It is June 10. In Bordeaux, the French city known as La Belle Au Bois Dormant – the Sleeping Beauty – there are more along the banks of the Garonne than there are in their beds.
It is close to midnight but the locals are busy being taught new songs by a new set of fans to this tournament life, the gleeful blend of Gallic and Gymraeg accents soaring into the night sky as traditional and terrace anthems keep time to the percussion of the thousand clinks of pint glasses.
Those dressed in blue know little of what those uniformly rouge sing of, as happy to be mixing with the smiling invaders as they were at their own team’s win in Paris against Romania earlier in the evening that formally marked the start of the 15th European Championships – Euro 2016.
An impromptu game of football breaks out down one of the side streets, the Olé’s from the alley echoing every time the ball is booted high towards the stars in a kind of continental Eton wall game, the crowd shuffling as one towards the next set piece.
The look on most of the Welsh faces is familiar. It is a smiling disbelief, an awareness that these moments, and the moments to come in a surreal summer, are ones to be savoured. They are the lucky ones, privileged to be present as Wales prepare to take their first steps in a major finals the next afternoon.
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Several flags bear the names of those less fortunate, those who weren’t fated to be in France, those who were missed and missed out. One name appears more than others. Another song starts. This time the locals know the lyrics, know the sentiment. All join in. “There’s Only One Gary Speed.”
It would be sung again at the Stade de Bordeaux the next day, the mass of fans soon to be christened the Red Wall making sure his name took its rightful place and received its rightful tribute.
There is an extra volume in the chant, a strain of necks to make sure the former manager and captain’s name is heard across the football landscape, all tuned in to see the win over Slovakia that would give Welsh football its day in the sun.
Not a single fan is silent, wanting to express the continuing feelings of loss as well as the legacy he gave, laid out on the lush surface in front of them. The sun lights up the arena as Speed’s smile would brighten any room he walked into.
Five years ago, on Sunday, November 27, 2011, the loss of that smile had left Welsh football a darker place.
In these times of social media, the public outpouring of grief over a public figure can sometimes lack a sense of authentic feeling, overshadowing real sincerity or blunting the true sense of loss. Not with Speed.
It might be tempting for some on the outside to wonder whether those in Bordeaux – and the other cities their incredible journey would take them to – chanted his name merely because everyone was doing it, not because of what it meant. Not in the Red Wall, for so many reasons.
Because Speed was long felt to be one of them. In different circumstances he would have been there with them. He hardly missed a game when he played, making the most appearances of any outfield player in Welsh history. Even the day after winning the title with first club Leeds in 1992, a 22-year-old Speed had turned up for an end-of-season friendly, only to be ordered by the then manager Terry Yorath to go back to Yorkshire and celebrate the achievement.
The stories of him playing Tom Jones’ The Green, Green Grass of Home when he crossed the border driving home for games, or the passion with which he spoke of his country and his country’s team, resonated with those who had followed the side through times of little success or hope. And then there was the belief he had given all that things could be different when he arrived as manager.
Because while many in the Stade de Bordeaux missed him as a footballer, that driving midfielder with a toughness disguised by the poster-boy appearance, there were those in the ground who missed him as a man.
There are former team-mates among the media tribunes who knew the Speed of the dressing room, a person full of laughter and life but very much the leader, as he had been so naturally from a young age. As the French summer progressed, father Roger would be spotted in the streets and shaken by the hand, that song again rising up as a nod to his son’s standing in the eyes of all associated with Welsh football.
Then there were the players, the boys of summer who had formed the team Speed had left behind, the side he had claimed he would have struggled to find room for himself in.
Many had come together as teenagers, bonded over the years of struggle and shared hotel rooms and jokes on long journeys. But Speed gave them something new – belief. They looked up to him, the player they would have watched on Match of the Day with a sense of pride at him flying the Welsh flag in the Premier League. They saw the demands and dedication he brought and longed to live up to an idol’s standards.
As his initial time as manager began to bring its rewards – through methods varying from the very latest in sports science to family barbecues and magicians at team dinners – so they believed like the rest of Wales’ football nation believed.
After that dark November day, they mourned like the rest of us.
The us-and-them that modern football can sometimes create between player and supporter did not exist. The togetherness Speed had sought and helped build was tragically evident in the same sense of loss, the same tears that fell, the same questions of “why?” that no-one could answer or ever will be able to answer.
As tributes were placed at the FA of Wales headquarters in Cardiff, the scarves of supporters were knotted next to the No 3 shirt of Neil Taylor.
Just as the death of a hero was a brutal reminder that no-one is insusceptible to what affected Speed, so it showed that fan and footballer are not separated when it comes to dealing with such bleak times.
He had that charm and grace to make all feel he was a friend you could share a drink with. A footballer of intelligence and ability most would envy, and yet normal, like any one of us.
That November day took months and years to overcome. His replacement as manager had struggled, admitting he realised he had been naive to believe he could take over from his friend from the moment he walked into the room to announce his appointment. “I felt as though I had gone behind his back. I was sat in his seat, where he should have been,” says Chris Coleman in the book Together Stronger: The Rise of Welsh Football’s Golden Generation.
Players could not shake it, reminded of their loss every time they reported for international games, no matter what was attempted. They spoke of wanting to do it for Speedo, but seemed incapable of recapturing the spark as Coleman struggled with the tension of taking over and taking it in his own way.
But then it clicked, Coleman finding the leader within him to rise above the problems. Players gained further strength, finding it in each other every time they looked around a dressing room.
They were a side, as Coleman says, who were forged in disaster and able to share a spirit that cannot be manufactured. They had faced the worst and dealt with it. The pressures of a major finals were nothing.
They remembered – they always do – but as Coleman said on the eve of the semi-final: “I do not need a game to remind me of Speeds. He was my friend. I think of him every day. I don’t need football for that.”
But throughout the tournament, the greatest tribute was paid by Coleman and the players who first believed because of one of their own. Speed’s name was sung but his midfield play was seen through Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey.
His commitment and dedication lived on through Gareth Bale, his leadership continued under Ashley Williams and, of course, Coleman. His belief surged through every brick in the Red Wall. They did not have to speak about it, they did not have to lay their emotion on thick – they had done so through deed.
What happened this summer was a tribute to Speed and a tribute to themselves, without saying a word.
But that did not mean there was no reason to sing his name.
In Lille, as a group of red shirts rejoice arm in arm, walking to the metro station from the stadium where Belgium have been beaten, they sing together of Speed: “You will always be, Watching Wales with me.”
And he would have been proud. Just like any one of us.