Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Welsh Footballing France Euro '16! (Paul Bodin...all is forgiven!)

One of my earliest blog posts spoke of the long-running heartache of being a Welsh football fan - the pain of which could be encapsulated in the Paul Bodin penalty miss in the crucial Wales Vs Romania qualifier for USA '94.

Reading it back now, it does come across with a rather bitter undertone - one of a fan looking for a scrap, just a scrap of light at the end of an interminably long tunnel.

France Euro '16 Qualification!
Well, now we have it!

It was with some incredulity but utter delight that I watched Wales qualify for our first footballing finals since the days of John Charles and Ivor Allchurch back in Sweden '58! Come next summer in France, Wales will line-up with the continent's best for the first time in 58 years since that summer of '58!

There was hope at the start of the campaign. But then of course, there always is. It's the quick extinction of that hope early on in qualifying campaign after qualifying campaign that has  made the whole art of watching our national team so frustrating and wearisome over the years.

This time round it was almost extinguished in its infancy in the most embarrassing way possible. Only a late winner from Gareth Bale overturned a 1-0 reverse to a 2-1 win at minnows Andorra. But it was a win. Dim hope remains.

Then an early double - a stoic 0-0 home draw against top seeds Bosnia and days later, a gritty 2-1 win against Cyprus despite being down to 10 men for much of the match. I was away in Amsterdam at this time and recall taking time out from my first wedding anniversary get-away to get as many updates on the Cyprus match as possible. The 0-0 against Bosnia had given more hope of sniff at a top 3 finish but that would be extinguished without a win against the Cypriots. The dogged resistance shown by the team meant that as early starts go, hope remained. Always that hope.

That doggedness saw us through what should've been our toughest encounter. Another stoic performance in Brussels saw a 0-0 draw against Belgium. Watching it in Aberystwyth, the rear-guard action and subsequent clean sheet was one of the best I had seen from a team in red. Suddenly, 8 points out of 12 and unbeaten having played each of the top two seeds gave us something to really hold onto. Couldn't shake off that hope.

Israel & Belgium
Then a winter break before a tough match away to group leaders Israel who were 3 out of 3. Another point would be good here. Listening to Radio Wales from our farm in Eglwyswrw, I was bouncing around the cafe as Wales secured a massive 3-0 win. Suddenly, mild optimism was turned into genuine hope. That bloody hope again.

Gareth Bale celebrating a qualification
game-changer against Belgium!
But next up was Belgium at home in June. Again, a draw would be fantastic here and keep the unbeaten start to the campaign going. Watching from home in Cardigan, I erupted as Gareth Bale pounced on Belgium defensive uncertainty and scored what proved to be the only goal of the game. UN-BEL-IEVABLE JEFF!

Now with 4 wins and 2 draws from 6, this thing was now most certainly ON - but whisper it very, very quietly. Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. We are Welsh after all.

One Foot in France
Summer was taken up with talk of what could now be. Wins against Cyrpus and Israel in September would guarantee a top two finish and the exotic highlands of final tournament play in 2016. But a defeat to either let alone both would bring utter panic back to proceedings!

Watching the match in Nicosia from my Aneddfa sofa in Cardigan, I was hoping that we could take 4 points from the two matches to put a foot in France. With the same coming to a close at 0-0, I was resigned to what was a good, albeit slightly disappointing, point. Then, again...GARETH BALE! When his bullet header struck the back of the net with minutes to play, my roars woke up everyone upstairs!

What a result! A win at home to Israel would seal the deal and in preparation, I bought a very last minute ticket for the final match against Andorra. As far as I was concerned, the win in Nicosia had basically done the job. Only a tragic run of results could continue our ruinous qualifying run spanning back decades. Even we weren't that unlucky...surely?!

It was clear from their performance days later that early pace-setters Israel had accepted that we were going to qualify despite the fact that a win for them would've put them right back into the mix. They parked the bus looking for a point to boost their play-off hopes and duly achieved that end. But qualification was only minutes away later that evening when Belgium themselves scored a late winner in Cyprus. The champagne was put back on ice. 

The End-Game - Qualification
So it came down to two matches with only one point needed for qualification. A tricky away tie in Bosnia against a team scrapping for a play-off berth and the match against Andorra in Cardiff that if necessary, would surely be enough?!

Celebrating Qualification in Tenby on 'Super Saturday'!
It was 'Super Saturday' with my old University friends and I watching Wales Vs Australia in the Rugby World Cup and then the Bosnian match in Tenby Rugby Club. The Guinness flowed, the atmosphere was superb and the tension as ever, sky high!

