Archive for July, 2016

The Agony and the Ecstasy Continues

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

Wales play Portugal in the semi-final of the European Championships tomorrow. It’s been a dream tournament for me, and dare I wish for more success and a place in the final? The ninety minutes against the No 2 ranked team in the world, Belgium, was nerve wracking and spine tingling, and I’ve borrowed Barney Ronay’s article from the Guardian to capture the emotions of that match:

As the clock ran down in those febrile, oddly still moments after Sam Vokes’s goal had confirmed what everyone in the Stade Pierre Mauroy already knew, the Welsh end lolled and bounced around like a huge, seething red-shirted basket of kittens. Wales were 3-1 up against Belgium, on their way to the semi-finals, and two games away from actually winning this tournament.

Really, though, this was too much detail. It was simply a glorious, self-contained moment, the kind that never leaves fans who were there, the sky in Flanders filled with the crackles and shouts and roars of a crowd entirely drunk on the spectacle. On the pitch Belgium’s players scurried about looking beaten and flattened and frankly a little incredulous.

It had been a gloomy day in Flanders, a great damp plain that even in mid-summer retains its embedded gloom. All day Lille had been turned red by 150,000 travelling Belgians, who had hopped across the border into this lovely ornate town right up in the north eastern armpit of France. And yet it is Wales who will now travel to Lyon to play Portugal, taking their first appearance in a tournament for 58 years right to the final knockings.

If there was a moment of sadness, it came with Aaron Ramsey’s yellow card in the second half for a needless handball. Ramsey will now miss the semi-final. But he had a wonderful game here on a wild night in Lille, in a game that settled around a genuinely stunning moment 10 minutes into the second half.

Ramsey played his part here too. The introduction of Marouane Fellaini after the break had been a tribute to his influence, an extra rumbling body to wrest back an area of Welsh strength. It seemed to work for 10 minutes. And then, abruptly it didn’t.

“I’ve taken the ball, turned and just hit it,” Hal Robson-Kanu said afterwards. Which is certainly one way of putting it, just as Rubens’ Descent From The Cross is a nice picture of some people standing around and Notre Dame cathedral is a big building by a river. No, Hal. You’re not getting away with that.

Has there ever been a better individual moment in Welsh football history than Robson-Kanu’s goal here? Perhaps not, given the perfect synchronicity between the three players that made it; and beyond that an entire flickering showreel of choices made, tiny little shifts, right moves, steps forward that brought this vibrant group of players to Flanders in the first place.

The move started with Ramsey’s driving run through the Belgian midfield to take a lovely floated pass from Gareth Bale on his toe. Ramsey killed the ball and turned to cross. What happened next was breathtaking. It is a moment that will play forever in the background for Robson-Kanu, who paused for the tiniest moment, then produced an utterly outrageous Cruyff-style turn, the pirouette so swift, so brutally dismissive the comparison seems just.

Three Belgian defenders ran the wrong way, a lovely and indeed very funny moment of physical deception. Robson-Kanu shifted his weight and buried it. And then off he went, continuing on his way to hurl himself into his team-mates on the touchline. Oh, Wales. What have you done here?

It was all the more startling given the beginning to this game. The Welsh fans had produced the usual class-leading anthem before kick-off, prickling neck hairs all around the stadium. But it was Belgium who began at a rush, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard linking with precision. With eight minutes gone they somehow contrived not to score, three successive close-range shots blocked by a flailing wall of red shirts.

Hal Robson-Kanu … scores!

Finally Wales found a glimpse of space, Bale turning and running at goal from halfway, one against six, looking for a moment like peak-era Jonah Lomu carrying an under-the-cosh schools team forward against the Aussies.

Still Belgium moved the ball between them with an ominous slickness. How long could Wales hold out? Twelve minutes was the answer. Radja Nainggolan’s opening goal was also a stunner. Hazard laid a pass back and Nainggolan struck the ball first time with such sweet-spot precision replays showed just a lovely little mist escaping beneath the ball as he cut across it, both feet off the ground, sending it fizzing into somewhere close to the top corner. Replays might incriminate Wayne Hennessey but in real time it was a shot of unsaveable power.

From there Ramsey drove Wales back into the game. In the first half alone he created five chances, playing with a waspish, needling energy that troubled the Belgium midfield and drew the full backs out into uncomfortable areas. In between he tracked Hazard and fought and grappled to get a handle on the Mad-Max-Euro-playmaker stylings of Nainggolan.

It has been a wonderful tournament for Ramsey, a player who looked a little drained in a varying role between defence and attack at Arsenal last season. Perhaps the difference at this tournament is simply confidence. It has been an occasionally awkward few years at Arsenal. With Wales he looks liberated, darling of the crowd, entirely sure of his role, legs constantly whizzing, a sniping, scurrying menace.

