Three days. Two cities. One incredible experience.
The 2016 football European Championships will forever be a tournament that I remember fondly. A football fanatic for as long as I can remember, the buzz created by major tournaments such as the European Championships and World Cup has been something that I have always looked forward to ever since watching the 2004 European Championships as an excitable nine-year-old. As a sports fan it has always been a dream of mine to one day sample the atmosphere created by these wonderful tournaments, and with this year’s Euros being held in France, this tournament provided the perfect opportunity for me and my uni mates to get out there and experience the buzz for ourselves.
Day 1 – Tuesday 14th June
The day had finally arrived for me and my two housemates, Reece and Nathan. We were going to the Euros! Having rather spontaneously bought tickets for matches in Saint-Etienne and Lyon back in April, the three of us had spent the last two months organising the details of our trip, such as who was to pay for what, how we were going to get there and where we would stay. With Reece sorting out transport, it was my job to find us some accommodation when in France. Having worked out that it would be cheaper to get the Eurostar to France on the Tuesday morning before flying back home early Friday morning, we decided to book accommodation for two nights and then sleep in the airport Thursday night as to save money.
A long day of travelling started with us leaving our uni house in Cheltenham at 12 o’clock Tuesday morning, with Reece driving us up to London. With both Reece and Nathan living just outside London, they both needed to pick up stuff for the trip and having arrived at Nathan’s house in St Albans we decided we would leave the car there and catch the train from St Albans to St Pancreas, where we would get the Eurostar. After Nathan’s dad kindly offered to drive us to the train station, we caught the train to St Pancreas arriving with plenty of time to spare as we waited to board our train to Paris leaving at ten past six in the morning. After a rather uneventful two-hour journey, where the three of us used the time to catch up on some much-needed sleep, we arrived in Paris at 9:15 French time.
We had bought tickets for Portugal versus Iceland in Saint-Etienne, and with the game kicking off at 9 o’clock in the evening we had just under twelve hours to make the trip down south. Easy! However with us needing to get the train from Paris to Lyon before getting on another train to take us to Saint-Etienne we were dependant on everything running smoothly. So when just a few days before we were due to leave we heard of an apparent rail strike in France, we were starting to worry. Looking at alternative forms of transport to get us to Saint-Etienne it began to look highly unlikely that we would get there in time for the match. With the match tickets costing each of us 105 euros, this was turning into the worst possible start to our Euros adventure.
Having arrived in Paris we found that there were still trains running to Lyon, however due to the strike these trains were leaving every two hours and having looked online to see that there was a train leaving for Lyon just as we were arriving in Paris at 9:15, it looked like we would have a two-hour wait in Paris before we could make our way to Lyon. With the train from Paris to Lyon lasting two hours, and the following train from Lyon to Saint-Etienne lasting another 45 minutes, we were once again pushing it for time considering that we also had to find our hotel and check-in our bags before heading to the match. After getting the Metro across to one of the other stations in Paris, we arrived at the station at 9:50, expecting to wait for at least 90 minutes before the next train to Lyon arrived. However, our luck was in! There was a train to Lyon leaving at 9:57. Looking anxiously at our watches we had 3 minutes to find the platform and make the train. Cue your customary mad frenzy as we ran through the station, arriving at the platform just in time and getting on the train where we could finally catch our breath and relax. We were now ahead of schedule. With the train arriving in Lyon at midday we now had ample time to get to Saint-Etienne, drop our bags off and get to the match.
2:15pm. We had arrived. After over 12 hours of frantic travelling, we had finally reached our destination of Saint-Etienne. Making our way out of the train station, we experienced our first glimpse of Euros fever as we looked out over a sea of Icelandic fans singing, drinking and just generally having a whale of a time.
