I can't quite believe it: Coming to terms with Wales' World Cup failure
ON THE TRAIN FROM CARDIFF TO LONDON -- We've just stopped in Newport, not far from the border now. It's raining a little harder than a drizzle. The quiet carriage is especially quiet. The conductor just announced that the next stop is Bristol Parkway in 20 minutes. England ahead. Wales behind.
I didn't really sleep last night. I'm not sure I've taken a sporting defeat as badly as I'm taking Monday night's Welsh loss to Ireland in World Cup qualifying. It would be too strong to say I'm in mourning. I know it's just a game. But I feel low, leveled. I can't quite believe it.
Wales, at home, where they haven't lost in four years. A win against Ireland -- coupled with a Serbia draw -- and Wales are through to the World Cup for the first time since 1958. For the first time in my not-young life, I will see Wales, Land of My Fathers, the best Wales there has ever been, play for the greatest trophy in sport.
Even if Serbia win, a Welsh victory would still have them in a playoff, hope still alive.
Instead, a 1-0 loss. A single mistake, and it's over. For Welsh football, there is no more present tense.
The train eased into Bristol Parkway. The sun came out for a half-second there. It's not raining at least. Next stop: Swindon, 25 minutes.
At Cardiff City Stadium, boxy and intimate, the football writers sit right in the stands. For whatever awful reason, our section was a largely Irish one. During the last frantic minutes of the match, when a Welsh goal would have eliminated both teams, the Irish fans kept interrupting their cheers to ask us how much time was left, how Serbia were doing, how the math was looking. They were shivering -- we could almost see their nerves standing on end -- and I was so jealous I could barely stand it.
"This is actual hell," I said to John, the reporter sitting to my right.
The reporter sitting to my left was Tom, a fellow Welshman. We had met in France in 2016, during the miraculous Welsh run through Euro, when they had reached the semifinal, when their quarterfinal win against Belgium had left me bawling into the back of a colleague's jacket. Reporters are supposed to be objective, no cheering in the press box, and I had to hide how much it meant to me. I surprised myself, honestly, by how much it meant to me. I couldn't stop the tears.
After Monday's loss, Tom reminded me of that summer. It had made me more ambitious about Wales. It had made the World Cup seem not just possible to me, but probable. This was as good as Wales were ever going to get. If not now, never.
Tom saw it differently. He didn't think of that summer as the beginning of something better. He saw it as an object all its own, isolated and complete. He said that the Welsh run was so unexpected, so beautiful, that he would keep it forever in a little jewel box, a perfect, blessed moment in time. It didn't matter what happened before or after. During the summer of 2016, Wales were pure grace.
"Maybe that's all we get," Tom said. If it is, he said, he wouldn't trade it for anything.
I was thinking about that when I couldn't sleep last night. I'm thinking about it again now. I wouldn't trade it either. As sad as I feel today -- we just clattered through a tunnel -- I have never felt as charged in a stadium as I did in France. I've never let go like I did there.
Sport has defined my life in many ways. It's how I relate to my father, and it's how I relate to my sons. My job is to write about it. I sometimes feel as though I've never worked a day in my life. (I didn't feel that way Monday night.) But when I'm an old man, I suspect that amazing French summer will be as close to the surface as any of my memories. I must always be grateful for those magic few weeks.
We just pulled into Swindon. The sun is shining off an apartment block next to the platform. Next stop, Didcot Parkway. We'll be there in 15 minutes. A little more than an hour and we'll be in London. I'm not really sure what will happen after we get there. That's not how dreams work.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.