I’ve been to well in excess of 500 live games during my lifetime. Most of them follow a similar pattern; enter the ground shortly before kick off where the atmosphere is fairly subdued to reasonable before there’s a sudden lift as the teams enter the field.
On a handful of occasions when I’ve taken my place in the stand the atmosphere has been electric during the warm-up and you can just sense that it’s going to be one of those very special nights that will live long in the memory. Never did I think I would experience that at a Wales game, but now Friday stands proudly alongside Leeds in 2007, Cardiff in the League Cup in 2008 and Forest in the Play-Offs in 2011 as the best atmospheres I’ve experienced at a game.
I’ve never heard Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau sung like that, not even in the days when we were filling the Millennium Stadium a decade ago, it was real hairs on the back of your neck stuff. There was barely a lull in atmosphere for the entire ninety minutes. If there was ever a night when the fans were the 12th man this was it. Every player had the 100% backing of the capacity crowd, every tackle won cheered, Eden Hazard jeered when in possession and clearances celebrated like a goal.
But that was nothing compared to when Gareth Bale struck the decisive goal. Where I was behind the opposite goal there was mass carnage of bodies flying everywhere, complete strangers embracing and fans jumping all over each other. The same thing happened at full time when our proud nation took an enormous step towards qualification for next summer’s European Championships in France.
Friday night completely vindicated the decision to move the home games away from the home of Welsh rugby and they must now remain at the Cardiff City Stadium for the foreseeable future. In my opinion the fans proved to be the difference in a way they would never have been at the Millennium. The hardcore supporters would have been spread out too much rather than all together in the Canton end producing an atmosphere that would have intimidated any nation in world football. Just look at the videos across the internet of the Welsh fans singing the anthem in the second half when most of the players were out on their feet and how it inspired them.
When you’re a nation like Wales you have to make the best of every little advantage you can gain. A full Cardiff City Stadium can make the difference for us in the future as it did on Friday night and to move games away from there in the future would be a massive own goal.
For the first time ever Wales have found a winning formula across the board. A squad of players desperate to succeed, a true world class player who thrives on the pressure of being the main man, a manager who has got everyone pulling in the same direction and got an entire nation to believe, a stadium that feels like home and that can create an atmosphere up there with anything across the continent, and finally the fans have become a real 12th man.
The silly club rivalry that has been problematic in the past didn’t surface once on Friday night, the common goal of seeing our country end our long wait to play at a major finals outweighed everything else.
It was as if we had finally become one nation with everyone pulling in the same direction. This could be a real turning point for Welsh football on and off the pitch. If it is then the years to come could be like nothing we’ve ever experienced before.