I’m not going to lie, Cyprus away was a red letter day in the diary for me from the moment we were paired with them in group B of qualifying for Euro 2016. A trip to a hot climate, an 18-30 resort nearby, a good chance of winning – what didn’t appeal about a trip to southern Europe at the beginning of September?
I got this one booked up in January as I knew demand would be huge and was joined by Darren who travelled to Brussels with me last November and my cousin Rhys who accompanied me to Naples to watch Swansea City in the Europa League a couple of seasons back.
I can’t deny I felt like a kid at Christmas on Sunday night and struggled to get much sleep which wasn’t helped by watching a brilliant video of everyone in Ayia Napa singing “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” so when my alarm went off at 5:15am to say I looked like crap would be an understatement. We had to leave Swansea at an earlier than planned 6am as the trains were limited due to industrial action which was frustrating but despite this we made it to London Paddington by 9:30 and arrived at Gatwick Airport in plenty of time for our 15:20 EasyJet flight to Larnaca.
As is the norm on these trips, by coincidence I seem to end up on the same flight as Matt the Jack and this one was no exception. We had our usual pre-flight chat about our hopes and expectations about the week ahead as well as revelling in the Swans third consecutive victory over Manchester United the day before.
As we headed to the departure gate there was much amusement as a member of another travelling party’s hand luggage was too big so rather than pay the extra £40 for hold luggage he promptly ripped the wheels and handle off his case so it was the correct dimensions. The airport staff were in disbelief but everyone else found it hilarious!
Anyway after a slight delay due to a technical fault and missing our air traffic control space we took off an hour later than scheduled and after eventually arrived in Larnaca at 10:30 and managed to check into our hotel in the resort of Ayia Napa an hour later.
There was only one thing for it after that – to the nearest bar! After a long 16 hours travelling I think we had more than earned a few beers and when we were offered an unlimited bar at a place called Barcode for an hour at the cost of 10 Euros it really would be rude to say no. Much of the Welsh contingent had already arrived in the resort and as the night went on were getting progressively louder and drunker and predictably the night turned into a full on chanting session with all the usual favourites with “Don’t take me home” in particular being in full voice as you can see in the video below.
The theme of the next few nights were very similar as the final of the 3,500 travelling Welsh contingent arrived for the match with much mingling between the supporters from various parts of the country. Over the course of the trip I spoke to people from the Valleys, Cardiff, Caldicot, Newport, Bangor Wrexham, Llanelli and of course Swansea and I witnessed no club rivalry problems at all which is good to see.
And so to match day, nearly everyone staying in Ayia Napa was travelling with the official coaches of which there were eighteen and everyone headed to the Square Bar to collect their tickets and enjoy several pre-match drinks where once again the signing was in full flow. A few people looked worse for wear as you’d expect, I bet a few didn’t even make the buses!
We left the resort at 7 o’clock local time, just under 3 hours before kick-off and everyone on bus five was subjected to much drivel from the bloke on the microphone who was shouting stuff you could barely understand as he was holding it too close to his mouth. Things took a dark turn for one member of the bus when a spare ticket was found on the floor and everyone was asked to check they had their tickets. After a few minutes we still had no idea whose ticket it was so he made an announcement for others to check again so someone suggested that he check everyone has their ticket on the way off the bus which sounded like a plan to me. The bloke on the microphone refused as he said it wasn’t his problem so the other guy shouted “I’m not being funny but you’ve talked bollocks all the way here and now you won’t do this one thing to ensure someone doesn’t miss the game” which drew much laughter from most people including me! The guy did then admit though that he “hadn’t seen the man on the mic yet and may have made a mistake calling him out” but fortunately nothing came of it.
So we eventually arrived at the ground an hour and a half before kickoff and were among the first of the coaches to pull up at the stadium. The FA of Cyprus had informed the FSF Cymru that catering facilities would be available outside the ground but they were pretty poor. It consisted of three burger vans and when you’re expecting 3,500 that’s hardly going to satisfy demand is it?
On entering the GSP stadium it was much like some of the other foreign stadiums I’ve visited. No roof over the majority of it, the seats were permanent rather than fold up and there was even netting preventing us going on the pitch which in my opinion should not be allowed, if there was a fire in the concourse then we’re all dead. This is something Uefa should look at in the future without a doubt.
I took my place in the stand just to the left behind the goal as much of the other travelling contingent put their flags up on show wherever they could. The majority of them were Cardiff and Wrexham but there were many others with “Powys to Paris” one of my favourites. I must admit it did sadden me not to see many “Swansea City” flags. Contrary to popular belief there are quite a few of us that follow Wales, I saw many regulars from the Liberty over the course of the trip but like me they probably take the attitude that it isn’t worth the hassle of putting a flag up as it only takes one idiot to make a fuss and you could have a problem. Hopefully at some point in the future it will get to the stage where no one would bat an eyelid at a Swansea flag and I look forward to that day.
