I was surrounded by Welshmen on Monday. Former internationals Kevin Ratcliffe, Iwan Roberts and John Hartson were feeling nervous before their match against Russia in Toulouse. They knew Wales had to win to be certain of staying in the tournament but, like many fans, couldn’t get the nagging doubts out of their minds.
My co-commentator, Robbie Savage, had been jittery since breakfast. He was checking his watch every few minutes and passing the time until the evening kick-off by chatting to the dozens of Welsh fans who were in our hotel, most of whom will go home with a Savage selfie. They needn’t have worried – Wales were brilliant, and Gareth Bale was sensational. They deservedly won the game, and Group B after England were stifled by Slovakia’s blanket defence in Saint Étienne.
Wales now head off to Paris for a knockout tie to be played on Saturday night in the Parc des Princes, whilst England will fly south to Nice to play next Monday. I don’t yet know where I’ll be heading for the matches involving the last 16 nations, but I do know it’ll be exciting - that’s when the tension rises and the tournament really gets going.
England’s performances so far have probably been slightly better than their results, but failing to win the group could prove costly. Barring any surprises, Roy Hodgson’s side seem on a path to face France in the quarter-finals. England beat the French in a friendly at Wembley last November, but to win against them in such a big match in Paris would be a very tough assignment indeed.
It says a lot about the popularity of football that BBC TV’s viewing figures of six million people for Iceland’s match against Hungary in Marseille were 18 times larger than the entire population of Iceland itself.
Merely qualifying for the European Championships is a remarkable achievement for Iceland, but to perform as well as they have is one of the best stories of the group stages. I was lucky enough to be commentating as they frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo by drawing with Portugal, and then came within a couple of moments of beating Hungary. Impartiality is vital in my job, but I have to admit to feeling desperately sorry for Birkir Saevarsson when his late own goal gave Hungary their equaliser.
Being alongside Northern Ireland legend Gerry Armstrong as we described his country beating Ukraine was an experience I won’t forget. Until then, Gerry had been the only man ever to score a winning goal for his country at a major tournament – a famous victory over Spain in 1982. You might imagine that he’d be a bit disappointed to see his unique record toppled – in fact he was as excited as any of his countrymen. Only the fact that he was attached to our technician’s commentary kit by the wires of a microphone and headset prevented him from leaping around with the best of them. Back home, you wouldn’t have heard him punching the air but I can assure you that I had to duck out of the way!
The hotels I’ve been staying in haven’t offered British TV channels, so I’ve tuned into the French channel beIN SPORTS, where Arsene Wenger is the star of the show. (Thankfully my rusty A-Level French means I can just about keep up.) On Sunday, we travelled to Toulouse, and I was pleased to discover that our hotel had both ITV and the BBC on its channel list. Watching France play Switzerland finally allowed me to see what I’ve been missing.