Leading up to the game against Wales, rather than the fact this was our first competitive fixture against them in a tournament, all the talk was of safety issues amid concerns of a repeat of the scenes in Marseilles. A year earlier, a friend of mine had organised a trip over to Paris for a group of about 10 lads from our old football team, just a few days away watching the football and supporting our team from the fan zone under the Eiffel Tower. What more could you want for a group of old mates?
After a night out drinking and no internet, I returned to my phone to see a rather concerning discussion. Within a short space of time the holiday quickly fell apart…
‘No chance I’m going over there and getting battered.’
‘Have you seen all the recent terrorism in Paris?’
‘What’s the point in going? It’s all underwater.’
‘There’s gonna be an alcohol ban. No chance I’m going without beer.’
Before I knew it, I was fighting against fears of terrorism, football violence, recent flooding and worst of all, a rumoured alcohol ban. This was never going to be a realistic threat and certainly not in widespread areas. Sadly, my attempts at persuasion were futile and before I knew it I was planning a trip on my own again. Aside from my own entertainment being reduced, my friends were going to miss out on the experience of a lifetime, and it was such a sad state of affairs that the media could influence people so easily with their continual focus on negativity.
The night bus from Hamburg dropped me off nice and early, which gave me the opportunity to see a wonderfully vibrant city in the early hours before the majority of the city wakes. The calm before another busy day in Paris. I ended up spending a nice day drifting around and checking out a few of the famous landmarks. I sipped a couple of beers watching fans from all over Europe singing English classics on karaoke, not a hint of the potential disturbances that were being mentioned in the English press.
Wow! What an incredible backdrop for a great football day. The sun is shining, thousands of fans happily milling around with a beer, and most beautiful of all, a huge TV screen under the iconic Tour Eiffel.
As always when starting the day out alone, it was fairly relaxed. Before sampling my first Carlsberg, I found a little place to chill in the sun, relax and take in the atmosphere. Many England fans had already begun the festivities and a ball was being booted as high and far as possible. As the ball was flying around the fan zone I was desperate to get involved. Then came my moment. Another cheer as the ball flies high into the air, but this time it’s coming my way. Thank God I don’t have a beer yet, a quick adjustment of the feet and I bring it down with a sublime first touch on the thigh, a couple more kick ups to bring it under control and then catch it on the neck. With a good crowd of people observing, this was met with a huge cheer and a massive rush of drunken England fans head over to congratulate me. This was definitely the biggest roar I had received in my 20-year career spent playing in front of crowds of up to 20 people. I joined these lads for a beer and with the blood pumping a little faster, the countdown to kick-off was now on.
With kick-off upon us, the anthems were proudly belted out across le Parc du Champ de Mars, and we were all set for this huge encounter. After years of watching Wales encouragingly, hoping that they would eventually get to a major tournament, the tables had now turned. They had an inspirational, world class leader in Gareth Bale, another top player in Aaron Ramsey, and most of all an incredible team spirit. I was now fearful of defeat. As half-time approached, a Joe Hart blunder allowed Bale to score a free-kick from 30 yards out. This potential defeat seemed a distinct possibility, and England left the pitch at half-time to a chorus of boos.
Time for Roy to save his job. His weapons of choice were Vardy and Sturridge, and on 56 minutes a rejuvenated England evened up the scores through an opportunistic Vardy goal. A well-deserved equaliser. For the next 35 minutes, England dominated possession and created chance after chance, but without being able to break down the resolute Welsh rearguard.
FINALLY!! 93 minutes into the game and Sturridge bumbles his way into the area. He somehow pokes the ball in at the near post for 2-1, and what can only be described as ‘scenes’ ensue. Scenes not witnessed since ‘that touch’ some 4 hours earlier. Thousands of fans went crazy on the now sodden, muddy grass in front of the Eiffel Tower, which now looked more akin to a Sunday league match in the middle of November. Beers flying, hugging strangers, Klinsmanns in the mud. An incredible moment. This time there was no Luis Suarez to ruin it for us, and by the time we’d looked back up, the final whistle had gone and we were riding high on top of the group after a hard fought and well-deserved victory.
Relief followed the euphoria, and after a few more beers and reflection on what was one of the best tournament moments for England in the last 20 years, it was off to St Etienne to face Slovakia.