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Hardy Red Wall fans ready to savour drama of Euro 2020.

Byline: IAN MITCHELMORE Football reporter in Baku ian.mitchelmore@walesonline.co.uk

HARDCORE members of the Red Wall defied the odds to reach Azerbaijan ahead of Wales' opening Euro 2020 match against Switzerland today. Last month, supporters were advised not to travel across Europe for the tournament due to Covid restrictions.

Wales take on Switzerland and Turkey in the city of Baku before ending the group stages against Italy in Rome. Both countries are currently on the UK's amber list.

However, a hardy band of fans have made the arduous trip from Wales to Azerbaijan to support Rob Page's troops at the showpiece event.

The journey has not been simple, though. Far from it, in fact, as we discovered while tracking them down in Baku.

While on the search for supporters in the city in the lead-up to today's game, it took a good seven-kilometre walk around the place to locate any Welsh fans.

But we did find a few hardy souls who have made the journey - and having reached Baku, they don't care a jot about the trials and tribulations they had to endure to get out here.

Another flight of Welsh fans was due to arrive yesterday afternoon, but there will be a limited number following Wales this time.

The ones who have travelled are determined to make it one of the best trips possible - for it will have been an expensive one.

When factoring in match tickets, flights, hotels and the essential PCR tests, it would be fair to say that supporters are forking out a ballpark figure of PS3,000 to roar on Gareth Bale and his team. But this is what ardent supporters do, some of whom have been chasing Wales across the continent for nearly 50 years.

Here we tell the fans' stories of sheer determination, the physical and financial toll it has taken to get out there and the enthusiasm they possess supporting the boys in red.

| Stephen Nicholls, of Llantrisant The Wales away veteran had horrific luck with PCR tests - an essential requirement for those travelling - before his journey to Baku had even started.

"Long, long story," he said regarding the rigorous process of Covid testing. "The first test I sent off on Sunday, the result came back on Monday which was too early for Azerbaijan.

"I went down to Cardiff Airport, had another PCR test done and within two hours the result was back. Again, no good for Azerbaijan.

"Third time lucky, I went down on Tuesday, so I've paid for three PCR tests just to get here."

Stephen travelled to the Azerbaijani capital via Kiev, Ukraine, from Heathrow and will watch both of Wales' games against Switzerland and Turkey live in person.

"I've followed them for years and years and years. It is what it is. I'm here," said Stephen, who watched all six of Wales' matches at Euro 2016.

"I didn't miss a game for the qualifiers, home or away.

"It's a tricky group. I think the heat is going to absolutely kill them, so we've just got to wait and see.

"They've got the youngsters and experience in there, though. We did it in 2016, why not again?"

Stephen harbours hopes of watching Wales' final group stage fixture against Italy in Rome.

Italy are currently allowing direct incomings from Azerbaijan, which has left Stephen planning to take at least two flights across Europe and a ferry, meaning his most difficult journey could yet lie ahead of him. | Tim Evans, of CardiffTim's pre-travel preparations were not as stressful as Stephen's. He had a three-hour rapid PCR test in London before flying to Baku - although having been at Wales' 0-0 draw with Albania last weekend, Tim has now had five Covid-19 tests in nine days.

"My nose is a little sore!" admitted Tim. "The government advice when we originally booked the flights was never not to travel. Having had this traffic light system, we knew we had to quarantine when we got back, so I'll accept that.

"In terms of Covid, I think it's safer here now than it is in the UK. People here are fantastic, they're desperate to see tourists so it's lovely to be here."

Tim is no stranger to Baku, having watched Wales win 2-0 in the city in November 2019 en route to qualifying for the Euros. He was also in attendance when Mark Hughes' side were held to a 1-1 draw in a World Cup qualifier in 2004 at the Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium - the venue where Wales are training for this summer's tournament.

"I've been going to see Wales away since the 1970s," he said. "I did all of the Euros in 2016 and I've seen Wales away in about 30 countries now, so I couldn't miss this.

"I've come here twice before to see Wales and the welcome is always warm. So I'm just happy to be back.

"It's not quite the same, we knew that coming here. It's not going to be the Red Wall but we're obviously going to have a good time.

"I've followed Wales for a long time and it's been mainly disappointments. I don't think we can ever better [2016] but we've qualified again for a major tournament and you never know when the next time is going to be, so you just have to try and find a way to make it work."

| Kevin and Nick Latham, of Barry Father and son Kevin, 60, and Nick, 36, are hoping to enjoy more special times together at Euro 2020.

"We don't qualify that often. I've gone through the bad times so it was a case of 'we've got to do it'," said Kevin.

The pair also flew from Heathrow via

Kiev and have fully enjoyed their time in the heart of Baku so far.

"There's a lovely thing they've done a few streets over. Instead of having the flags, they've got the football shirts of every nation. It's brilliant to see the shirts, they've put a little bit of extra effort in, which is good," explained Nick.

While he is bidding to roar his team on to victory with his son, Kevin admits Euro 2020 will not be the same without thousands of travelling Welsh fans in attendance.

"The disappointing thing for me is that there's not so many Welsh fans this time. Last time in 2019 [Euro qualifier] it was heaving," he said.

Ultimately, the vast majority of supporters will have to watch on their TV screens at home or in their local pubs.

But for some, missing out on watching Wales at the Euros simply wasn't an option, no matter what obstacles they had to overcome.

CAPTION(S):

Steve Nicholls in Baku DAVID RAWCLIFFE

Tim Evans travelled to Azerbaijan via Kiev
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Author:IAN MITCHELMORE Football reporter in Baku ian.mitchelmore@walesonline.co.uk
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:9AZER
Date:Jun 12, 2021
Words:1120
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