Whilst we had arrived earlier than expected, the three of us decided that we would find our hotel and drop our bags off before exploring Saint-Etienne. After a short taxi ride, we reached our hotel on the outskirts of the city. Given the place we were staying cost just 90 euros for all three of us for the one night, we weren’t expecting much yet it was just as well. The place was a dump. A room with barely enough space to swing a cat, the room was made up of a bunk-bed with a double-bed on the floor and a single up above. There was also an en-suite bathroom with only enough room to fit one person at a time and with a shower and wash basin pretty much on top of each other. Hardly the Ritz! As if this place couldn’t get much worse, I took the top bunk only to find that lying down on the bed there was barely a few inches between my head and the ceiling. Put it this way, if I got up sharply in the middle of the night I would likely end up with concussion!
We headed back in to the city at four o’clock in the afternoon. After a fairly long walk back in we decided to make our way to the fan park. When we got there, the high security presence was an unnerving reminder of the terror threat still hanging overt the country in the wake of the atrocious Paris attacks of November last year. Having passed through the lengthy security procedures to get into the park, we found the place a sea of blue with Iceland fans everywhere. We later found out that approximately 8% of the country’s population of 330,000 people were in the city for the match. Not bad support for the smallest country in the tournament. Tired after a long day of travelling, our fist priority was grabbing a nice, cold beer. The Carlsberg tents were doing a roaring trade, despite the high cost of 6 euros a pint, and having swiftly polished off our drinks we decided to find some cheaper options at the local supermarket. Having found a supermarket where we bought a few bottles of beer along with some food, we sat down outside on a bench where we were joined by a bunch of German fans. By the looks of it they had had the same idea as us, and we soon got talking about the football with Reece and Nathan telling them we were from England only for me to hastily remind them that I was Welsh and not English, something that went down rather well with the Germans. After a lengthy discussion talking about our respective nations’ chances at the tournament, we shook hands and went our separate directions. With the time approaching 7 o’clock the three of us headed back to the fan park for one more pint before the game. Getting back into the fan park, the place was absolutely bouncing with Icelandic and Portuguese fans singing and dancing together, with renditions of ‘Will Grigg’s on fire’ – something we would hear a lot of over the next few days – aplenty as the excitement grew before kick-off.
8:45. We’re in. Finding our seats at the Stade Geoffrey Guichard 15 minutes before kick-off, the anticipation was palpable as we awaited kick-off. For a life long Manchester United fan, the opportunity to watch Cristiano Ronaldo live was something that I had always dreamt of and with Portugal heavy favourites there was a high chance that he would be on the scoresheet. Having seen countless numbers of Iceland fans before kick-off we were expecting there to be equal support in the stadium, yet of the near 39,000 supporters in the stadium barely a quarter were Icelandic with the Portugease vastly outnumbering their rival fans.
The game itself started off at a frantic pace, with Iceland’s Gylfi Sigurdsson nearly opening the score within the first few minutes as his close-range shot was saved by Rui Patricio. Despite this it didn’t take long for Portugal to gain a foothold in the match and they soon took the lead as Nani turned in Andre Gomes’ cross at the near-post on the half-hour mark.
Halftime soon came and went, with the Icelandic fans continuing to create a great atmosphere within the stadium with their memorable chants. Disappointingly for us three, sitting in the mixed zone we were surrounded by Portuguese fans, who were decidedly more quiet and boring than the raucous Icelandics who we wished to be sitting amongst. By this time, the three of us had been won over by their incredible support and were now rooting for the men in blue to get back into the match, and we didn’t have to wait long to get what we wanted. Just five minutes into the second half and Birkir Bjarnason volleyed home at the back post to bring the scores level, much to the delight of the Icelandic supporters (now including ourselves). Following the equaliser the game then returned to the familiar pattern of Portugal dominating possession and chances, with the Iceland players buoyed by the fanatical support they received, holding out for a famous draw that once again highlighted how supporters can often be the 12th man.
With the city abuzz with euphoric Icelandics, we left the stadium and headed back to our hotel, knackered after a memorable first day in France.
Day 2 – Wednesday 15th June
After somehow managing to get some sleep in the hotel from hell, the three of us happily checked out and made our way back into the city centre. It was a beautiful day in Saint-Etienne and after a short tram ride we soon arrived in one of the city squares, where we stopped to get some food. Having only really picked up supermarket food and snacks so far on our trip, we decided that it about time we sat down for a proper feed. We eventually found a Pizza restaurant and sat outside soaking up the Saint-Etienne sun, before making our way back to the train station to move on to Lyon.
