We take a peek at FEARGAL BRENNAN’s 10-day diaryÂ of his EURO 2016 adventure following the Irish (and others) in France.
The suggestion of travelling to France for the Euros was born over many tentative conversations in Autumn 2015. However, any hesitation was quickly dismissed, or forced out of those undecided, and before we knew it- flights were booked, Air BnB was sounded out and we were firmly on the road to France.
As part of a cost cutting exercise our Toulouse-bound trio decided to fly to Carcassonne from Stansted, involving a lengthy early morning train journey from Liverpool.
Not too bad considering the money we saved, but my frugality was to come back to haunt me.
Having watched Wales vs. Slovakia and then England vs. Russia the night before as an aperitif to our trip, we toasted to France and the pilot. However, that turned into toasting the majority of the Stansted Airport ground staff and the ensuing day after was a hangover write-off.
Having survived the swaying of a Virgin Pendolino and a rickety train ride from Euston, the flight to Carcassonne eventually proved to be my downfall. My tender belly eventually gave in. The goddesses of Ryanair were more than patient with their white faced passenger in 4F, as were the old dears in the front row, and my friends were equally worried about my capability to successfully make it onto French soil.
However, I survived my first evening in France on a shandy, watching Germany beat Ukraine 2-0 with eyes only for bed. Despite my fragile state I was able to wearily state that Germany was the team everyone had forgotten about, and vainly attempted to convince my travelling buddies that Joachim Loewâ€™s men were the ones to beat.
Fresh from my hangover induced coma I was ready to hit the Toulouse ground running, and Gail our delightful host filled us up with croissants and yogurts. And so we headed out armed with as much GCSE French as we could remember, with a daft excitement that belied our mid-twenties status, taking in the sights of a Pont Neuf and the Place du Capitole, before strolling down to the stadium.
Our first taste of fans mixing at EURO 2016 was more than positive, with Spanish and Czechs drinking pints and singing loudly despite the pelting lunchtime rain. The game itself was tame, and Spain were, as always, dominant in possession. But Gerard Piqueâ€™s late goal had them in raptures and our neutrality quickly changed to â€˜Espana, Espana, Espanaâ€™. In truth it was rough on the Czech side and their fans, however, the Spanish always looked to have a late goal in their arsenal.
A quick dash to Toulouseâ€™s seemingly only Irish bar, Killarneyâ€™s, to watch the Boys in Green draw with Sweden got everyone into the tournament mood, with neutrals and French instantly digging deep for Ireland, giving birth to Allez les Vertes.
Half a dozen over priced Guinnessâ€™ in Killarneyâ€™s was then followed by more rain, ice cream and Italy beating the cocky Belgians, much to the pleasure of the watching French hosts, eager toÂ get one over their chocolate loving neighbours.
As part of our French travels we headed out of Toulouse on Day 3, to a friend’s house in the sleepy village of Caylus on the outskirts of the city, close to the town of Caussade. We had designated this day as a travel day, under the assumption that the Group F games were missable should we be delayed. However, despite worrying about French rail strikes, the trains were spot on, they even had plug sockets – WOW!!
Fortunately we made it to Caylus in time for both games, and our assumptions were proved to be miles off. Hungary turned in the first real shock of the tournament, comfortably seeing off supposed dark horses Austria 2-0 in a display that had all of us Googling Hungarian footballers.
In the night game everybody’s secret EURO 2016 crush Iceland claimed a 1-1 draw with Portugal, and a Hoegaarden was raised to salute our most Northern neighbours, with wild calculations made on the size of Icelandic population, with no-one having enough data to verify their guesses.
By Day 4 the promised sun reached the south of France so we engaged in some quasi water polo/water basketball and discussed what happened to Belgium and could the Russians reach us in the French countryside.
As it transpired the Russians continued their role as both pantomime villains and inept footballing side by losing to an impressive Marek Hamsik-led Slovakia, before we headed into town to watch Les Bleus with the locals.
After labouring to victory over Romania in their first game, France were expected to get the host nation bandwagon up and running against Albania, but it took late goals from Dmitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann to secure a win.
The locals were, in general, too tense to muster more than an occasional â€˜Allez les Bleusâ€™, with the two talented kids nutmegging each other in the bar providing more excitement than their idols on the television screen could.
Relieved of the need suffered by those back home to phone in sick for the afternoon clash between England and Wales, we headed to an ex-pat bar just outside Caylus for the Battle of Britain.
In a bar filled with Essex retirees, we felt compelled to side with the token village Welshman, who suffered an extension of the abuse he probably only receives during the Six Nations. He was in full voice following Gareth Baleâ€™s opener butÂ after Daniel Sturridgeâ€™s late intervention we cowardly left our new friend to suffer the English gloating alone and headed home for a barbecue.
