ve always said that dreaming is important and then hard work will get him there. But they’re just meaningless words from his boring old mam aren’t they?
What he got to see the Welsh football team do over these past few weeks has taught him more than I ever could about the importance of daring to dream. About team-work. About commitment, loyalty and passion. And about what a brilliant thing it is to be Welsh.
He’s seen many sights, eaten new foods, picked up some French and met a host of people from different countries. Yes, for a mam who was adamant about not going to the Euros, it was quite a volte face. But sometimes it’s ok to be wrong, to be spontaneous, to have adventures. And sometimes it’s ok not to go home.
Still reeling from the EU referendum result, it was a great excuse to show James all that’s great about Europe, and about travel. I mean, they do everything better in France don’t they? Striking. Cheese. Wine. Frocks. The trains run on time and are cheap. Bus stops in Paris had USB ports for charging your phone. We could learn a lot from the French. Oh, and then there’s my *thing* for French policemen, so it was fun times all round for both of us.
I’ll be forever grateful to the Wales team, the FAW and the back room staff who help make it all happen. What a time to be a kid who loves football in Wales. And now James’ dream of playing in a red shirt one day doesn’t seem as crazy to him. He believes that anything is possible now, and it fills my heart with joy.
He definitely has the Wales away bug, so it’ll be Vienna for us in October. Which works out well, as that’s about enough time for me to catch up on my sleep, my overdraft and on work emails I reckon.
I may have depleted funds, and a raging cheese hangover, but we’ve made so many special memories that I hope he’ll be telling his grandchildren about one day. And you can’t put a price tag on that stuff, non?