Pictures showed fans congregating outside bars, arms out stretched, singing songs looking menacing – it was like going back to the hooligan movement of the 1980s.
The main headlines on the radio stations were dominated with reporters listing every flash point involving anyone in an England shirt – ready to pounce on any disorder.
From seeing and hearing the news you felt like you were entering a war zone.
When I told friends and family I was going to Lille the replies I received were to ‘stay safe’. My dad poetically put it as ‘you are going into the heart of the devil’s den’ – when was the last time you had been told that going to a football game?
Of course we were aware of the advice of the FA and Foreign Office to avoid Lens or Lille but it came too little too late.
It put us in a predicament, had we gone to the host city Lens and been involved in trouble people would have said ‘you were told not to go’. And if we went to Lille and been chased by marauding Russian yobs people would also say ‘you were told not to go their too’.
We decided to go to the Lille fan zone and monitor the situation.
On Wednesday we set off for Euro 2016 driving from Wolverhampton to Folkestone. A delay of 90 minutes at the crossing meant England and Wales fans were mixing in the terminal and the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed – this eased my nerves over any clashes between the two groups of British fans after crossing The Channel.
We headed to Kortrijk in Belgium which is a 30 minute train ride from Lille and a lot cheaper than staying in a host city. On the evening, myself and my friends, Matty and Stefen, went into Kortrijk to get a bite to eat and watch the football in a local bar.
There were English and Welsh fans out on the town and teaching the locals some British chants – this included ‘s**t on the Villa’ from a group of Birmingham City fans who seemed to be having a great time.
Shortly after a group of around eight Slovakia fans walked past the bar and they were in great voice. I got a picture with them and the final words a Slovak fan said to me as he left was ‘good luck tomorrow – do us proud’ – tension? What tension?
We got an early night as we had a 6am train from Belgium in Lille, we had booked when we were travelling further along the line to Lens.
Waking up on Thursday morning I checked Twitter and was met with news of clashes between police and England fans across Lille. It was the largest disorder to happen since Marseille with 36 fans getting arrested and police deploying tear gassed.
Great, we’re on one of the first trains into Lille and I’m sure the locals couldn’t wait to see more England fans descend on their city after the previous night.
We didn’t want to antagonise the people of Lille so we kept our shirts covered and our Wolves/England flag tucked in our pocket.
Walking out of Gare de Lille Flandres (the city’s main train station) it was very subdued (ok it was before 7am) the street cleaners were out and locals were going about there business with no issues all – it was hard to believe hours before it had been the scene of clashes.
Across the street from the station was Les 3 Brasseurs and La Palais De La Biere, these were the two bars I recognised from television footage where the majority of football fans had congregated. All was quiet and had we not seen reports back home you would never know it had been at the centre of a ‘war zone’.
In all honesty we felt all eyes were on us. I couldn’t blame them, how would you feel if football fans had come to your town been involved in disorder and dragged your town’s reputation through the mud with it? Remember Glasgow Rangers are still banned from Manchester following their UEFA Cup final in 2008.
We wanted to come across as approachable and polite as possible in an effort to show England fans we’re not all bad people. At one point a lady riding her bike dropped her lunch box and I picked it up and gave it her back – I responded to her ‘merci beaucoup’ purposely in English – we had to go on the charm offensive.
After getting breakfast in a nice cafe near the centre of Lille we walked towards the Gare de Lille Flandres to see if more England fans were milling around. By this time television cameras were all lined up and fixed on the Les 3 Brasseurs bar and it looked like the fans were to make the headlines again for all the wrong reasons.
We were approached by Radio 5 Live to see if we wanted to do an interview and we agreed. I wanted to get across that those involved in the trouble were the minority out of tens of thousands in France and we should be focusing on the passion of the two sets of fans ahead of a massive game for the UK.
I knew the headlines was all about the troublemakers and I didn’t want to speculate on how it had all started. I wasn’t in Lille on Wednesday night, I wasn’t amongst the fans who were charged at by police so I wasn’t going to condemn my own supporters before I knew what happened.
After speaking to 5 Live we were asked by the BBC if we wanted to go on live TV – we didn’t even hesitate.
We agreed to meet at 9.50am and we had half an hour to wander about – by this time our shirts and flag were out. We bumped into some fellow Wolves fans from Sedgley and asked them about the trouble the night before. They told us they hadn’t seen a thing despite being out in the city centre at the time of the disorder. ‘It was all quiet where we were, no problems at all’, we were told.