I must say the anthem was one of the best I’ve heard at a Wales game. Even though there were only a few thousand of us you’d swear there were a lot more. The recording I have of it is pretty special, as well as the roar afterwards.
I could barely hear the stadium announcer so as the players ran over it was only at this stage that I realised what the team was. The notable news was Jazz Richards keeping his place with Ben Davies replacing James Chester in defence and Andy King along with Dave Edwards taking the places of the two Joes – Allen and Ledley respectively who both started that memorable victory over Belgium in June.
Predictably our first chance came from a typical Gareth Bale run after which he was fouled thirty yards from goal. As ever our talisman stepped up and hit a dipping shot that was only parried by the goalkeeper and Neil Taylor should really have buried it but his rebound was also saved . The other noteworthy moment of the half was Edwards header being disallowed and I still have no idea why the referee came to that conclusion. There was no shove, no offside, no anything. It was perfectly good goal and if the referee disagrees then I suggest an appointment at specsavers. It summed his night up, I think he left his notebook at home as well. Some of the challenges he let go were ridiculous.
So it was 0-0 at the break and it was time for a drink as a combination of chanting and humid conditions had made me extremely thirsty and it’s fair to say I wasn’t the only one. The queue was pretty big and the service was putting it mildly as slow as a road sweeper. It didn’t help that only 1 person was serving and no one pouring the drinks behind but I suggest in future they come up with a better system. I nearly actually missed the start of the second half but when I returned to my place “Zorba’s Dance” was in full flow with the Cypriots doing the conga to it and Welsh jumping up and down like lunatics enjoying the party atmosphere.
The next 45 minutes were similarly tense as the first with the hosts enjoying a fair bit of possession although they didn’t ever really look like scoring. Until the 75th minute it looked like we would have to settle for a point but we then started to assert ourselves more with a couple of corners and Ramsey having a shot well saved.
But then came the all important moment, Jazz Richards (who I thought was arguably our best player) put in a brilliant cross for that man Bale who leapt magnificently to bury a header in the keepers top left corner to give us that all important goal. Bale and all the players sprinted for the bench to celebrate together while in the away end friends and complete strangers hugged and piled each other as we celebrated one of the biggest goals in the history of the national team.
The next ten minutes are a huge blur, the only thing of note I can remember on the pitch was a ricochet off Ashley Williams which nearly resulted in an unlikely equalizer but fortunately the ball went over the bar. In the stands however the place was rocking and it was pure elation when the referee blew up for full time. Everyone knew that barring a footballing miracle we would be in France next summer, finally ending the long wait to participate at a major championships.
The players came over to thank the travelling contingent (video of this is below) with Bale doing his customary lifting his arms higher to signify more noise and slapping his chest whilst the rest of the players applauded and celebrated with us. Finally Chris Coleman gave us the thumbs up and I’m delighted to see he is now getting some recognition for his fine work. We all know he had a difficult start for obvious reasons but he has done brilliantly to turn things around and will deserve all the plaudits that will inevitably come his way in the near future. I’m also sure he will pay tribute to Gary Speed, the man who started all this off and I’m sure the great man is looking down on us with great satisfaction and pride.
After a good ten minutes of celebrating we eventually returned to our buses to the various resorts across the island with my bus returning to Ayia Napa at 1:15am local time. We headed back towards the Square but it was heaving so decided to venture to Lantern Circus a bar slightly further up who offered us a deal of 8 euros for an unlimited bar for the next 60 minutes and they even had the game on repeat so that was a deal clincher.
The bar became busier as more and more buses started to arrive back in Ayia Napa and the bar was pretty busy within a few minutes. As time edged closer to the moment the goal was scored someone started chanting “we’re gonna score in a minute” to which everyone joined in and predictably when Bale stuck the ball in everyone celebrated as if it had just happened with drinks going everywhere.
What made it even more amusing was the Square were also showing the game but their coverage was a few seconds further behind so as soon as we’d stopped celebrating they then proceeded to jump around like lunatics. As a taxi driver on the way home that night said to me “we’ve got Belgium coming soon but the Welsh are a different breed.” I couldn’t agree more, no one knows how to party like us!
We had one more night left after that and I thought it would be a more subdued affair as many of the Welsh had started to depart ready for Sunday’s game. Not a bit of it. We met up with Mike, Andrew and Dan – all Swansea boys who arrived on Wednesday and after a few in Barcode at the top of the strip made our way to Lantern Circus where the night took off.