After a short train journey across, we arrived in Lyon at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, with our first priority being to find our hotel. With the train station located outside of the city centre this meant there was a 30-minute walk to get to our hotel in the centre of Lyon. After lugging our bags through Lyon for what seemed like an eternity, we eventually found our hotel, checked in and enjoyed some well-earned rest for a couple of hours.
With the time approaching six o’clock, we made our way out of the hotel and went searching for the fan park to watch the second match of the day, Switzerland versus Romania. It took us a while but eventually after a little help from a few Irish fans we found our way to the fan park, which was across the river from where we were staying. Compared to the fan park in Saint-Etienne, this one was much larger and busier and with still a couple of hours to go before the French game kicked off, the anticipation and excitement was building amongst the home support. We got into the park just as the second- half of the Switzerland game was kicking off, so decided to sit down in front of the big screen and watch the match. The match was hardly a classic, but rather served as the starter before the main course of France v Albania. As the final whistle sounded just before seven o’clock, we had just over an hour to find some food so we decided to leave the fan park. Big mistake!
With there being very few restaurants around the fan park and not being that hungry, we decided to grab some food from McDonalds. Sitting outside the fan park eating our food, we realised that we might have made a mistake in going out to get food, with a seemingly endless queue beginning to form even with about 45 minutes to go before kick-off. We decided to polish our food off sharpish, and make our way back into the park. We joined the back of a queue to get back in, only to find that it stretched back longer than we imagined. Realising that we would be waiting around for a fair while before getting even remotely close to getting in, I asked Reece and Nathan whether they wanted to go and find a bar to watch the match instead, yet both wanted to watch the match in the park.
After originally getting into the queue just after half-past seven, it took us well over an hour to get into the park, and just as we got in the heavens opened. Amidst the torrential rain, the three of us tried in vain to find somewhere under cover where to watch the match from, yet with so many people inside the park this proved to be a hard task. To make things worse, we weren’t exactly dressed for these conditions. With the sun having been out all afternoon in Lyon, I had put on a pair of shorts and slip-on shoes. By the time we returned to the hotel, I must have looked like a drowned rat with my clothes and shoes soaked right through. Anyway going back to the fan park, we eventually found a place to watch the game from under some sort of cover from the stormy weather, but the game itself was far from living up to expectations. With France struggling to get their game going, and Albania quite happy to hang on for the draw, the game was dismal viewing, which led to a few Albanian supporters trying to liven up the atmosphere with one or two flares. Given the huge security presence and checks made before getting into the park, how they had managed to get them in was anyone’s guess. However as quickly as they were set off they were put out again as French riot police came in to keep an eye on proceedings. At this point with the game entering the final few minutes, we decided that we would leave a few minutes early to beat the inevitable queue out and get back to the hotel as soon as possible. By this stage the game had gone in to injury-time and everyone was beginning to move out when suddenly…..ABSOLUTE PANDEMONIUM!!! Just as we were making our way across to the exit, French substitute Antoine Griezmann headed in Adil Rami’s cross. The park erupted with scenes of celebration. Amidst all the excitement strangers were hugging and grabbing hold of us in sheer joy at the scenes unfolding on the big screen in front of us. With the Wales-England game to be played the next day, I hoped to be celebrating in similar fashion due to a late goal. How wrong could I be?!
After returning to the hotel and drying off, we eventually went to sleep about 1 o’clock but were awoken by some bizarre commotion inside the hotel. Just as we were about to go to sleep, we suddenly heard shouting coming from upstairs. Some bloke upstairs was kicking off, swearing like a trooper and yelling ‘Get out’ at some poor sod. The shouting lasted for about a minute and then nothing, not a peep. By this time the three of us had stumbled our way to the window. Opposite our room a group of Northern Ireland fans had the same idea. It must have been a pretty comical sight for any hotel staff who happened to catch a glimpse of us. A group of bleary-eyed British and Irish football fans hanging out some windows, searching high and low to see where the noise was coming from whilst all the time looking absolutely clueless and wondering what the hell was going on. After waiting for a while, eagerly waiting for something to happen, we eventually went back to sleep still completely none the wiser as to what all the fuss had been about.
