I've been planning this trip since 2002. Euro 2004 was to be played in Portugal, and with the Welsh side on fire, a couple of weeks in a villa or hotel with some international football thrown in looked inevitable.
Wales had been drawn in a group with Italy, Serbia, Finland and Azerbaijan. Second place was a real possibility. I was in the second year of my Graduate Development Scheme working at the DVLA down in Swansea, and went along to every home game including the friendlies that came beforehand. We beat Germany and drew with Argentina, to finally get some optimism flowing for the first time in 10 years that once the qualifying matches started, this could be our time.
Things kicked off with a great away win in Finland before our first home game against the Azurri. Mark Hughes as manager had at his disposal a fairly settled first 11, which was balanced and full of quality and had plenty of experience of top flight English football. This had been a rarity over the past decade.
Skip on to October 16 2002. Wales V Italy at a packed Millenium Stadium The Manic Street Preachers play (mimed) as the pre-game entertainment, a performance still packed with emotion, but even that (and I say this as a massive MSP fan who middle-named their little boy after the erstwhile Richey) was then topped by Bryn Terfyl belting out "Mae hen wlad fy nhadau" shortly after John Charles had made an appearance. If we could have, we'd have wheeled out Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton. By god, you felt Welsh that night. Anticipation and a general feeling of expectation that something spectacular was going to happen was everywhere you turned.
Within 10 minutes or so, we were 1 up, Simon Davies firing home to cap a great start from the lads. The inevitable fight back came of course, with Italy scoring a deflected free kick from Del Piero later on in the first half. Del Piero was something of a hero of mine, albeit more for his sideboards than his set piece prowess. Below is a picture of me trying to follow in his path back in 1999, although to be honest in retrospect my facial hair is closer to that of Amos from Emmerdale. And even that's less of an issue than the fact that I'm wearing a bum bag.
Anyway, at 1-1 we all settled down and hope to hang on for a decent point.
Except we didn't. We came out second half, tore into the Italians again and after some classic hold-up play from John Hartson, Craig Bellamy rounded the keeper and fired home the winner. The reaction was incredible. I've never seen anything like it at a football match before or since. Absolute jubilation from everyone there, old and young. Bloody amazing. The scenes at the final whistle were incredible and just for a few minutes, we felt unstoppable as a force.
I'll touch on how it all ended again, but suffice to say I never got to Portugal in 2004. I ended up in a Spanish seaside resort called Tossa.
12 years later, and as part of our road trip I've got four nights booked in a hotel in a place called Craponne. It seems I still have a penchant for booking holidays in places with beautifully titled names. Only this time, my holiday coincides with Wales' first major football tournament for.......well, you know how long.