They played Zombie Nation and it became evident that there were still hundreds of Welsh people about as we all started going mad to it. Once that had finished the bar next door got involved and played the same song so most people made their way into the street to sing it again. They followed this with a recording of the Welsh National Anthem which also went down well. After that they played the Macarena so the Circus decided to get the customers back by playing “I Love You Baby” which predictably worked so everyone moved back in there. It was a crazy crazy sight that had to be seen to be believed. I think it’s fair to say they were going to miss the Welsh, I bet their profits have been down since we left!
The night then continued and we all ended up in “Carwash” your typical cheesy music nightclub where once again there was a strong Welsh contingent with random shouts of “Wales, Wales, Wales” when the music would go quiet and then others looking on as if to say “what’s going on in here?” Someone also take a massive selfie of all the Welsh in there which I haven’t seen (if you’re the person that took it please get in touch) the party carried on with a conga to “Zorba’s Dance before we left at closing time and headed to the after party at “Aqua” which around a dozen of us Welshmen who barely knew each other headed to end the night.
It probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do as I had to be out of my room by 12 but what the hell, it was the last night of a brilliant trip and I didn’t want to waste it. I eventually got back to the room by 8am and yes you guessed it felt slightly rough when I woke up to vacate the room just four hours later.
From there it was a quick stop for breakfast before the taxi journey to Larnaca and then a long 5 hour wait for me and Darren but just two for Rhys as he was on an earlier flight . To say the day dragged would be an understatement but we eventually touched down at Heathrow at 10:15pm UK time and finally got to our hotel in Paddington by midnight.
Our train to Cardiff wasn’t until 11:30 the next day so it gave us a good chance to catch up on sleep before what would hopefully be a very special day in the Capital which the three of us although very tired were really looking forward to.
On our arrival back into Wales we left our luggage at my friends Nick’s who lives in Grangetown before meeting up with some other friends in Bierkeller for a pre match pint where obviously our jaunt to Cyprus was the main topic of conversation.
After a swift couple we departed there an hour before kick off thinking we’d make it into the ground long before the teams were out. How wrong we were. I’ve never seen such horrendous queues to get into a football ground in my life. Quite why they were so big I don’t know, the game should have been delayed in my opinion thousands missed the start , I was slightly luckier. I missed the anthems but got in as the players were doing the huddle so I didn’t miss kick off at least.
The atmosphere was already bouncing with the capacity crowd expecting us to mathematically book our place at the Euro’s although realistically we were there anyway. Wales started the game on top and the first real chance fell to Andy King who probably should have scored but his shot was saved and Aaron Ramsey’s follow up header didn’t quite dip under the bar. Wales continued to dominate but the Israel bus was well and truly parked in front of the goal with the handbrake on and it was goalless at the break.
After the break more chances fell to the home side with the Gareth Bale’s free kick going just over the bar, King and Dave Edwards had chances with headers and there was a clear shout for a penalty for handball but as usual the decision didn’t go with us. The atmosphere meanwhile was terrific with the Hal Robson-Kanu chant and “I Love You Baby” booming around the Cardiff City Stadium.
Then as the game reached stoppage time a goalmouth scramble lead to Bale putting Simon Church in and he duly headed home to send most of the crowd wild. Not me though, I’d noticed the flag fortunately, I always remember a similar incident when Lee Trundle did the same thing for Swansea in 2010 on the final day of the season to send us into the Play-Off’s and having not noticed the flag and gone wild I was gutted to see it had been ruled out so at least this time I knew straight away.
The whistle blew and the players had once again given their all and although it wasn’t enough for the win it was another point towards certain qualification and we were still unbeaten. It did though now feel like a bit of an anti climax as everyone was hoping it would be party time on St Mary’s street but the result meant that had to wait. Although If Belgium failed to win in Cyprus it would still be our night so rather than head home I decided to return to Bierkeller to see if we’d be celebrating after all.
There was a fair crowd in there and with it 0-0 at the break everyone began to pay more attention to the game rather than just a passing interest. Then slowly the landmarks got bigger, the hour mark, the 70th minute, the 80th minute and everyone in the pub started to believe. The chants of Cyprus, Cyprus, Cyprus started along with Men Of Harlech and we were all starting to believe. But you know what happens when you think it’s your night – it will often get snatched away and that’s what happened thanks to Eden Hazard’s late winner.
It’s fair to say that killed my mood completely so it was finally time to return home to Swansea and after a detour via the Vale of Glamorgan line which I really could have done without I got back home by 11:30pm.
So that’s another European tour out of the way. Another brilliant trip and this one felt really special as it gave us the result we all wanted as we edge closer to our dream. The scenes and atmosphere in Ayia Napa all week were something else and I’m sure everyone who went won’t forget them in a hurry. As every I met some great people over those five days and it was a pleasure to share the experience with you all.
Roll on the final two qualifiers and next summer!