After 58 years of pain, it was probably only apt that it could only be us Welsh who would eventually triumph through defeat! Wales lost in the rugby and Bosnia inflicted a first qualifying defeat on our brave Dragons with a late 2-0 win. But it mattered not! The biggest roars of the day in Tenby Rugby Club were on the two occasions when Cyprus came onto our screen with goals in Israel!

Wales had lost - but we had qualified! AT LAST!!!!

Party Time!
Time to party at Wales Vs Andorra!
Back in September, I'd bought one of the final few tickets still available for the final match in Andorra. A win in Cardiff against Israel a month earlier would've secured qualification in front of a raucous home crowd but it wasn't to be. Instead, it was the hard-core of long-standing Welsh fans who would travel the world to see Welsh away matches who deservedly started the party in Bosnia, despite the defeat on the pitch that evening.

But the first home-coming celebratory match for our conquerors would be against Andorra - and I had a ticket! I've seen Wales play in qualifying campaigns for Euro 2000, Euro 2004 and Euro 2008 in Wrexham and Cardiff (oddly, I've never been to a World Cup qualifying match) and for over 20 years, had kept a close but sad eye on misadventure after misadventure. So I wasn't going to miss the party to end all parties for anything!!

The match was an anti-climax. Andorra parked their bus and reached Half-Time for the first time all qualifying, at all-square. But the celebrations really kicked off with Ramsey and Bale's 2nd Half efforts. The 33,000 strong sell-out crowd gave their Welsh Dragons a wonderful reception throughout and the after-match celebrations were akin to winning a Premier League title or FA Cup! It was a magical atmosphere!

Post-match, it was back to the city for more celebrations and in the good company of old friend and adopted Welshman, Northumbrian Matt Close. We went back to Clwb Ivor Bach where the Welsh fans congregated and celebrated into the early hours in style! Player anthems were sung with gusto and hits from the Ska/Reggae era blared out in glorious technicolour. The highlight for me was easily the many emotional renditions of Andy Williams' Welsh anthem from that failed 1994 campaign, 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You' in memory of Gary Speed. I took a few moments out of that mad, mad night of celebration to record this clip to give a sense of that raw euphoria that after decades of pain, could now be released in joy unbound!

It was truly a night to savour. One of those 'I was there' events which as a long-suffering Welsh football fan, I couldn't, couldn't miss.

I finished that melancholic blog post in 2010 with the following words...
"As a friend mentioned on Facebook last night after the result, 'A World Cup or a Euro Finals once in my lifetime, that's all I ask Wales'. So wept a whole generation of Welsh football fans last night".
Well dear friends, last week, a whole generation of Welsh football fans wept once more. But this time, they were tears of joy! We're going to have our moment in the sun in France 2016 and whilst we're going to bring colour and music to the party, we're not going to do so just to make up the numbers - we're turning up to ruffle a few feathers!

Paul Bodin...all is forgiven!

Wales? I love you baby!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Charles Kennedy

Bereft. There's no other word for it.

When the BBC News app shot through with the breaking news on my mobile just after 6am yesterday morning, I found myself lying in bed for an hour just stunned beyond belief.

I didn't really believe it. It couldn't be true. I turned on my laptop after 7am and of course, sadly, it was and is.

Charles Kennedy was leader of the Liberal Democrats when I joined as a green but enthusiastic new student in Aberystwyth in September 2000. I was struck by his youth, his enthusiasm, his internationalism...and his accent. He didn't sound like a politician. He sounded like a normal person. Of course, that's because that's exactly what he was.

His leadership and indeed his political career could probably be encapsulated with his courageous decision to vote against the war in Iraq when the prevailing consensus was overwhelmingly in favour.

I recall doing my first ever media appearance for the party in the 2003 Welsh Liberal Democrat conference in Swansea which happened to fall on the weekend after we went to war in Iraq. I recall the morning of war (was it a Thursday?) and I was walking around the University concourse in a daze in shock at what my country was about to take a part in. I was clear in my mind in that first ever interview, live on Radio Wales that my leader was absolutely correct in his stance. History of course, will treat him kindly for his principled stand.

Meeting Charlie
It was with great excitement that friends and I from the Aberystwyth University student society got to meet with Charles in the Welsh conference of spring 2004 in Mold where he presented us with our 'Best LDYS Student Branch in the UK' award. He spoke to everyone and had that famous common touch that made us all feel relaxed in his company. Exactly what I would want in a leader.

He then amazed me just months later after I was first elected to Ceredigion County Council in June 2004. Aged 21, I was one of Wales' youngest Councillors and awaiting me in my pigeon hole before my first meeting in the Council Chamber was a House of Commons envelope. Who was this from? Lembit Opik I rememeber presuming as he was Welsh Liberal Democrat leader at the time. No, it was from Charles Kennedy. A beautifully handwritten note reminded me that being the youngest elected was no bar to future success with particular reference to David Steel, Matthew Taylor and Sarah Teather. Typical of Charles, he didn't mention himself in that exulted list!

