Dr Penny Miles is a lecturer in Latin American politics at the University of Bath. As a football fan, she’s been following the Wales men’s team since the 1990s, with a four-year stint following La Universidad de Chile when she lived in South America.

Since Euro 2016, her fandom has led her into researching the intersections of gender, football and nation in both Welsh and Chilean contexts. Here, with the help of interviews with some of Wales' female fans, she reflects on what it was like for the women of the Red Wall during the last Euros.

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As I booked my last-minute flight to Toulouse to make sure that I didn’t break that 1993 post-Romania match promise made by my 16-year-old self, that if we ever qualified for a major tournament I would go, I was unaware that this trip would set me on a new research path: gender relations in Welsh football.

Having been to France for the 1998 World Cup, I was fairly confident that I could pick up a ticket on the street. What I hadn’t perhaps banked on was the questioning of my presence as a woman in that space.

Though the over-riding emotion of the summer of 2016 was one of pure elation, interspersed with more tears of joy than I have ever shed before, the questioning of my presence as a female fan, and also as a mother “who had left her children behind”, left me with a nagging desire to find out more about the experiences of fellow female fans following the men’s national team.

So, having secured the support of the FAW, I began my journey studying gender relations in Welsh football. Though the project began as an exploration of female fan perspectives, it soon expanded to encompass gendered relations within Welsh footballing media, the FAW and fan bases of the men’s and women’s national teams.

My focus here draws on the 17 interviews conducted with female members of the Red Wall (the collective name given to Wales fans) to a) explore experiences of home vs away fandom, and b) collect oral histories of their time at the Euros in France.

Often referred to as the “best summer of our lives,” I wanted to capture how my compatriots had experienced what many of us had been waiting decades to enjoy.

As one father-daughter exchange indicates: “When we qualified for the Euros in 2016, my dad said, ‘you don’t know how lucky you are’. When we qualified again, my father was like, ‘that’s twice in your lifetime’.”

Wales’s army of supporters, known as the Red Wall, included its fair share of female fans at Euro                                 2016

At the same time, I also wanted to celebrate this historic Welsh sporting achievement through a female lens.

When this research was in its early stages (2016-17), the ‘honey shot’ was still a feature of television coverage of football matches, and women were not otherwise hugely present in either visual or written coverage of the game.

In fact, when asked about their reasons for participating in the study, representation was one of the driving factors behind those wanting to take part, in addition to having the opportunity to talk about that special summer all over again.

The stories included here, however, resonate across the gender, and other, divides.

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Many of us can relate to this fan recounting: “For the first game, I just remember thinking ‘Wow, we’re actually here, we’ve actually made it.’ And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t really care what happens, just being there was enough for me’.” It’s a theme that, after decades of disappointment of missed chances and an adopted underdog status, was uttered by many.

As another fan reiterated: “I remember thinking ‘oh my gosh, can we just not get totally trampled on, can we just score one goal?’. That would be enough. We couldn’t believe it when we won. Not only did we score two goals, but we won as well!”

Bordeaux, unsurprisingly, is most prominent in the memories of those who were there.

Wales’s army of supporters, known as the Red Wall, included its fair share of female fans at Euro                                 2016

One fan said: “It was just magical because I guess it was the first stop and everybody was there.”

It was also the first Welsh dip into tournament football in 58 years and all that brings with it: unexpected encounters, intercultural exchange and special moments of interaction and spontaneity. Another said: “It was just amazing because I knew lots of Welsh fans, and I knew we’d bump into people, university friends, ex-boyfriends, and all kind of friends, everyone was just there.”

Another fan added: “You’d just turn a corner and you’d spot someone you knew. I think a lot of people compared it to the Eisteddfod in Bordeaux, just seeing so much red.”

On arrival at the impressive Stade de Bordeaux, the realisation that Wales had finally landed at their first major tournament started to set in.

One fan recalled: “Them playing Zombie Nation, it was like OMG, Wales have got a song that they play before the game.”

They continued: “Then getting a cup, a Coke, and it says Wales vs Slovakia on it. I was like a little kid. And then the anthem, I think everybody was crying at this point, because again, I’m singing the anthem for Wales at this football tournament and it was just amazing.

“I was just trying to capture every moment of it really.”

Through the interviews, I was immensely privileged to be able to relive that emotion 17 times over, bringing goosebumps all over again.

But the importance of catapulting Wales onto the international stage was also a recurrent theme in the interviews, cemented by the team’s magnificent run to the semi-finals.

One supporter said: “Just the feeling of little Wales being at the Euros and all eyes from the whole of Europe, and even countries all over the world…just being able to see Wales put on the map, you just had to pinch yourself sometimes.”

Wales’s army of supporters, known as the Red Wall, included its fair share of female fans at Euro                                 2016

In a similar vein, the FAW’s linguistic input was welcomed by many, giving a sense of Welsh language representation, not just domestically but also globally, as one fan stated: “And then you realise…Twitter, OMG, the FAW are TWEETING in Welsh and it’s just a whole, completely extraordinary revelation.”

The poignant reflections of one fan sum up the frustrations of many in not being able to watch Wales live at Euro 2020 in the context of a global pandemic.

They said: “Looking back, I’m glad we did it, because you might never be able to do it again.”

We very much hope that we can create future collective memories and relive our sense of pride as a footballing nation once again in the not-too-distant future.

* You can read more excerpts from the interviews via Twitter thread @pennymiles31 which will continue throughout Euro 2020, mirroring Wales’s run to the semi-final in 2016.

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