A Matter of Life & Death (from 27th November 2011)

The 17th November 1993 – I woke with the dull and familiar thud of a Philharmonic hangover. Back in my old bedroom at my parents, home from University for a couple of days. I lay in bed and reflected upon the night before.

A night in town, a night in the Philly, strange to be there on a Tuesday night in November when I should have been in Liverpool; should have been sitting in my living room with Mark, John and Boo, eating a communally made corned beef hash and beans and sipping a luke warm Fosters. Instead I was with Garf, H and Grant and a bar full of young expectant Welsh folk, working ourselves in the kind of fevered excitement usually reserved for our former child-selves of Christmas Eves past.

In a sense, that’s what it was. The night before was our Christmas Eve. It was the night before the biggest game in Welsh football history – as far as any of us present were concerned. The night before our date with destiny, our crowning glory and any other of the trite clichés being bandied about at the time. It also happened to be the final night of my teenage years.

17th November 1993 – my twentieth birthday. The day Wales played Romania at the Arms Park.

I woke in the morning, no longer a teenager, my head pounding, my ears dulled from the racket of the previous night. The raucousness, the noise, the singing. The nervous excitement that saw an entire pub (yes, an entire pub) threatened with eviction for refusing to stop singing ‘Can’t take my eyes off of you’ the Andy Williams hit that had, in the space of a few short weeks in the autumn of that year, become the unofficial anthem of the nation. We sang it and then we sang it again. And then, for good measure, we sang it again. When I woke the next morning, working its way through the barrier of alcoholic skull ache, the song reverberated – refused to go away.

And I smiled.

The day passed in a blur, cards and warm wishes from family were gratefully received, the treat of a nice lunch at a local restaurant with parents and grand-parents was enjoyed to a point. But part of me wasn’t there. Part of me was already in the stadium, wracked with nerves, giddy with excitement, laid low with an expectation that swung wildly from staggering optimism to crippling doom. We needed to win; a win and we were in next year’s World Cup in the USA. Wales didn’t qualify for World Cups. We never qualified. We went close a few years earlier, denied by the Scots. But it never seemed all that likely really.  Until now. This time there was a different vibe. We had big Nev in goal, Eric Young and Rats at the back – we had the ever reliable Rushy up front with Saunders. Gary Speed, league championship winner in midfield. Classy, strong, a tireless competitor. Then there was Giggs – the new boy wonder, the wizard, the Welsh George Best. It was a proper team, a good team. Even without Mark Hughes, suspended for the match. We had a real chance. More than a chance. And with the crowd, the roar of the Arms Park. We dared to dream. Nothing seemed more important than winning, achieving our unlikely goals.

Nothing. Not one thing seemed more important in the entire world than that match and more over, the outcome of that match.

A pre-match beer and I took my seat in the stadium with Garf, high in the stands, bellowing our new and much loved song out, bellowed our more traditional anthem out. The players looked ready, they looked up for it. The crowd, 55000 of us, throbbed with tension and excitement. We all forgot that Romania were actually quite a good team. And in Hagi, they had a wonderful gem of a player.

Hagi scored, the crowd sagged, rocked by the set-back, stunned that Nev had let a soft one in – he never did that. Never. The game went on, nothing much happened. My singing lessened, my nerves, my pessimism kicking in. I wanted us to win, to qualify. I wanted it more than I wanted anything else. Isn’t it strange how you get so sucked into these things? Even as it unfolded I knew how illogical, how irrational it all was. But who said life was any of those things anyway?

And then.

Giggs was coming to life, he’d made a few breaks down the right, started to cause problems. A ball into the penalty area, it bounced awkwardly and Gary Speed, so good in the air, leapt like a salmon, steered a header goal wards and Saunders, ever the poacher prodded it home. We were back in it. Game on. The noise ratcheted up, the dream was before us all again. Another attack – it was Speed again, turning in the penalty area caught by Petrescu, brought down. PENALTY!

We were, all of a sudden, one kick from qualification. One moment of composure and clinical finishing away from the most important thing in the world.

As everyone knows, Paul Bodin stepped up that night, coolly slotted the ball into the bottom corner and sent a nation into levels of delirium never before witnessed. He became a national hero, with statues erected across the land in his honour. At the world cup the following summer Wales astonished the world. Inspired by Giggs and Rush and led by the magnificent Speed they cruised through the group stages, walloped Argentina and crushed the Germans on the way to the final, beating the Brazilians in a shoot-out Gary Speed firing home the crucial kick that put Wales on top of the world.

That, in fact, never happened. But my God I’ve dreamed that it had on a number of occasions since.

Bodin missed the crucial penalty on the 17th November 1993. There was a collective sigh of despondency across the 55,000 in attendance and the 3 million or so Welsh folk watching on the TV. Romania scored again near the end, the dream was over. It was the worst feeling in the world – nothing seemed worse than that defeat.

At the final whistle a flare shot from out of the stand opposite me. It streaked across the pitch, a rocket leaving a white trail like a jet engine, disappearing into a section of the crowd forty or so yards away. It caused a minor commotion but I was not interested. My deflated, angry grief was too much. So I left, in silence.

In the pub afterwards, as we quietly and dejectedly gave our post-match analysis, ready to vent our vitriol wherever we could, someone mentioned that the flare had in fact hit someone in the crowd and killed them. Somebody who had gone to that match tonight, had bought a ticket and made his way filled with excitement and tension and nerves and expectation, somebody just like me, had gone to a match and would never again go home.

The defeat still hurt, I won’t pretend otherwise, but it never seemed quite as important after I heard that.

Today, 27th November 2011, I was standing on a muddy field on a sunny Sunday morning in Cardiff watching my son play rugby. The twenty year-old version of me would probably not recognise today’s more seasoned model. As I stood there, among the other cheering parents, all keen for their own to do well, to score the crucial try, make the important tackle, my phone buzzed. At the same time the phones of other parents began to buzz. This is how we get our news these days.

Every phone said the same thing. Every parent refused, initially, to believe it.

Gary Speed was dead, aged 42.

Speed has been a stalwart of Welsh football for two decades. Handsome, athletic, well spoken. A top class footballer and currently reviving Welsh football as team manager – the team all of a sudden being compared to that team. His team. The team of 1993.

They say football is a matter of life and death.

It isn’t.

Life, unfortunately, is.

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