Day 3 – Thursday 16th June
The day had arrived. Ever since the Euros draw was made back in December, Thursday 16th June had been a day marked down on the calendar. England v Wales. For me, travelling along with two Englishman, this day was either going to be an absolute dream or a complete nightmare. Having woken up and checked out of the hotel at 10 o’clock in the morning, and with the game not due to kick-off until 3 o’clock French time, we had a few hours to kill so had a wander around the city. Eventually we found a square with a few nice-looking restaurants and decided to sit down and have some food and a few beers. The game we had tickets for, Ukraine v Northern Ireland, was kicking off an hour after the England Wales game finished, and Lyon was packed with Northern Ireland fans. With Michael O’Neill’s side qualifying for a major tournament for the first time in thirty years, it was as if the whole country had travelled over to Lyon, with the men in Green and White vastly outnumbering the Ukrainian support in the city.
As we sat outside in the sun waiting for our food and drink, we noticed the occasional England or Wales fan mulling about, before who do we notice crossing the road? Only Iain bloody Dowie! With a few Northern Ireland fans sat around us calling out to him, Dowie gave us all the thumbs up, but unfortunately as he looked across to us he managed to walk in to some poor unassuming French girl. God knows what she must have thought when she looked up to see Dowie’s big bald head coming towards her. As he duly apologised to the girl, me and Reece spotted our chance along with a few of the Irish, and went over and had our photo taken with him. After politely accepting all the invitations for photographs, shaking our hands and wishing us well, me and Reece made our way back to our table, satisfied that we had gotten at least one photo with some sort of football man. I mean he ain’t no Figo, but Dowie will do!
With the time approaching 2 o’clock we decided to head back towards the fan park. Given all the queues the night before we were wary of getting to the park too late and running the risk of missing some of the match. After buying a few more beers from a local supermarket, we sat down amongst the hordes of Irish fans on the grass just outside the fan park and sank our last few remaining beers pretty sharpish as kick-off approached.
Having joined the queue to get into the park five minutes before kick-0ff, the three of us got in just as the match ticked over five minutes played. With the big match on and the sun out in Lyon, the park was packed with fans, English predominantly (unfortunately for me).
We found a good spot to watch the big screen from, and luckily for me I spotted a few Welsh fans nearby. I got talking to a few of them and found out they were from Caerphilly, not too far from where I’m from. As the first- half wore on, everything was a bit cagey with both sides looking slightly nervous. A few half-chances fell England’s way without them taking advantage, before Wales won a free-kick in England’s half just a few minutes before half-time. Our star-man Gareth Bale had scored a free-kick in the previous match against Slovakia, but with this one being 3o yards out from goal, us few Welsh fans didn’t hold out much hope. Bale hit it well enough as it went over the wall and headed towards goal, but it looked as if England goalkeeper Joe Hart had it covered, only for the ball to slip through his hands and squeeze into the back of the net, to the delight of us Welsh supporters who were soon jumping up and down celebrating with each other whilst the English fans looked on in shock. What a feeling!
