Thursday 16th June 2016 – England 2 – 1 Wales
Euro 2016 Group B @ Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens, France
“Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home, I just don’t want to go to work, I wanna stay here, and drink all the beer, Please don’t, Please don’t take me home…”
Day 2 started with a fuzzy head; Belgian beers are very more-ish, but they do provide some pain the morning after.
Lille was drizzly and grey that morning, but alive with activity as it sought to feed breakfast, and send to Lens the 30,000 or so English and Welsh fans residing there temporarily. This was the day of arguably one of the stand-out matches of the group stage; England vs Wales.
My knowledge of Lens prior to getting tickets for this one was limited to the fact that if you wanted to turn a French team into the next Real Madrid on Championship Manager 01/02, RC Lens were a decent choice. I was surprised therefore to find out that the capacity of the Stade Bollaert-Delelis (38k) is larger than the actual population of the town (32k).
Lens is reached from Lille via train in c. 45 minutes. We booked our tickets in advance, but the French authorities scrapped designated tickets, and let you travel whenever. Extra trains were laid on, and whilst the queues snaked round the station, the process of shifting fans was relatively quick and painless.
Upon arriving at Lens the sun was out; it was forecast to hose it down all day, so this was an unexpected surprise. The ground was visible in the distance to the left of the train station. The road which led there was already thronging with both sets of fans.
If events of the last week had reflected badly on England fans, this match was a fantastic reflection of the good side of both sets of fans. Lens had a real party atmosphere with largely good nature all round. The alcohol ban that was placed on Lens was seemingly non-existent, with the five pubs en-route the ground overflowing onto the street, and locals selling cans to those who wanted them.
Stade Bollaert-Delelis, once the town has been cleared, is reached via a park; the trees made it difficult to photograph from the outside. Security was slightly slower than at Russia vs Slovakia, a mixture I believe of most fans opting to turn up closer to kick-off and also smaller checkpoints – they seemed a bit overwhelmed.
The ground reminded me of a slightly more modern Upton Park. Our seats were in the upper-tier behind the goal; this was the official England end (with Wales opposite). I’m not sure how many Wales took, but the ground appeared to be three-quarters England, with the bulk of the stands to both left and right also seemingly taken by England fans.
Hodgson had picked an unchanged side from the one which drew with Russia in the previous game. With Slovakia beating Russia the day before, the group had been blown wide open (though with 3rd place also able to qualify, it is arguably now always open). Rivalry aside, the stakes for this one were high. A loss for England, and Wales would be through, with England needing a win against Slovakia to stand any chance of qualifying. A win for England and winning the group would be in their hands, and it would be Wales with the bulk of the pressure in the final game. I had this one down as 2-2.
Post anthems, the atmosphere was, and continued to be, both tense and full on. This was helped by the stewards allowing standing behind the goals.
It was Wales that went in ahead at half-time. Whilst not overly impressive, they had a slight edge on an England side seemingly devoid of ideas and alternatives when they didn’t work. Raheem Sterling played like somebody who knew he was having a nightmare. Wales fans were signing “England’s going home….” throughout.
Half-time was massive for Roy Hodgson; Coleman had got his substitutions right against Slovakia, and it was to be that Roy did the same against Wales.
A couple of minutes after the break and Vardy scored, sending three of the four stands into chaos and a fully blown “Jamie Vardy party”. Post-match highlights show there was an argument for offside, but it wasn’t obvious at the time. England maintained the pressure from then on, sending on an extra striker at one point in the form of Marcus Rashford, who whilst inexperienced, looked lively.
It was all out attack for England, but it looked like it was heading for a draw. Then in injury time, roughly the same point as when Russia equalised the previous Saturday, Sturridge bagged the three points. Despair for the Welsh fans, the polar opposite for England. Watching the celebrations, including Joe Hart run the entire length of the pitch, you would have thought England had won the entire competition. But this was a big three points, and could mean an easier path through the knockout stages.
Post-match the party continued; Wales fans have to be applauded, as whilst gutted, they accepted defeat with good humour, and seemed intent on continuing to enjoy themselves rather than be down about it all. We opted to hang back in Lens for a couple of hours and have a few beers whilst the queues for the train back shortened, albeit only slightly.
The walk back through Lille to our digs seemed somewhat more peaceful than the evening before. The bars were full, but it seemed more like people having a couple of final beers as opposed to chucking as much down their necks as they could.
So there is my Euro 2016; two great grounds and two very entertaining matches. The good (mostly) and the bad of fans at tournaments. And a fair few beers along the way. One more thing ticked off the footballing bucket list also.
The rest will be enjoyed on TV as I head towards fatherhood, unemployment (for a short time hopefully) and another season of Hull City AFC. To those who read and are still out or heading to France, stay safe and enjoy!