Euro 2016 Part 1
The Euros began for me in Marseille after I had travelled via Barcelona and Nimes.
11th June England 1 Russia 1 Stade Velodrome Marseille 62,343
This was a game England should have won against a poor Russian team in the very impressive rebuilt Velodrome stadium.
We came close a number of times before, surprisingly, Dier took a free kick that beat Akinfeev.
Rooney played in the no.10 role and did ok - it would seem likely that will be his position from now onwards.
His passing was certainly better than most as it was a game that had a curious number of errors (e.g Joe Hart kicking the ball into touch - nerves ?)
The Russians were even worse.
England controlled most of the match with Sterling, for example, having lots of the ball.
But to generally little effect.
As always one goal might not be enough and so it was with defender Berezutski rising to head in an undeserved leveller in added time.
That was a blow - and there was plenty of those inside & outside the ground as well as clashes in the old port.
We avoided all that but the sirens kept going into the night.
Marseille was also troublesome for those trying to get back to their distant hotels, like your correspondent, with no taxis picking up and only, limited, night buses as a way back.
It meant a return by 1.40am and not much sleep.
12th June Turkey 0 Croatia 1 Parc des Princes 43,842
I made the Ouigo train from Marseille to Disneyland(Marne) and then eventually on to the Parc just in time to get a ticket outside and into the stadium about 15 minutes before kickoff.
Compared to the previous night this game had more quality, particularly the crosses.
Unfortunately the heading ability is not what it was and numerous chances were spurned, mostly by the Croats but also some by Turkey.
Croatia definitely edged the possession and provided the threats, hitting the woodwork and often going close.
It took a brilliant volley by Real Madrid’s Luka Modric from 30 yards, late in the first half, to decide the outcome and that strike certainly deserved to seal the victory.
Afterwards Croatia were mostly content to waste time and frustrate the Turkish fans.
Back at the Paris hotel I watched most of NI v Poland and half of Germany’s game, before falling asleep.
I needed a good sleep.
13th June Ireland 1 Sweden 1 Stade de France 73,419
Suitably rested I made the metro + RER ride to the Stade.
Again it was a showery, cloudy day in Paris.
And there was a massive turnout of (slightly more) Swedish and Irish fans.
The men in green often had the better of this encounter and might count themselves unlucky to only get a draw.
They developed a number of chances, O’Shea just missing one cross and Hendrick delivering one effort that clipped the bar.
It was a promising and encouraging performance in a difficult group.
And Ireland got the merited lead when Houlahan half volleyed the opener just after the break.
That set the Irish fans alight - they’re not used to seeing many goals !
However they’re also used to disappointment and sure enough that would come about 20 minutes later when Ibrahimovic was set free down the left and his cross was inadvertently headed into his own net by Ciaran Clark.
The Swedish star man featured then but generally he was constrained by the Irish defence.
The odds favour teams who manage three draws making it through so Ireland could still progress.
Again the RER and metro worked fine & I made it back to watch Italy take care of Belgium.
15th June Switzerland 1 Romania 1 Parc des Princes 43,576
Into the second round of matches and back to the Parc - I find it a consistently atmospheric stadium with fine viewing, certainly from the upper levels.
At this one the Swiss fans outnumbered the Romanians and for those who needed a ticket there were numerous on offer outside.
Switzerland began well pressing their opponents but Romania absorbed those moves and they went ahead from a Stancu penalty.
Given for handball it looked harsh.
Both sides would go on miss chances before Mehmedi was given too much time to line up the equaliser from the edge of the box.
The Swiss generally looked the better side but Romania did enough to keep their interest in the tournament.
A brisk exit and I was on the metro and in comfortable time to join the locals at my hotel watching the hosts beat Albania thanks to two late goals.
Two glasses of vin blanc were sampled as Payet and co. ensured France qualified for the next phase.
16th June England 2 Wales 1 Lens 34,033
I decided to forgo the train (Thursday being a strike day ?) and opt for the bla bla car option.
Which worked well, a pickup at the Palais Congres and we were in Arras before 10.30am.
Like many of our guys I stayed at another basic F1 hotel.
But at least with an earlier kickoff there was no problem getting back afterwards.
Memories of ‘98 came back as I emerged from Lens station - that small town with crowds looking for tickets.
This time I had one whereas back at the World Cup I had to pay a substantial premium.
And as against Colombia there was no shortage of atmosphere with the Welsh fans being in the minority.
But everyone mixed Ok and even the respective anthems were applauded.
Hodgson opted to retain the same team and that soon looked unwise.
But sometimes in tournaments the optimum eleven does not emerge until later (eg England ‘66) and hopefully a coach will adapt accordingly.
Whether our man can do that is an open question.
Anyway change became a priority after Gareth Bale’s dipping free kick eluded Joe Hart.
On came Vardy & Sturridge and eventually Rashford to present an un-Hodgson like all-out attack.
Against a better team it might have come unstuck but with Wales backing off the pressure finally told.
