It is a quiet, overcast evening at the Gol centre in Newport. Yet its five-a-side pitches and bar are fizzing with excitement at Wales’s chances of progressing into the knockout stages of the Euros.
Goalkeeper Bradley Cox, who is warming up before the night’s Man v Fat league, which helps men lose weight, believes the Dragons could go far in the competition. “I’m just so excited because I love football,” he says, taking a break from shot-stopping. “It’s all we talk about at work. We are all buzzing about it.”
It means a lot to these fans that Wales, who are all but guaranteed a place in the last 16 even if they lose to a formidable Italian team on Sunday, are making a positive impression and winning plaudits at a major tournament.
“We are overshadowed by England and we go unnoticed a lot of the time. But we have got a great team so it is massive for our country,” adds Cox.
Expectation appears higher than in 2016, when Wales surprised almost everyone by reaching the Euro semi-finals, before losing to the eventual winners Portugal, in the country’s biggest football match.
“We’re revved up. We are expecting more this time – in 2016 there were no expectations,” says Grant Morgan, 31, who is also playing the Man v Fat league. “We are up there in the rankings now. We used to be considered an easy win. We are not that country any more.”
The centre’s two managers, David Scanlon, 30, and Lee Champion, 32, are showing the game and putting on a barbecue. “There are 13 or 14 people coming down. We’ll have a barbecue and a couple of drinks. There will be loads of Welsh flags up,” says Scanlon, who attends most Wales home games. “I love my football.”
One of the fans joining him will be Rob Taylor, 27. He thinks – perhaps controversially – that football may be displacing rugby in the Celtic country’s affections. “Rugby is massive in Wales. But you just get the feeling that football is overtaking rugby at the moment,” he says, outside the centre’s small bar, with the commentary from the England v Scotland match carrying in the still, slightly muggy night air. He suspects Wales could reach the last eight but doesn’t rule out going all the way: “Could we win it? Why not?”
The director of the centre, Gwilym Boore, is at home after flying back from Azerbaijan, where he watched Wales draw with Switzerland and defeat Turkey, with free-flowing, attacking football. “It was my 101st away game,” he says on the phone from his garden. “It was euphoric. It was a thoroughly uplifting moment in a shitty year.”
Boore, 54, says Welsh fans’ pride in their country doesn’t take the “vile forms” sometimes seen elsewhere. “When the players took the knee, everyone clapped, not to drown out booing, because there wasn’t any … but because we agree with taking the knee,” he says. “It is a more inclusive form of nationalism here. Supporting Wales allows me to manifest my Welshness, see the world and have fun with my mates.”
The team’s spirit and togetherness have impressed fans. “They are not dicks,” says Boore, who has followed the national team for 40 years. “It is just four words but it is important. They are representing us and they are nice people.” Boore is upset that he can’t be in Rome but is optimistic about their chances: “It is really painful to miss the game but it will take a lot for us not to get through.”