His resignation in early 2006 after leading the party to its greatest House of Commons representation since the days of David Lloyd George was a blow but rumours within the party of his fight with alcohol had been abound for some time. Even as a young member, my student colleagues and I weren't immune to the rumours but that was all they were. I vividly recall the 2004 spring federal conference in Southport when, looking gaunt, Charles sweated profusely throughout his main conference concluding speech. I remember leaving the auditorium and the clamour from the media was for comment on his health. I recall particularly, Sky News looking to track down a young activist to give comment and having now been a member for a few years sensed a trap for newer members so I leapt in and offered myself to say a few words. I honestly accepted the formal statement that Charles was not well. There may have been rumours, but I couldn't believe them. Of course in hindsight, his core team were shielding him the best they could. But the media wouldn't relent. Clearly not getting the response from myself that they were looking for, they cleverly changed tack and asked who I believed may be the next leader after Charles in the future. They were clearly digging for the names of rival leadership candidates and I recall momentarily considering the question before responding, out of nowhere, that the future leadership of the party after Charles Kennedy hadn't even crossed my mind as it was years down the road. It was snappily good response and Sky News gave in on their interrogation. Apparently, my comments were part of a package of responses that were relayed on a news loop throughout the rest of that day on Sky News.

The Future
The birth of Donald was greeted with joy from the party faithful but sadly, the marriage was dissolved and as the years went on, concerns continued to be raised as he had now opened up publicly to his demons. His recent and sadly, final performance of BBC's Question Time showed that he was still not well and with the death of his father in April, I was personally very concerned about how he may respond to a defeat in May in a Nationalist SNP landslide. I therefore made the rare decision of directly supporting a candidate outside of Wales in the election campaign. I donated £50 to play my part in the hopeful re-election of a man who I admired so deeply. In return, I received another handwritten letter of gratitude for my contribution. It was written in the same hand-written scrawl as the letter that I received over a decade earlier. Again, that personal touch went such a long way.

The tsunami that swept the party's parliamentary representation away in the early hours of the 8th May left only 8 in its wake. Sadly, Charles was not one of them. Yet in his speech, his typical humour shone through. He seemed to have taken it so much better than Danny Alexander had taken his defeat in the neighbouring constituency.

He spoke about his intention to contribute in the forthcoming referendum debate on Britain's involvement in the European Union. As a fellow staunch internationalist, I was looking forward to his passionate contributions over the coming 12 months. Sadly, it will not be.

Even more sadly, he leaves young Donald and his family to mourn the loss of a much loved father and family man.

With a third increase in membership of over 16,000 to over 61,000 since polling day and an imminent leadership contest vote just weeks away, the party that he so proudly led will move on.

But it will do so without one of liberalism's most passionate advocates. As a good and close friend of mine succinctly put it:
"I didn't think it was possible for liberals to wake up to worse news than the results on 8th May. I was wrong".
Rest in Peace Charles. Your work here is done and you have left a lasting legacy of love, humour, action and commitment to the progressive cause. Sleep well brother.

Friday, 16 January 2015

"Somehow...he's got to the fluke the yellow..." - Rocket Ronnie's Masterful Moment

I've mentioned previously of my desire to visit the that sporting Mecca the Alexandra Palace or the 'Ally Pally' as it is lovingly known to its many fans.

But when I visited last Tuesday, it wasn't for the darts (but that day will come) but for the snooker.

Having been a snooker fan since I can remember (the 1991 World Championship final between John Parrott and Jimmy White is my earliest recollection), it has been a sporting dream of mine to watch it live. But never did I realise I would witness a little bit of snooker history before my very eyes at my very first attempt.

But before the history, the context...

'Ally Pally'
The Crucible in Sheffield is the Holy Grail but before Xmas, I finally made the effort to buy tickets for arguably the most prestigious snooker tournament after the World Championship - the Masters.

So it was with no little amount of excitement that I made the hike up the hill from the train station towards the Palace in eagerness for a day of snooker action.

If any player could challenge the records set by 7 time World Champion Stephen Hendry, then it's Ronnie O'Sullivan and when I bought my tickets last month, I did so knowing that this tormented genius and reigning Masters champion would be playing his first round match on the day in question.

An Eagled Eye snap of Ronnie O' Sullivan preparing
for his introduction to the arena.
From my vantage point in the very back row of the audience, I had a great view of the action and the 1,800 seat arena which was packed out for the afternoon session. But because I was in the back row, it meant I could also lean over from a great height and see the mercurial 'Rocket' prepare to being introduced to the arena by the MC Rob Walker. A unique sight.