Against the head the equaliser arrived, Ramsey’s corner headed in with bullocking power by Ashley Williams. After half-time there were Robson-Kanu’s unforgettable contribution and a fine header from Vokes to complete the victory with four minutes remaining. And at the end here as the players danced on the pitch, children coming out again to take penalties in front of the Welsh fans, the whole occasion had the feeling of a vast, entirely glorious family wedding.

With the stadium empty on three sides the Welsh players, families and coaching staff were still sitting on the turf, hugging, laughing, giving each other piggy backs and savouring every last tang of the moment. It was, in a cynical old game, a magical but also utterly normal moment of joy, the kind of thing this sport is basically for. Ramsey, the lion of Lille, will be missing on Wednesday. It is a blow. But then nothing this Wales team does from here should surprise anyone.

Postscript: The incredible and implausible journey has finally come to an end losing 0-2 to a Ronaldo inspired Portugal. Thank you and congratulations to the Welsh squad and coaches for a memorable tournament. The group games for the World Cup in Russia 2018 begin in September with a home game against Moldova. Can we per chance to dream that lightning can strike twice and we qualify for another tournament? Watch this space.

Asheville, Hush Puppies and Meltdown

Monday, July 4th, 2016


We spent a pleasant weekend in early April in Asheville, South Carolina which coincided with the weekend of the Masters, but more of that later. We reserved a two night stay at the Engardine Inn situated on the outskirts of Asheville. The owners had done a terrific job in restoration. Built in 1885, it was oozing in charm and nostalgia from a bygone age, accompanied by creaking doors, creaking floors and a creaking bed. Well, my joints have a tendency to creak these days so I fitted right in.

We arrived a day early in Asheville and we booked into the Downtown Inn situated at the heart of Asheville. What do they say about valuable property? Location, location, location………. and it was convenient for the bars and restaurants that Asheville had to offer. But why did I come away with the inert impression I had spent the night at an army barracks complete with a drill sergeant on reception?

Members of our family and well intentioned friends had recommended we visit the Biltmore House and Estate and the Grove Park Inn during our visit. Biltmore Estate is a large (8,000 acre) private estate and tourist attraction in Asheville. Biltmore House, the main house on the estate, is a Chateauesque-styled mansion built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895 and is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet  of floor space (135,280 square feet  of living area). Still owned by one of Vanderbilt’s descendants, it stands today as one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age.

Admission was $65 each which I thought was rather pricey. The audio tour is an extra $20 and a “behind the scenes tour” is another $20 which is extortionate. We breezed through the house and headed for the extensive landscaped gardens. This was far from the madding crowds and much more relaxing.

Darwin Hybrid Tulip varieties were blooming in the Walled Garden and Estate Entry. Other blooms at this time of the year included early flowering shrubs and trees, forsythia, spirea, magnolia, and flowering cherries. We ended the day with some wine tasting and purchased a few bottles to take home.

We were also advised not to miss out on the Grove Park Inn, which is an historic resort hotel built in 1913 on the western-facing slope of Sunset Mountain within the Blue Ridge Mountains. The hotel is an example of the Arts and Crafts style of architecture. I have never heard of that type of architecture before, but no matter.

The hotel was built of rough granite stones and the expansive lobby is noted for its enormous granite fireplaces and expansive porch with its scenic overlook. It was advertised as having “walls five feet thick of granite boulders.” Unfortunately, two monolithic rear wings were added in  1958 and 1963 (the wonderful era of architecture) respectively which destroy the scale and character of the original building. But hey, money is money.

It was Sunday, the last day of the Masters, and we had returned from a long but enjoyable day of sighseeing, eating and drinking. I switched on the TV and Jordan Spieth was leading the tournament by 5 shots entering the 12th tee. In the blink of an eye he managed to score a 7 on the  Par 3 hole, and the tournament slipped through his fingers and won by a little known Englishman, Danny Willett who commendably shot a 67 in the last round. So much for the much vaunted new “Big Three,” Spieth, Day and McIlroy.

We didn’t feel like driving back into Asheville for dinner, so we found a “hole-in-the-wall” barbecue joint, called Frankie’s, bought a takeaway, and returned to the guest house where we feasted on ribs, pulled pork and grilled chicken washed down with a bottle of Malbec; serenely  sitting outside on the balcony of the guest house watching the world go by in the cool of the evening. As we pulled out of Frankie’s 10 minutes earlier, the cashier came tearing out the front door screaming: “Hey stop; y’all forgotten your hush puppies!!!!”

On the way home, we made a detour to Dupont Falls. I’ve seen more dramatic waterfalls, but these have gained notoriety as they were used as a location in the “Hunger Games” movies. I haven’t seen them either, but my wife is a great fan.