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“I know that was then, but it could be again…”

I was one of the lucky 20,000 who got to watch England v Croatia at Wembley on Sunday. We’d bought our tickets for 50 euros 2 years ago by applying in the UEFA ballot. Major tournaments are a big deal in our house and I said to my bloke “come on, let’s try for some games”. We applied for about 3 or 4 different cities around Europe, with the expectation that we wouldn’t be successful for all of them and we felt pretty fortunate to be told a few weeks later that we had what was then an unknown group game at Wembley. We’d have been happy to watch any game in the Euros but, when the groups were subsequently drawn, our match became England v Croatia and I was really thrilled to be going to England’s opening match.

Having already been delayed a year, I became convinced that the Euros would be played behind closed doors and felt really gutted that my chance to watch England in a major tourno on home soil had been taken from me. But then UEFA announced that it would be 25% capacity and they would thus do a further ballot of those who had tickets. I was fully expecting to miss out but, against all the odds (well, 1 in 4), we made the cut!

As you will be aware, the build-up to that match was massive. On a personal level, there was preparation to be made as we had to provide proof of a negative test and didn’t find out exactly how that would work until 5 days before kick-off. I largely self-isolated the week or so before because I didn’t want to get this far, only to find I couldn’t go because I had Covid! Getting my negative test felt like a golden ticket.

On the Friday, I tweeted that we were going to Wembley and inadvertently kicked off a bizarre weekend of finding myself taking calls from Radio Bristol, Radio 4 and 5 Live, all asking me to speak on their shows about how I got tickets, how excited I was for the game and whether I thought England could win it – it was enjoyable but an odd experience.

We went to London the day before and made a weekend of it. We stayed in Pimlico, which is a lovely chilled little area for eating and drinking. Our entry slot for Wembley was 11.30-12, which meant being organized that morning. As we walked to the tube station, I saw pubs setting up their seating and their outside screens, the hot sun already promising a scorcher. It felt really special to feel the anticipation of the whole country, knowing we were actually going to Wembley to watch it.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment when we stepped out of the tube to see Wembley Way before us, already alive with flags and singing. I’m not embarrassed to admit I shed a little tear – I felt so bloody pleased to be there. I had a little look at a wagon selling scarves etc and was reminded of when my church youth group went to Luton Airport to greet the England team’s plane when they came home from Italia ’90 – I’d spent all my food money on a flag and, when I returned with it, my mum and my older sister berated me for making

such a ridiculous purchase. I have no idea what happened to that flag but I do know that, given the choice again, I’d do exactly the same thing. Remembering my 12 year old football-obsessed self in that moment added another element of emotion that is difficult to describe.

I thought getting in would be a nightmare but the entry slots worked really well and we sailed through the checks. It was 28 degrees so we were armed with sun cream but, rather thankfully, we found our seats were in the shade. At matches, I quite often look enviously over at those stood in the sunshine but, on that day, I think we would have really suffered. Not only were we in a lovely cool spot, but our seats were great too. I’m a Bristol Rovers season ticket holder and, like everyone else, haven’t attended a live football match for 15 months so getting in and seeing the pitch was exhilarating.

I thought we’d get bored waiting for kick-off but, by the time we’d faffed about and chatted to the Hull City fans near us, it didn’t feel very long. The Hull fans had paid £700 between 4 of them! It felt pretty empty in there and seemed slightly flat but then, in the last 30 minutes, it really filled up and it became electric. It was admittedly weird being spread out and I would have rather had a full stadium, but that final build-up to 2pm was brilliant. I’d been a little anxious about the ‘knee moment’ but, apart from a few initial boos behind us, all you could hear was clapping and cheering. I thought of all those millions of people watching all over Europe – in pubs; in beer gardens; in public squares; on tiny monitors at work; in living rooms – and reminded myself how lucky I was.

I enjoyed the game although, after a lively first 20 minutes, England appeared to tire in the heat and so did the crowd. Sterling’s goal in the second half obviously helped matters. I noticed that the child of one of the Hull fans was clearly a bit bored – he was showing all the signs of just not being that interested in the game and I winced a bit when I thought of how much his dad had paid.

And then, after all that build-up, it was over. With the chants of Three Lions still ringing in our ears, we made our way back to Pimlico and watched Netherlands v Ukraine in a pub. We talked about how the weekend we had just had will be long remembered as one of our best.

I like to think that one day, when I’m 80 and watching a tournament on TV, I’ll think back to that boiling hot Sunday afternoon and smile.


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