When the great Welsh winger Cliff Jones got home after Wales reached the 1958 football world cup quarter-final, so the story goes, some of his friends asked him where he had been, so low-key was the event and the team’s homecoming.
More than half a century on, the return of the class of 2016 to Cardiff following their unexpected but joyous charge to the semi-finals of the European Championship could not have been more different.
Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of the Welsh capital to catch a glimpse of a group of players that came close to being the first British team to reach a tournament final since 1966.
More than 30,000 packed into the Cardiff City Stadium for a free homecoming celebration after an open-top bus parade. They clapped, sang and chanted (and from time to time shed a tear) as the players and manager, Chris Coleman, were presented to the crowd while the rock band Manic Street Preachers belted out a set – closing with the team’s official anthem, Together Stronger, for once a football song that summed up the mood.
Gareth Doyle, 30, a forestry worker from Pontypridd, was the first to bag a place in front of Cardiff castle gates, starting point for the bus parade. “I’m not really a football fan but I’m so impressed by what this team has achieved for Wales,” he said. “They’ve put us on the map.”
A team, containing one truly global superstar in Gareth Bale and a share of journeymen pros, captivated those who normally have no interest in sport or prefer Wales’s traditional favourite game, rugby.
People like Terry and Lynette King, from Cardiff, who were also stationed close to the gates. Asked why they were there, Terry King, 70, said simply: “We’re Welsh.” His wife, 67, added: “We’ve always been rugby fans and that is still our national game. But what this team has achieved means that football will be up there too. We’re so proud of the boys.”
Normally a union flag flies from the the castle alongside Welsh dragons. On Friday the flags and banners were wall-to-wall Welsh. Beneath them, games of football broke out with the castle walls providing a convenient goal. High above, star midfielder Aaron Ramsey clambered on to a ramparts for a selfie.
“This team has captivated everyone,” said Mari Jones, from Newport, who had brought her niece Molly, 10, to see the team. “This motto ‘together stronger’ seems so right. In our street I’ve seen many more kids than ever before playing football. I think they’ve inspired a whole new generation.”
Officer workers leaned out of windows, shop workers left their posts, builders set down their tools to watch the parade. A pair of elderly women in wheelchairs, one clutching a sign reading “I love you Gareth”, had persuaded staff from their care home to push them to a prime spot.
Many fans sang the unofficial Welsh anthem of the tournament: “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home.” It no longer quite made sense but somehow still worked.
In bright sunshine, the bus took a while to make its way to the stadium. There Mike Peters, lead singer of the Alarm, reminded the fans of a melancholy element to this story – the death of Gary Speed, Coleman’s predecessor as Wales manager – and, in tribute, sang a version of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, Speed’s favourite song as the crowd waited for the team to arrive.
Wales had not even reached a major tournament since 1958, when Cliff Jones and his team mates lost to Pelé’s Brazil.
Now one word was repeated time and again. It was written on the players’ open top bus – a message from the team to the fans - and on the home-made signs held up by many supporters lining the streets – diolch: thanks.
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