By the time the second-half kicked off, Reece and Nathan had moved away from me and the Welsh fans to stand with the many English supporters. Having brought on Sturridge and Vardy up front, us Welsh began to fear the worst. The ensuing onslaught eventually led to Vardy grabbing an equaliser as Ashley Williams inadvertently headed an England cross back towards his own goal. By this point we had accepted that with all this pressure, the equaliser couldn’t be far away and with just over 30 minutes to play we held out hope that we could either grab a goal on the counter-attack or at the least hold out for a draw which would likely be good enough for us to qualify following our victory over Slovakia. As England once again upped the ante by bringing on young Marcus Rashford, us Welshmen watching on were desperate for the final whistle. Chances came and gone for the English, and it looked like we were safe as the game headed into injury-time. We weren’t though. One last England attack saw the ball scramble around Wales’ box before Daniel Sturridge poked the ball past Wayne Hennessey in the Welsh goal. I was distraught. As the ball went in the fan park once again erupted in noise due to another late goal, unfortunately it was the English celebrating this time. The final whistle soon went and us Welsh fans couldn’t believe it. We had come so close! With me, Reece and Nathan having to make our way to the metro to get across to the Stade de Lyon for the Northern Ireland game, I shook hands with some of the Welsh fans and made a hasty exit.
With Reece and Nathan being at their most annoying on the journey across, I was quite happy when we made it to the stadium. One aspect of the trip we had picked up on, was the difference between the security checks at the grounds and fan parks. The checks at the fan parks seemed to be a lot more thorough than the ones at the stadiums we had been to. This problem was emphasised only a day later when Croatian fans let off and threw flares on to the pitch during their game with Czech Republic. Having found our seats just as the anthems were being sung we settled down for our second live match at the Euros. With both teams realistically needing a win to stand any chance of going through the group, the match was evenly poised with both teams having good goal-scoring opportunities. The crowd itself was split pretty evenly between Ukrainians and Irish, but once again we had drawn the short straw as we were surrounded by Ukrainians. ‘Will Grigg’s on fire’ obviously hasn’t caught on as much in Ukraine! With the game scoreless at half-time, Northern Ireland came out for the second-half all fired up (no pun intended) and were soon ahead when centre-back Gareth McAuley headed home Oliver Norwood’s free-kick at the far post just four minutes after the restart. The Green and White Army on the far side of the stadium from us were going nuts, and likewise we were up celebrating in support for one of our fellow home nations teams. By now however the rain was pounding down in Lyon and not long after the goal a hailstorm came forcing the players off the pitch. Fortunately for us in the crowd, it passed over quick enough and the players were back out just two minutes after leaving the field. With conditions now improving, Ukraine began to press for an equaliser with goalkeeper Michael McGovern’s defence having some nervy moments. A few Northern Ireland substitutions had us excited at the prospect of the man of the moment Grigg coming on, but this game was not to be the one for him as he remained on the bench despite the cries from the Irish support. With the game ticking towards the end in injury-time, and having withstood Ukrainian pressure, the men in Green and White launched a counter-attack where Niall McGinn tapped in the rebound after Stuart Dallas’ shot was saved by Pyatov in the Ukrainian goal, to seal a famous win and send the Irish fans behind the goal delirious.
After making our way back to Lyon we grabbed a quick bite to eat before setting off to find some bars and have a few drinks. Eventually we found a row of bars down one of the side streets where for as far as you could see there were green shirts as the Northern Irish fans celebrated their first ever win at the European Championships. With a few hours to kill before we had to head off to the airport to catch our flight back home, we congratulated Irish fans and got talking to many of them about the game as well as their chances going on in the tournament. Unsurprisingly given the result, there were a lot of fans like us on the booze. One bloke who was at the match managed to record McGinn’s goal on his phone, and duly showed us his view from behind the goal. The Northern Irish accent is hard enough to understand, yet with this bloke having clearly been on the sauce for a while, he may as well have been speaking French to us as we struggled to translate.
Before we knew it, it was 12 o’clock and we had to get going. As the three of us made our way back across the river for the last time, we all agreed that the trip had been well worth the money, with the atmosphere at the matches and fan parks being even better than we had imagined it would be. We soon reached the airport, sad that our trip had come to an end.
For me personally, this Euros trip had been everything I’d dreamt it would be and even more. The cities, the stadiums, the fan parks, the supporters. They were all amazing and with many media back home speculating of trouble between rival fans, I can safely say that at no point on the trip did I see any trouble, but rather saw many rival fans singing and dancing together, all having a good time the way it should be. An unforgettable experience that I would do again in a heartbeat. Roll on Euro 2020!!