By Alex Griffiths
Actor, writer and producer merely round off a list of roles that just won’t all fit here. Suffice to say that the man behind the film Don’t Take Me Home could hardly have been better qualified, as Alex Griffiths, who’s not even Welsh, discovered.
From Gary Speed-dominated, sobering intro to Bordeaux and Joe Allen jokes, an Eiffel Tower lit up in red, white and green, cross-channel fervour and two agonising second-half strikes from Ronaldo and Nani in what was the tournament’s 49th game, the film delivers warmth, pathos and humour.
The mere mention of Euro 16 may well be enough to make many readers turn away, let alone view the trailer, yet here is a big screen experience that translates to the small screen with a universal appeal and a great soundtrack. If it’s still too raw for you, maybe your country did not top their group or become the smallest nation ever to reach a major international semi-final.
Starting with the title, and besides being the song you all sang, could you elaborate on the wave you collectively surfed with the Welsh invasion of France in the summer of 2016?
We were all getting back and everyone is saying what a terrible tournament that was, which wasn’t helped by the way the English media filtered things!
From our point of view it was so much better than we all expected, even though we expected better than a lot of pundits who thought we would not even score a goal.
It was more of a party than we thought it would be. Who’d have thought we would make it as far as the 49th game… and yet we all wanted to stay past that. The players didn’t want to go home either, just didn’t want it to end.
Did you have high hopes or dark fears when Martin Atkinson was appointed for the second round encounter with Northern Ireland?
It wasn’t exactly a dirty game, so other than it being a particularly hot day in Paris I don’t think he had that much to do! In some ways it was the toughest game of the tournament for us though, and I know Chris Coleman thought so, but it was all about scraping through on the day.
Merthyr’s Leo Callaghan was on my granddad’s paper round, too, so I just about remember the 1968 FA Cup Final he was in charge of, when Everton beat West Brom! At the age of 7 he took me and granddad into his house and showed us all his souvenirs.
To be completely honest, though, my real favourite was Keith Cooper. He showed Andrei Kanchelskis a red card for handball at Wembley in the 1994 League Cup Final, Manchester United versus Villa, when in those days it was considered such a brave thing to do.
It was just a straightforward one, really, when you look at it now: it was handball on the line, but he showed real character not to shirk that decision, I thought.
It’s such a pity that, now Welsh refs only get FAW games, there is no way they can progress further or be trusted to take games on the European or world stage.
Who did you give a camera to, as there is so much intimate footage, from press box to pub and behind the scenes with the team itself?
I did it as many different ways as I could, in terms of standing with the hardcore to going corporate, but while I was there I had no idea I’d be making a film at all! I only started it in September and delivered it in February, so it did not even take us six months after the FAW asked me to use footage they had, plus whatever we could add afterwards.
There’s a credit in there for 11-piece brass band and techno stylists @TheBarryHorns even though they missed the musical cut… we couldn’t afford a clip of them playing Zombie Nation, the big-time Charlies! I was proud of who we did get on there, though.
There was talk of an album but I was happy to hear someone called bluebird68 has gone and turned it into a Spotify playlist. My guess was that people would be open to seeing all kinds of footage and the reaction has proved me right, but I was lucky the FAW trusted me… they didn’t even see it themselves until the premier!
If the Welsh players famously shared a generational thing, did that apply to you and the manager, Chris Coleman, too?
It’s one reason I kept the bit in about Argentina, we did bond on that being our first big football memory as kids: Gemmill’s goal, Cruyff not going, ticker tape, Kempes and that mad game where they scored just enough goals against Peru to go through.
He speaks so well of course, and we were lucky we had the press conference footage, too.
There is an outstanding sequence where he talks about Wales never before being spelt with a Q [for qualified] which helped bring home the sense of destiny this group seemed to share.
Well once I knew we had Chris on board I knew we’d be OK and we did get on well. I especially liked where he told us that after Cardiff had welcomed them back as if they had actually won, he has said to Gareth Bale, you don’t see something like this very often, do you, and Bale poured water on his fire with: “Well I’ve just seen it in Madrid, actually!” As you would, having won the Champions League.
He wanted the film to show that the dressing room belonged to the players, not to him, and he was reluctant to take credit for the esprit de corps even though he played such a large part in it.
Have you any thoughts regarding the undeniable disconnect between England team and fans, which is contrasted by the relationship depicted in your film? For instance, Aaron Ramsey talks about catching up with YouTube clips of fan parties, and while Wayne Hennessey is complaining about not being able to get a go on the table tennis because all the tables are spoken for, one England defender was infamously tweeting a model about him rather being with her in Ibiza…
The Welsh hardcore supporters are like this army of 2,000 who all dress like the Super Furry Animals and down the years have become really close-knit, partly because it had been a thankless task for so long and you could only control what went on off the pitch, I suppose.
It’s a distinctive bunch, with the same bucket hats, trainers and tastes, enough of them to launch a label called Spirit of 58, in fact. France saw this whole very specific movement bloom, in a way.
These are far from passive fan groups, but they do tend to trust Mark Evans, who appears in the film, and has been at the FAW 28 years or something, working his way up to head the international department there.
So he has vast experience of what it takes to move people around and negotiate for ticket allocations and so on. It’s one of many strong relationships that has helped Wales come back from some very dark days.
There was just this overwhelming sense of ‘we are them’ and ‘they are us’. As one of the players points out, he was looking from the pitch up at the stands and he knew if he hadn’t been playing that’s where he’d have been anyway.
Joe Ledley, Chris Gunther and Aaron Ramsey had been mates since young boys and again England showed that you just can’t buy that. It might have influenced the bigger group as a whole, because there was a genuine feeling of going away on holiday with your best mates for the very first time. France was France, by which I mean it wasn’t all just about the drinking, there was loads of cultural stuff everywhere we went too, and you didn’t have the logistical nightmare of a Russia… now that will be hard work!
Wales ultimately missed out on a fairytale final appearance, so are you in that romantic camp that wishes they had played in red versus Portugal and, for that matter, England? If not, what would you blame!
Even though wearing red can be one of those mental blocks that can help you beat yourself, actually I feel it was suspension that cost us most. While the cautions which cost us Ramsey and Davies through suspension for the semi were justified, and were not even harsh, my problem is with the system which robs you of players for doing their job.
Ramsey in particular, for me had been sensational up to that point. Not that we were the better team in either of the games we lost, but I really don’t think it’s fair to ask players, especially playing in the positions those two do, to go six games without getting booked twice, so that’s something that really should be looked at, in my opinion.