First Williams inadvertently set up Vardy to equalise then Sturridge calmly converted the winner from close range in added time.
Somewhat tough on the Welsh who for periods seemed to want it more than England.
However the space given the likes of Walker and Rooney meant it was probably only matter of time before Hodgson could express his relief whereas for a while he was contemplating his exit cheque.
Train back to Arras, bus and a meal (not bad - salad + cod + vin blanc) in the Balladins hotel, Germany on TV.
18th June Portugal 0 Austria 0 Parc des Princes 44,291
After a stopover in Amiens where the rain showers continued but the food was fine and the entertainment - 3 games on TV - conducive.
From there I took a morning train and the metro to my hotel near the Paris Opera.
A central area that offers plenty of restaurants and cafes and is convenient for getting to the Parc.
Getting there was the relative easy part, getting a ticket was a lot more troublesome with few around and many also looking.
Eventually I made it inside slightly late but without missing too much.
Portugal could be billed as ‘Ronaldo + 10 other guys’ because one way or another he is often the centre of attention.
This time his moment came in the second half, with about ten minutes remaining, when the Italian referee awarded a spot kick.
Up stepped our hero - but for once he failed with his strike hitting the post and rebounding to safety.
Quel dommage !
But in a way Austria deserved something because of their resolute defending.
They rarely threatened at the other end but they remained (and looked) determined in thwarting the more talented Portuguese.
Free kicks, corners and crosses were all repelled leaving the much more fancied Portuguese with just two points from there two matches so far.
20th June England 0 Slovakia 0 St Etienne 39,051
Train from Paris to Lyon - no problem - train to St Etienne also OK.
Meet up with a friend and find a fairly quiet restaurant - not too easy but managed.
Enjoy the meal.
So far so good.
But as always with the England matches things, certainly at tournaments, often become harder.
The scrum getting in, the pushing and shoving.
And on the pitch it did not go as planned either with Slovakia employing a solid, well organised defence.
They rarely threatened apart from a Smalling error but achieved what they set out to do.
While Hodgson’s six changes, well trailed in advance, looked somewhat risky.
Vardy was a popular inclusion and he came close a couple of times while Dele Alli, on as a substitute, also nearly broke through.
But we found it increasingly difficult to break down the opponents despite them conceding space.
I did cast my mind back to ‘98 again and that famous goal by Owen at this venue - I wonder with it crossed Hodgson’s mind that Rashford might have done the same ?
Anyway it came to pass, with Wales winning, that we would finish second in the group.
The consequences became telling when the Round of 16 fixtures were clarified and we had France as likely rivals in the quarter finals plus Germany, Italy and Spain in the same section of the draw.
Meanwhile on the way back to St Etienne, just when the tram was going along nicely, an idiot lets off a flare inside the vehicle, the driver naturally stops and we go no further.
That meant a long walk and a late arrival at the station to be faced with a long queue.
So a late arrival back in Lyon and some extra drinks to calm down.
21st June N.Ireland 0 Germany 1 Parc des Princes 44,125
Again a limited sleep and an early train back to the capital for another visit to the Parc des Princes.
This match was memorable for the superb NI fans and their improbable ‘Will Griggs on Fire’ song.
That and the performance of their goalie Michael McGovern of the famous Hamilton Academicals.
He stopped nearly everything the Germans produced and it was only a Mario Gomez strike on the half hour that eluded him.
It was an heroic defensive effort by the men in green and the reward would come when it resulted in them squeezing into the 3rd place qualifying positions.
I made it back to my hotel in time to see Croatia surprise Spain and hence contribute to the unbalanced split as mentioned above.
22nd June Iceland 2 Austria 1 Stade de France 68,714
Anyone wanting to get a ticket for this one could easily be accommodated.
But though it was never going to be full those in the stadium witnessed a famous win for the smallest nation at the event.
Iceland went ahead from what looked like a foul throw with Bodvarsson benefiting after 18 minutes.
Prior to that the islanders had showed intent when Gudmunsson had clipped the bar.
Austria should have equalised twenty minutes later but Dragovic dragged his penalty onto the post.
However eventually the pressure from Arnautovic and co. told and a fine move ended with popular sub. Schopf scoring.
Austria, needing to win, went hard for the victory, including bringing up their goalie for the final set plays.
But as the match drew to close Iceland had their moment.
A breakaway by Bjarnason down the right and he crossed for Traustason, just on as a substitute, to score a goal that will become part of those Icelandic sagas.
Back at the hotel more drama transpired with Ireland scoring late to beat Italy and Belgium sending Sweden (and Zlatan) home.
So ended the first part of my Euros trip.
Reflecting back the impressions were of large numbers of enthusiastic fans, tight but dramatic matches and an interesting expanded format.
Who would have thought three home nations plus Ireland and Iceland would be in the Round of 16 ?
Generally being in Paris, where I stayed most of the time, worked fine with excellent transport and reasonable stadium access.In the other locations, at the England matches, it was a lot less comfortable.
While the intermittent strikes didn't affect my travel arrangements.