I lapped up the sights and sounds and in particular, the soft voices of 6 time World Champion Steve Davies and John Virgo commentate through the ear-piece that was purchased out in the foyer. Dead, reverent calm and quiet whilst the two gladiators went into action with only the sounds of Davis and Virgo cutting through the tension.

Ronnie O'Sullivan Vs Ricky Walden
From the outset, the match was tense with a scrappy opening session being won by Ronnie 3-1 against Ricky Walden. After the mid-session interval, Ronnie was on target for a century. I went into the day presuming that he had 770 career tons to his name, a full 5 behind the all-time mark left by Hendry. Even Ronnie couldn't possibly score 5 centuries in a first to 6 encounter I thought so had no consideration of watching a piece of snooker history that day. For once, my sporting stats were out-of-date and as he moved towards the century mark, the commentary made it clear that this would be his 774th. Suddenly, I realised that I may be in the box seat to watch snooker history in person. But the commentators curse struck as John Virgo noted how incredible it would be for Ronnie to equal, if not beat the mark on Stephen Hendry's birthday. For with his next shot, Ronnie missed and the break ended on 91. But any disappointment at this near miss was relieved when Ronnie scored a 100 break in the very next frame, putting him 5-1 ahead and within 1 century of equalling the record.

But this put me in a quandary. I wanted to see a Rocket win but to equal the record, he had to score a century in his final winning frame so every time a frame broke down, I wanted to see Ricky clinch it to give Ronnie another chance for that century. Ricky started well by scoring a 100 break of his own to reduce the arrears to 5-2. He then won two more including one after Ronnie broke down on a break of 66 which left Ricky needing two snookers. It looked as if the game was all over but Ricky kept on fighting, laid a snooker which Ronnie missed and then left a free ball. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Ricky was right back in it and I was quietly pleased. Not only did it mean even better value for money for me and my £10 ticket but it also meant that Ronnie wasn't going to fall over the line, one short of the record.

But at 5-4 it was now getting very close! Ricky had a chance after a Ronnie foul to pot a tricky red into the middle pocket. But he missed and let the Rocket in. Ronnie made light work of what was on the table and moved towards a frame and match winning position. It was now simply a matter of whether he could cap a workmanlike win with that record-equalling century. It looked odds-against as the yellow and brown were both tight up on the baulk cushion.

Century Number 775
Ronnie cleared the reds and on a break of 82, had the final black from which to manoeuvre himself into those troublesome yellow and brown balls. He failed.

Whispering into our ears came the voice of John Virgo who said what we all knew...
"Somehow...he's got to the fluke the yellow..."
As the Youtube clip here can testify, there was a ripple of laughter around the auditorium as we all forlornly acknowledged to ourselves that this historic finale was probably beyond even the Rocket's abilities.

Then...he swung his cue, hit the yellow and as it rebounded off 3 cushions, we could see it careering towards the centre pocket. It didn't even rattle in the jaws - it went straight in!

Pandemonium!! Suddenly, this quiet and respectable snooker audience were now more akin to the one that had been witnessing the darts two weeks earlier! We were all going barmy and I was leading the encore! What was more remarkable was that having fluked the yellow, he was easily on the green and the brown had rebounded out towards a similarly comfortable position. The century making, history levelling blue...was merely on its spot! He went on to clear the pink and black for a 116 clearance!

This must've been akin to watching a 147 maximum break or a 9-darter. Absolute sporting hysteria!! Wonderful scenes!

Get Carter
We now had a 2 hour plus break before the evening session and to be honest, we needed it to calm down after that incredible excitement! Some food and some drinks later and we returned to our seats to watch Ali Carter Vs Barry Hawkins.

A wonderful vantage point to see the action.
Emotion was high as the crowd gave Carter a standing ovation on arriving in the arena after he was given the all-clear from lung cancer before Xmas having previously survived testicular cancer. I questioned whether his lack of match-fitness might make him ring-rusty against the very well regarded Hawkins. But no, it was Carter who came out of the blocks playing as if he hadn't had a months long lay-off and eventually cruised to a 6-1 win against a disappointing Hawk. His penultimate frame 130 clearance was a highlight.

At 10pm, the lights were being turned out and we made our way back to Alexandra Train Station and it gave me time to look back over a remarkable debut in the world of live snooker.

In snooker, the fabled 'Triple Crown' consists of the Masters as well as the World and UK Championships. Perhaps as a fan, I need to attempt to complete my own Triple Crown by visiting the latter two in the future.

But if I do, I doubt I'll be able to top that day in 'Ally Pally' when, with a slice of luck but with a great amount of skill, we watched Ronnie O'Sullivan equal Stephen Hendry's record of 775 century breaks...and on Hendry's birthday! live snooker goes, I'll never top that!