I missed Andrea Bocelli’s rendition of Nessun Dorma on Friday evening, making it back to the sofa from a kick about outside with the boy just in time for a rousing rendition of the Italian national anthem ahead of kick-off in the first big international football competition in three years. My wife assured me it was a beautiful performance by the tenor, but I wasn’t going to rewind to hear for myself.
Instead I sat down and marvelled at the Italians ability to control possession, and at such speed and with such invention, to eventually break down a dogged Turkish defence. A couple of drinks were taken, but not too many. The weekend’s feast of football had only just begun, and I’d have to pace myself at my age.
It’s been a long, hard season as a geography isolated Sunderland fan with an 11-year-old accomplice, but after a couple of weeks to recuperate, I’ve unexpectedly found myself wrapped up in this tournament.
It is a boon to those of us who’ve endured 60 live streamed games of questionable League One quality since our club returned to action last summer. It’s also been impossible for me to follow the other club in my life here in north Wales, CPD Bangor 1876, who haven’t had a fixture since the league was cancelled in March 2020.
I’ve not really had the time or inclination to watch much behind-closed-doors Premier League or Champions League football this year. I’ve craved the buzz of having proper crowds in grounds during big games on TV, but perhaps more than that I’ve craved attending football in person. I don't have a season card at the Stadium of Light, so I couldn't get a ticket for the playoff semi and, outside of those teams playing in the Welsh Premier League or English professional leagues, football and other team sport has been prohibited in Wales throughout the pandemic.
1876 is a fan-owned club born in April 2019 out of resistance to the ownership turmoil at former perennial European competitors, Bangor City. The entire hardcore of the fanbase upped-sticks and left the old club after enduring one-too-many in a string of disastrous owners, with hundred of us banding together to form our own club firmly committed to democracy, community and social values.
It flourished in its first season in tier 5, gained election to tier 4 during the lockdown (narrowly missing out of tier 3), has survived the hiatus in good financial health, and built a squad including local youngsters and some returning fan favourites from the old club.
On Saturday morning at 10.15 my son and I put on our scarfs, got in the car and drove down to the club’s picturesque ground, set on the Menai Straights amongst the stunning Treborth Botanical Gardens.
It was quite emotional; the routine of driving slowly along the speed-bumped lane through the gardens to the University Sports Ground, parking up, recognising the top-halves of the same old faces, finding a good spot (on a red X - two meters from others - not in front of the seating) around the perimeter fence.
We watched two decent sides play attractive, often aggressive, yet evidently pre-season football in bright summer sunshine made pleasant by a cool sea breeze. The big, powerful and tenacious Colwyn Bay from tier 2 made life difficult for the home team, scoring a deserved goal from a free header off a corner on 20 minutes and fending off the best that veteran legend Les Davies could throw at them. Both teams played it out from the back, both showed variation in their play, but Bangor frustrated in the final third.
In the second half, Bangor’s left back bounced the ball off the Colwyn Bay winger’s face at a throw in and, as the ensuing melee broke up without a card being shown, loudly confessed to having cuckolded said winger only the previous evening. On the final whistle, some of the ultras set off a blue flare, probably intended to be used if we’d scored, and everyone assembled clapped and cheered a creditable one-nil loss. We loved it.
Back home, and back in front of the telly for Wales - my adopted country and the country of my footy-man lad - against Switzerland. Yes, a morning spent supporting my second love in club football would be followed by an afternoon dominated by my second love in international football.
It was a nervous game in the heat of the Azerbaijani capital, initially end-to-end but then dominated by a Swiss team with the mercurial Shaqiri pulling the strings. A goal early in the second half from the dangerous Breel Embolo deflated the mood, but once Shaqiri was withdrawn hope was restored by the bandaged head of Kieffer Moore’, and momentary despair as the Swiss seemed to have regained their lead only for the slowest offside VAR decision of all time to rule it out.