The three of us met with the BBC and were interviewed by Ben Brown. We were going to be asked about the disorder and to effectively criticise our fellow fans – but again I stated we wasn’t there. I’ve been a football fan long enough and been to let’s say ‘lively’ away days with Wolves where one person’s actions can cause pandemonium. I’m no thug nor have I ever pretended to be. What happened on Wednesday night wasn’t fair for me to provide a snapshot analysis as any comments would be speculation.
In the interview I explained that both England and Wales fans were passionate and fans versus the police isn’t something you want to see. But I repeated my sentiments that we all needed to concentrate on the football that it was a huge game and it was only a minority of fans who were involved in any issues.
The BBC pressed about the trouble with England fans but it was becoming tiresome to read I wanted to get across that we’re all here for a good time and only a few overstepped the mark but the vast majority do not.
It’s sounds anti-BBC, but it’s not at all, I think that the national press have decided on a narrative that England fans are uneducated football louts who travel overseas get drunk and rowdy. The cameras were aimed at Les 3 Brasseurs waiting for any ‘rowdiness’ to happen. In fact at one point two delivery men dropped a cage containing supplies, it drew a large cheer (like the reaction of a smashed glass in a pub) and the TV crews were on the front foot like the start of the 100 meters – it was totally harmless.
Anything that falls into that image of ‘the English thug’ is a catch for them and when the BBC producer told me fan trouble in France had been its most-read story on the website there you had the press’ incentive.
I’ve read tweets by some national journalists about the England fans in Lille and it is worrying to say the least. It offers an out of touch insight into football fans on away days. Point cameras at Wolves fans you would find the similar behaviour of what I saw in Lille, the same behaviour that happens every single weekend up and down the country but yet this time it has commanded so many column inches, television coverage and national bodies to get involved.
I would describe it as boisterous, passionate and loud. This includes certain chants which cause the un-familiar football fan to draw a sharp in take of breath. It’s not a defence but perhaps an explaination, that the songs about the German bombers and the IRA aren’t sang out of hatred of Germans and the Irish, (for a start both respective countries had fans who rubbed shoulders with England supporters at the fan zone) they’re simply a catch ditty that is sung in an effort to start an atmosphere.
To sing a song do you really have to believe in its meaning? Do Wolves fan hand heart (hope to die) believe Wolves are ‘by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’… ok bad example but you get my point.
After boring BBC TV viewers we headed to the fan zone by which point my phone was going crazy as everyone had seen us on their screens, my mate Pete Madeley of the Express & Star (who’ll probably deny I’m his mate now) called me to get my thoughts and again I called it how I found it, Lille was peaceful, both sets of fans were in high spirits and everyone was excited for the game.
Once in the fan zone even the rain didn’t dampen the spirits of fans. I had some long football chats with Welsh Everton fans who now live in Liverpool and a chap from Bridgend who just couldn’t believe Wales had made a major tournament. I lost count how many times we had people shout ‘up the Wolves to us’ and later on heard another England fan say ‘Wolves must have the most amount of fans out here’.
As for the game what can you say? The atmosphere at the fan zone was sensational.
When Wales scored their fans went wild England were stunned into silence but they all stuck with the team.
It took Roy Hodgson to bring on Vardy and Sturridge to get the England fans buzzing again and when the Leicester man equalised the fan zone erupted. Beer everywhere, limbs everywhere it was officially scenes.
Then that Sturridge’s strike in the 91st minute, I’ll make a confession not since Mark Kennedy, Millennium Stadium 2003 have I celebrated a goal like that. Some may ask ‘really?’ And I’ve thought about it since.
It had been my dream to go to a major tournament with England and the actions of a minority of fans almost took that away from me. There had been so much build up to this game, fear mongering in the national press about England fans, then add this with people from our own country joining other country’s supporters by condemning ALL England fans (which still continues as I write) . Thrown of course a 91st minute winner at a major tournament into the mix it was something else.
The goal went in and I didn’t move yet it was utter pandemonium around me. Thrown beer (€7.50 each) created a blanket across the sky, strangers jumping and hugging one another – a true moment of ecstasy.
As I wiped the Carlsberg from my eyes and peeled the arm of an emotionally drained England fan from around my neck I looked up at the screen and saw a devastated Dave Edwards and a part of my heart broke.
I saw hundreds of Welsh fans looking at the screen in utter shock and I thought it was the right thing to do to go up and console them. I was offering hugs and telling them it was ‘cruel’. That’s what football is about we all work hard to go watch our team in the hope they win and you have a great time – it’s what unites fans even if our language doesn’t.
My experience in Lille was a united front from football fans having the time of their life. It’s how it was and it was how it should be.
By Adam Thompson