The 08:00 alarm on my phone was the only thing that prevented me from sleeping through to lunchtime. It worked…within 20 minutes I was downstairs, tucking into a croissant whilst discussing the finer qualities of yesterday’s cycle through the region with some fellow guests of the chateau. As we sat either side of the large circular dining room table, two of the four dressed in lycras for their day ahead, it sounded a million miles away from my fortnight’s schedule. The idea of cycling through the Aquitaine countryside seemed a little more appealing than the thought of dodging bands of violent hooligans in an industrial city 250 miles to the closer to the UK.
My host, Patrice, kindly gave me a lift to nearby Aiguillon, just a 5 minute drive away, to catch the 11:03 train to Bordeaux. Within an hour, we were pulling into St. Jean station from where I would catch the 15:23 TGV north to Lille. Five and a half hours later, Leechie and Kleiny were there to welcome me, and after s troll across the lively centre of town, we found our way to the car and headed back to their Gite, a 40-minute drive away to what felt like the middle of nowhere. Kleiny revealed his culinary talents to produce a late-night spaghetti bolognese for the four of us, after Richard Sellers had joined us, and four bottles of red wine later, we headed off to bed.
Feeling rather ragged the next morning, we packed our bags and headed off in two separate cars to the Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens, for England’s crunch Group B match against fellow home nation, Wales. The Stadium Media Centre was a hive of activity…a sweat box rammed full of photographers and journalists, many familiar faces among them, all buzzing around like busy bees eager to see how this historic fixture would pan out. The room may have been busy, but it was small – far too small. I couldn’t stay in there for long. After a brief catch-up with a few colleagues from home, I decided to wander into town and see what the delightful England fans were up to.
A steady stream of supporters were making their way towards the stadium, but it was hard to see where they were coming from. The obvious move was to walk against the flow and find out where they’d been. It took me into the center of Lens, which was overflowing with St. George Cross flags from across the country, as the travelling white army enjoyed themselves in the sunshine. It was hard to convey the number of people in the town without some form of elevation, so when I saw an elderly lady watching from her second floor balcony, I knew that would be the best view. I managed to make eye contact with her and gestured to see if she would let me take some pictures from her unique viewpoint. Amazingly, within 30 seconds, she was down at the front door and more than happy to let me into her house…
With just over an hour to go until kick-off, I headed back to the stadium and made my way into the ground to set things up. Positioned in front of the Wales end, I knew I was in for a loud one, and they didn’t disappoint, drowning out the English efforts for the majority of the game.
This was one of those games that was too hard to call. It could’ve gone either way, and equally, either result would’ve been just as important as the other. My decision to sit where I did was based on a number of factors…unfortunately, it proved to be the wrong one. The first forty-five minutes were dominated by the Welsh, as I sat covering England’s woeful attack with little to show by half-time. Gareth Bale scored a long-range free-kick at the far end to give Wales the lead going into half-time, but then England somehow got their act together and, with the help of a couple of important substitutions, managed to grind out a victory. So, three goals (two of which I couldn’t see) at the wrong end in the most important match of the tournament so far. Not happy…
Fortunately, Leechie was shooting the match from the tribune at the back of the main stand, so he was able to cover the entire pitch from above, but this small crumb of comfort did little to improve my mood after the game.
We headed home not long after full-time, crawling away from the stadium past police cordons and boozing football fans. Leechie’s back was in agony, so the sooner we got home, the sooner he could rest up and stretch out. A quick trip to the supermarket on the way back ensured we had plenty to eat for dinner that evening…a buffet-style platter laid on by northern powerhouse Richard Sellers proved just the ticket, and a welcome distraction from the banality of Germany’s 0-0 draw against Poland that was on the TV in the corner of the room.
With Leechie still struggling to move the next morning, it was Kleiny who stepped up to the mark and did the honours, giving me a lift to Lille for my 09:21 train back down to Bordeaux. He endured over an hour of lashing rain and heavy traffic to get me to the station ten minutes before my departure time. It was nine hours before I was back in Aiguillon, where I stepped off the train to find my host, Patrice, very kindly waiting to collect me.