After disecting England’s performance we watched Northern Ireland somehow overcome a hailstorm of biblical proportions to beat Ukraine, while Germany and Poland battled out a highly-entertaining 0-0 draw as I polished off my second blue cheese burger.
I’ve had worse Thursdays.
Day 6 and we were on the road again, leaving Caylus and back into a scorching Toulouse for our train down to Bordeaux, with a quick pit stop to watch Zlatanâ€™s men take on Italy. The Swedes in the cafe in which weÂ watched the game were easily recognisable, dressed inÂ bright yellow with nervous faces, and they were eventually put to the sword by their Mediterranean opponents.
Those pesky Italians, so effiecient.
Off to Bordeaux, following the happenings of Group D on a sketchy WiFi connection and chatting to Ireland fans about their tales of Paris.
The stories of tyre changes and Good Samaritans were all verified by the Irish lads, and they assured us that Bordeaux would turn green in tbe next few days. As it turned out, their estimation was a little modest as Bordeaux was already sea of cheering green when we arrived, and despite missing the evening’s football we slipped out for pints and some Belgian mingling.
Both sides, green and black-yellow-red, mixed in all night long with the Belgian hordes questioning fans about Jeff Hendrick before treating us to a few verses of the Fields of Athenry
Our big day in Bordeaux had arrived, Ireland vs. Belgium, and the morning rain had politely buggered off and left us in sunny peace.
The city centre and fan park was chaos, grinning green faces everywhere and optimism was sky high.
Yes Ireland lost, and comfortably to a superior Belgian team, but there was simply no keeping our Boys in Green down. We sang, toasted, cursed the Italians and learnt a little Flemish until the small hours.
A pretty blonde was serenaded on her tram home from work, before an elderly French woman was coaxed into a slow waltz, as Ireland’s fans continued their mission to conquer with kindness.
Iceland vs. Hungary and Portugal vs. Austria were both just background noise, in fact we only realised that our friends the Icelanders had gained another point when we arrived home, as the Irish and Belgians prayed to the tournament gods: â€˜Please Don’t Take Me Homeâ€™.
Despite their heavy night, the Ireland fans were out in force for their Eggs Benedict, and we happily joined in, before heading out of the city centre to see a little more of Bordeaux. Visiting their impressive wine museum and polishing off a barrel of moules by the Garonne river, likeÂ good pretend Frenchmen.
We stayed out to watch France vs. Switzerland, but again the entertainment came from a different source as an old Irishman in the bar, with a child’s laugh, kept everyone amused. France picked up a 0-0 draw despite playing rather poorly and somehow won their group.
Our intention of a few last-night pints in Bordeaux city centre was soon turned on its head as we led more backstreet singing, this time with newly arrived Spanish fans, joining the Boys in Green.
We finally arrived home, in agreement that we had never heard â€˜Please Don’t Take Me Homeâ€™ sang with such sincerity and that we would all do anything for a few extra days in France.
With heavy heads, and slightly heavy hearts, we headed back to Toulouse to begin our long journey home.
However, tickets to Russia vs. Wales that night in Toulouse soon brought a smile back to faces, and we quickly found some Wales fans drinking with Spartak Moscow fans which got us in theÂ mood.
Most of the pre-game talk had been dominated by our friends from Mother Russia, however, their presence in the city was minor, wildly outnumbered by what looked like half of Cardiff.
The â€˜F**K Englandâ€™ chants and occasional far-right salutes from the Russians were generally ignored by the Welsh fans who simply responded with a booming â€˜Viva Gareth Bale.â€™
Inside the ground the atmosphere created by the thousands of Welsh fans was like nothing I had ever experienced, and they created a volcano of noise and the Russians had no answer on or off the pitch, with Chris Colemanâ€™s men pulling off an excellent 3-0 win.
By far the longest and worst day. The journey home. Scrambling around for boarding passes we had hoped we wouldn’t need, can’t we just stay? And joining hundreds of returning Welsh folk on the flights home.
A few quiet â€˜Don’t Take Me Homeâ€™ shouts in the airport did force a few smiles, not that the Wales fans needed much help in smiling, whether asleep or barefoot there was no mistaking the look of pride on a few sunburnt faces.
Toulouse to Brussels andÂ on to the Manchester drizzle, each step pulled us further away from our beloved France and closer to reality and dreaded work.
But despite the harsh reality of Wednesday morning in work, France 2016 will live long and I have instructed everyone that if in future they hear me sing â€˜Please Don’t Take Me Homeâ€™, please just leave me where I am.
FOLLOW FEARGAL ON TWITTER @feargalbren