Wales vs Belgium 2016

It was an inauspicious start to my history supporting Wales, with a Mike Smith managed team losing 2-0 against Sweden at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground in 1994. We hadn’t long suffered the harrowing defeat against Romania, which I watched on my feet in the kitchen of my parents’ Mid Wales home. I was 11 years old, and this was an appropriate introduction to what supporting the Welsh football side was likely to deliver in the future.

22 years on, it is easy to say that those days were worth the hardship, having now qualified for our first ever European Championships, and having gone beyond the Quarter Finals in our first major international tournament in my lifetime. Indeed, even when we lost 1-0 to Russia in the qualification for the 2004 World Cup, had I been told that 12 years later we would have qualified for the knockout rounds of the European Championships, I would have happily taken such a result.

However, that night was one of the most desolate of my history supporting Wales, and having achieved a home win against Italy, with goals from Craig Bellamy and Simon Davies, along with a 4-0 drubbing of Azerbaijan, we never quite hit the stride we needed to qualify above Italy. Indeed, a night at the Llew Du in Aberystwyth, watching Wales lose 4-0 against Italy seeing myself ended up with myself and two of my friends featuring on page 2 of the Daily Post as the image that summed up the mood of Welsh football fans that night, with all of us either having our head in our hands, or desolate after the result.

In the following years, having come so close, and suffered the defeat against Russia in November 2003 when Ryan Giggs was given the red card, and a drug shrouded Russia side eking out a 1-0 win at the Millennium Stadium, it was hard to see the drop in Welsh achievements. A miserable qualification series for the 2006 World Cup didn’t really offer too much to raise the mood, while performances over the following four years never really came close to achieving an appearance at a major tournament.

We kept the faith, and home defeats against minor nations became the norm as we moved past the success that had been delivered in the Mark Hughes era. However, this success was really only a temporary uplift in our form, and our hopes were quickly realigned with that of the teams that never quite reach the qualifying places.

When it came to the changes that really made a difference to the Welsh football team, there is no doubt that the change came under the leadership of Gary Speed, where the positive trend began, and then on to the Chris Coleman era when the current uplift in form began. One of the most harrowing experiences of my life was discovering that Gary Speed had taken his own life, just months after the 2-0 win against Switzerland. Wales had shown such an improvement under his guidance, and his status as a footballing legend meant his leadership was such an important contribution.

The qualification period for Euro 2016 was one that was made more interesting by the extra qualification places that were available, with even those teams that finished in second in the group having a good chance of qualification.

Having committed to supporting the team throughout the qualification period, the excellent performances from the team, and a fantastic away trip to Limassol in Cyprus provided us with some great memories, and the foundations for an amazing sports finish. Later on in the process, a pre-decided trip to explore the Camino de Santiago in Spain saw me celebrate Wales’ qualification for France 2016 while alone on a bunk in a dorm room in a remote town in Galicia. The equally emotional home victory against Andorra was a party enjoyed from afar as I read the details of the victory on the BBC website, and the following party which my friends celebrated long into the night.

The achievements of the Welsh team at Euro 2016 are beyond even my wildest dreams, but there is no doubt that those debts were paid several times over in the times when Wales didn’t feature among those challenging to qualify for a major championship.