Don’t take me home – a photographer’s tale of living with the fans at EURO2016.
“1-0 to Wales. Gareth Bale strikes again!” The thrilling lyrics from the Manic Street Preachers once again lifted the hairs on the back of my neck and the tournament hadn’t even started yet.
I was on the long drive south from Glasgow to Bordeaux. My heart was full of the pride and cautious optimism that every football fan feels when a major tournament rolls around.
But EURO2016 was no ordinary tournament. I’m a Welsh sports photographer and this was Wales’ first appearance since an unknown Brazilian kid named Pele sent them home from the 1958 World Cup.
I just had to be there to document a moment 58 years in the making.
My plan was deceptively simple. Hire a camper van and head south, picking up the Welsh convoys bound for the opening game in Bordeaux.
From there I would drive to Paris, Lens, The Somme, Bordeaux and Toulouse. I’d shoot all three Welsh group games for Sportpix, plus a couple of Republic of Ireland games.
But it wasn’t just the game action I was interested in. I wanted to tell a different story – the fans’ story of what it means to follow your country at a major tournament.
I approached the Welsh FA with the idea of living with the fans and photographing their experiences and from there, a campervan trip was born.
Arriving at Folkestone after an overnight drive there were red dragons in every queue.
I hopped out and started snapping and chatting, if not yet Snapchatting.
The same was true in France, with Welsh fans to be found (and sometimes heard) at every motorway services on the route south. Most were just happy to be there, talking about employers and local clubs left abandoned by the exodus.
Few dared to dream, even in hushed tones.
Match day started early for the opener, Wales v Slovakia, taking pictures of the fans preparing themselves at a local campsite hidden amongst the vineyards of St Emilion.
Tents and vans were decked out in Welsh flags large and small, while lucky hats/shirts/pants were being unpacked. There was even a dragon onesie in the shower queue.
By midday Bordeaux was a sea of red, with only the occasional island of Slovakian blue and white.
The fans were happily mingling, drinking together and posing for photographs. The sun was out, the beers were cold and history was waiting to be made.
After photographing the fans around the bars and fan zone, I joined the early birds on the tram out to the stadium. The carriages were already filled with fans in fancy dress and the strains of ‘Men of Harlech’. The Slovakians were outnumbered but determined not to be out-sung.
Photographers need to be at the stadium three hours before kick-off, for briefings and the formal process of selecting our shooting location for the game.
We then get to go to the toy cupboard, where Nikon and Canon will lend you their latest kit.
Brandishing some beautiful ‘new’ glass, I headed for the turnstiles. As the gates opened, red shirts swarmed up the stairs of the dazzling white stadium, quickly filling it with flags and beer queues. Fans posed for selfies, pinching themselves that this day had come and they were here.
Ten minutes before kick-off, I was scrummaging with the other photographers in front of the dugouts.
As the teams walked out, the stadium erupted with pride and excitement. “Land of my Fathers” boomed out from all corners of the stadium. Looking beyond the huddled Welsh team, the world got to see what the players came to call “the red wall”.
If ever a team had a 12th man, it was the Welsh fans in France.
Running back to my photo position, I was jumping between taking pictures of the action in front of me and the fans behind me.
Then Gareth Bale scored and all hell broke loose.
With two cameras pointing in different directions I was capturing the on and off field celebrations before starting the process of downloading, captioning and sending photos from my laptop – whilst still keeping an eye on the game.
I was shaking with excitement and the challenges of multi-tasking.
Wales went on to win the game 2-1, with the celebrations in the stands lasting well beyond the final whistle.
“Don’t take me home” could be heard everywhere from the stadium steps to the Bordeaux bars.
Wales were here, the fans were here and it was a picture story that wasn’t ending any time soon.