From a Portakabin to the Parc des Princes, Neil Taylor painted a portrait of Welsh history in the making, outlining the extent of their achievement.
Fifty-eight years they had waited to return to a major tournament and, when they did, it was to win their group. Gareth Bale, twice a winner of the European Cup, said this was “right up there with anything I have done”; it is right up there with anything any of them has done, a journey encapsulated in the moment the ball reached Taylor inside the area and time seemed to slow down in Toulouse.
There he stood, alone before Igor Akinfeev. With Wales already leading 1-0, this was a chance that could define what came next. “A crucial goal,” Taylor called it, turning what could have been an evening to endure into one to enjoy: “a really nice” game, in his words, that magnificent destruction of Russia becoming a reality.
So, nerves? “Yeah, of course,” Taylor said, and then it came to him just what he had done. “I looked to square it twice. No one was there. I looked to put it through the keeper’s legs. He didn’t open them. So I said: ‘Just put your foot through it.’ And I managed to score in the end. It was a special feeling.”
Wales, population three million. Russia, 143 million. Score: 3-0. “As a nation geographically we are small but, if you’re judging us on passion, we could be described as a continent,” Chris Coleman said.
Wales have come a long way; they may yet have a long way still to go. First stop is Paris this Saturday. On trains back from Toulouse supporters were busy changing plans, a logistical nightmare they barely dared dream of. There was something eloquent in the scene, eloquent too in it being Taylor, 27, who takes them there, a player who joined Swansea for £150,000 in 2010 and who had not scored in 149 games since.
It was well past midnight when he went back over it, Bale pausing behind Taylor to lean in and adopt a silly voice to ask: “Oh, did he score?” Yes, he did. The last time Taylor had scored was for Wrexham against Grays Athletic in the Blue Square Bet Premier in April 2010. Not that Taylor needs telling; he remembers it well. “Grays away,” he said. “That was my last game for Wrexham actually. It was a volley at the back post: it was a bit nicer than the one today.”
There were 298 people there that day. “Including the players,” Taylor said. “I don’t know [how many of the 298 I actually knew] but we got changed in a Portakabin that day. I do remember that.”
A Portakabin. It sums up just how huge this achievement is. “Exactly,” Taylor said. “It is massive for all of us. The players should be very proud of themselves. There are a lot of players now playing at a very high level. That never used to be the case; Wales didn’t always have that. But most of the players, a lot of them, are now playing in the Premier League. We’re very proud of what we have done and how far we have come. Let’s just enjoy the journey. The fans enjoyed it. Let’s enjoy it too.”
One of the most striking things about Toulouse was that they really did enjoy this, the full repertoire rolling round the stadium, the soundtrack to a performance of astonishing superiority. “You have to learn from your defeats and we learned loads from that game against England. We didn’t play half as well as we should on the ball, we weren’t brave enough. We decided that if we’re going to go out, we’re going to do it our way,” Taylor said.
“We defended well and we probably should have got a draw with a minute to go against England, and we would have taken that. But deep down we knew we hadn’t played well. And we spoke: ‘Listen, win, lose or draw, let’s go out playing the way we play.’ It takes some bravery to actually do that in a tournament like this and we proved that we can play good football.
“It’s a crucial goal, the second one, and then the third made it a really nice game for us. It was an unbelievable feeling, to win the game in the manner that we did; the last 30 minutes of the game was enjoyable. We topped the group, so we’re the best team in the group, and to be able to enjoy it with the fans was a really special occasion.”
To be able to enjoy it with his family, too. They had waited as well – not 58 years but they had. Taylor has two children, aged five and two, and a third on the way in August. “It was nice to have them here with us. I haven’t seen them for probably 25 days. It’s more difficult for the kids. We’ll see them tomorrow, so the missus is happy,” he says with a smile. They got to see their dad score too. His parents must also have been proud.
Taylor’s mother is from Calcutta and he has family in Delhi, so it is put to him that he may well be the first player of Indian descent to have scored at a European Championship finals. “Yeah, not only that: I’m actually ahead of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic,” he shoots back, quick as a flash.
The family probably expected him home soon but instead he is heading to Paris. Tens of thousands of Welsh supporters will follow. “We’re enjoying the tournament at the moment. It’s great. The most important thing is that you can see the emotion with the fans, with the crying and the singing and everything,” he says. “And hopefully Wales will empty out again for Saturday in Paris.”
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