And then for the tension; those long, drawn-out final few minutes of clock watching, wincing as crosses came in, willing second bounces to fall favourably, and praying to the stars for stray Swiss passes, until eventually the relief of the final whistle punctuated the air, and the 500-strong members of Y Wal Goch went mad in Baku. Da iawn, bois! Even Robbie Savage couldn't spoil super start to the day. I’d had my fill of this first course of football... still pacing myself.
Upon returning from a long afternoon walk in the mountains, the news was just breaking of Christian Eriksen’s collapse and the dramatic battle to save his life that played out on the pitch in Copenhagen. I’m glad I wasn't watching the TV coverage, this kind of incident is terrifying for the parents of young men pursuing sporting careers and really puts football into perspective, but thankfully the Internazionale midfielder is recovering, and the Euro kept rolling on.
Other than the familiar discussion of full-backs playing out of position and the best permutation of attackers to flank talisman Harry Kane, the talk in the lead up had centred upon the anticipated negative reaction of some sections of the England home support to the momentary, peaceful, quietly-kneeled statement of solidarity to be performed by our heroes before kick off. Thankfully, it was cheers rather than jeers that met the players as they made their important statement.
Heat, once again, would see a frantic opening melt into a slower, more laboured performance by both sides, with England clearly dominating and looking far more threatening than our Croatian opponents; Foden coming within a post’s width of opening the scoring.
Half-time nerves (memories of Luca Modric schooling of our youngster three years ago are still pretty raw) were quenched with second mid-afternoon tinny, and Raheem Stirling’s neat finish from a deftly slid through ball by everyone’s new favourite Yorkshireman, super Kalvin Phillips, was enough to set my mind at rest. It wasn’t a procession, but the manner in which Southgate’s men controlled the game provided an unusually serene conclusion to proceedings.
Afternoon drinking does not agree with me, and fresh air was clearly in order, so another tea-time walk in the sunshine with the dog meant that Austria’s victory over North Macedonia was consumed via video clips on twitter. After a big bowl of pasta, I settled down, comfortable in my neutrality and loose-fitting cotton PJs, to watch the final game of my footballing weekend as perennial underachievers the Netherlands took on Andriy Shevchenko’s energetic Ukrainian side, who’d qualified well to be top seeds in their group.
The atmosphere in the one-third full Johann Cruyff Arena was electric, and chances at each end within the first two minutes set the tone for a frantic hour and a half of fast-pace, entertaining, and sometimes spectacular football the like of which we only see at major international tournaments.
Ukraine’s two goals that brought the game all square at 2-2 in five second-half minutes had me cheering and giggling with joy (my wife barely glanced up from her screen), and although the Dutch deserved Dumfries’ late winner, I was still longing for more goals right up to the end of injury time. The boy went off to bed, and I sat down to pen my reflections on this memorable weekend.
Strangely, as I’m now in my fortieth year, I had not anticipated the rush of the excitement, nostalgia and joy that returning to live football and watching the Euros (always the better of the two big summer spectaculars). Maybe it is the sense of release from the constant drama of our club; I’m a club-before-country kind of football fan, although fiercely patriotic I’m not particularly nationalistic, and I invest almost all my emotional energy into Sunderland AFC.
So I’ll enjoy these Euros, I’ll see how far Wales can go and get carried away with my son’s football fever, and I’m sure my blood pressure will rise significantly as England progress through the rounds before the inevitable disappointment. I’ll also enjoy a summer touring the parks and playing fields of Gwynedd, Conwy, and Anglesey with a bunch of other old lefties as 1876 embark on their second season of league and cup odysseys. I might even enjoy the drama of the transfer sagas being played out at the Academy of Light.
We’ll all come back refreshed in August for another shot at getting out of this god-forsaken division, hopefully sporting domestically acquired sun tans and a whole lot more freedom. So C’mon Cymru, Forza Bangor, It’s Coming Home England, and Ha’Way the Lads. Keep the faith, it’s all we have right now!