I can't claim to be the biggest fan of the Welsh football team. I've been to see them in person no more than a couple of dozen times or so. My attendance record pales by the side of thousands of others, who go to extraordinary lengths to follow a team that has not qualified for a major championships since...well, I think we all know for how long.
However, a week tomorrow, I will be setting off from Welshpool in Montgomeryshire at 7am with my Father, on an eight day trip to France. It's a trip that I never thought would happen, and as long as our relationship holds out on the 800+ mile initial journey (we normally fall out within the first twenty minutes of any journey when he's driving - mainly due to his laissez faire attitude to roundabout lanes...) then on the 11th of May, we will be in the Stade de Bordeaux to watch watch Wales' opening game of the Euro 2016 tournament against Slovakia.
My first experience watching Wales came aged 7, when Dad took me along to the Racecourse in Wrexham, and I still vividly remember Ian Rush equalising against Czechoslovakia in the final minutes at the Kop End - the opposite end to where I was sitting. The Racecourse is a ground I've visited several times since, cheering on Shrewsbury Town to a number of memorable victories - supporting an English club side and a Welsh national team has always sat comfortably with both me, and many others from Mid Wales. It was a great introduction to international football, especially as we avoided defeat, but on reviewing the statistics, I note that had we drawn our away match with Denmark rather than suffer a narrow 1-0 defeat, we would have gone to the Euro 88 championships. So many near misses.
The Welshpool Town boys team I played for were made ballboys for the Wales vs Georgia game in 1995 at Cardiff Arms Park, thanks to the generosity of Welshpool legend Tegwyn Evans, of whom I will mention more of in another blog. We had a great day out, getting to see the players up close, and I was positioned behind Neville Southall's goal, getting a particularly good view of the George Kinkladze winner which sailed over Big Nev's head. The moment when a 15 year old version of me puts his hands to his head can be seen on the youtube link below, saved for posterity for ever more.
Since then, Dad and I have undertaken away trips to Dusseldorf, Milan, Bologna and Prague to watch Wales. Highlights have included meeting Ryan Giggs in Italy, drinking dirt cheap beer in Teplice, belting out the national anthem in Piazza del Duomo, but the common theme has been defeat every time. In fact, my Dad has managed 6 trips to the continent to watch Wales, and in that has seen 2 Welsh goals, 5 defeats and a goalless draw!
Two years living down in Swansea when the games at the Millenium Stadium were so easy to get to was a particular highlight, given that it was a fine Welsh team that again came within a hair's breadth of qualification to a major tournament including that great win over Italy, and a fine friendly win over Germany. Yet, almost inevitably, it ended in play-off heartbreak against Russia.
One of my happiest memories of watching a Welsh side comes from 1988. Not for the game, although the occasion of the Wales U-18 team (featuring Chris Coleman) playing a match at Latham Park in Newtown was pretty big news in Montgomeryshire that year. The importance of the memory for me comes from it being one of many happy times I shared with my Granddad who passed away later the next year, and the only time we'd watch international football together. Inevitably, we lost (4-1), but I still remember the excitement of the game played under floodlights, and the happiness in receiving a small Welsh flag he had bought for me to take to the game.
I wish I still had the flag, it would be coming with Dad and I to Bordeaux next week, but in its place will be all of the above memories and more, and the chance to make new ones on what could be a once a lifetime trip.