What an unbelievable feeling it was to be a Welshman in Toulouse on Monday night. I still can’t believe we actually did it! As a young boy I dreamed that we might one day qualify for a tournament. When we finally did and the draw was made I even hoped we might scrape through the group. Not only did we hammer Russia, with a population 50 times bigger than ours, we qualified as group winners!
The atmosphere was incredible with most of the stadium behind Wales and singing their hearts out relentlessly. Despite holding just 33,000 it was surely louder than anything I have witnessed in over 30 years as a matchgoer.
It was a brave selection from Coleman, dropping fans’ favourite Hal Robson Kanu for Sam Vokes. It was just a small tinker as opposed to the wholesale changes elsewhere in the group and it certainly paid off as the boys put in the best performance I have ever seen from a Wales team (and I have seen us beat Brazil, Germany, Belgium (twice) and Italy).
Aaron Ramsey got us off to a perfect start in the 11th minute following a great through ball from Joe Allen. Ramsey’s dinked finish was perfect. Needless to say the place erupted and we started to really believe we could do this.
Then Neil Taylor of all people found himself with space in the box following some neat work from Bale. The keeper saved his first effort but he made no mistake second time around and we were in heaven!
Even at half time I still had doubts. Russia were poor but I have seen Wales struggle to beat plenty of poor teams in the past. I kept thinking that a sending off and we would have a different game on our hands. I needn’t have worried. In the second half we continued to control the game and could easily have scored more than just Gareth Bale’s well taken third.
Ramsey was immense and fully deserved the man of the match award for easily his best performance of the tournament. Joe Allen put in another brilliant display, and will surely make it in to UEFA’s team of the tournament. Gareth Bale was, well Gareth Bale and even though he is now joint top scorer in the competition with three from three games I still feel there is a bit more to come from him. Ledley put in his usual tireless shift, creating the platform for others to thrive. On top of that the defence looked more solid than it did in the first two games.
With our side of the draw opening up a bit as we avoid Italy, Germany, France and Spain until, dare I say it, the final, who knows how far we can go now?
Following the final whistle no-one wanted to leave. The players and management team stayed out on the pitch as long as they possibly could as more than 20,000 fans celebrated with tune after tune. Bonkers.
It really was an amazing night in the lovely city of Toulouse and I feel very privileged to have been a part of it. The atmosphere was something special. I am a Liverpool fan and I was in Istanbul for that unbelievable night in 2005 and I have to say that this topped it for me.
I was very nervous about coming to Toulouse. In Lyon we met some England fans who told us some horrific stories of how their fans were attacked by Russian fans in Marseille. In Toulouse, the city was on edge as people anticipated the possibility of similar scenes. I left our hotel on Sunday afternoon with feelings of massive apprehension. I very nearly went back and sat in the hotel on my own all day. Luckily we bumped into Paul Corky and the Welsh Football Supporters Federation who were set up with their Russian counterparts and able to reassure us that their intelligence indicated no expected trouble. Thanks guys, you relaxed me no end.
The gendarmerie in Toulouse were also excellent and left me feeling very protected. Thankfully there was no sign of trouble and the whole city breathed a massive sigh of relief and, like we had been in Bordeaux and Lens, the Welsh fans were praised for their exemplary behaviour.
None of us expected us to top the group. We hoped we might finish second and most of us had people at home ready to book travel arrangements to Nice on Monday. I made a quick booking on my phone to go back to Paris at the weekend. Thank goodness I got data roaming before I went away as everyone else’s phones had died. With the great acoustics in Parc des Princes it is going to be extremely loud on Saturday against Northern Ireland. I’m sure it will be a great atmosphere, we had a great time with their fans in Lyon. Bring it on!
As we leave Toulouse at what was supposed to be the end of our adventure it feels good to be going home, even if it is only for a couple of days. I can’t wait to get a hug from my wife Nichola and my two kids Ryan and Freya. Also, importantly, I need to go back to the job I started just a week before coming here.
This trip really has been one of the most special times of my life. I never thought I would get to see Wales at a tournament and it has been better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve had a great laugh with the Eglwysbach boys and met plenty of other fabulous people of many nationalities along the way. And best of all it’s not over yet! I’m still dreaming of the final at the Stade de France on 10 July.