In Issue 15, Wales legend Chris Gunter told us all about the highs and lows of international football, going right the way back to his international debut to becoming the most-capped player in his country's history... Not bad going, that.
"I used to go to the Millennium Stadium quite a lot as a youngster and I remember exactly how I felt watching my heroes. When we got a result, it was amazing. It didn’t matter who it was against, it would always feel the same. If you are a football fan, especially if you’re from a smaller country like Wales, your national team means a lot. When they play, everyone knows about it.
There was some talk about me being in the Wales squad at the end of my debut season at Cardiff. When I got the call-up, me and Joe Ledley met at Ninian Park and got a lift up to Wrexham. I was fine until we were about ten minutes away, then it hit me that I’d be meeting players I knew everything about. People I’d watched for years and years.
It felt great to be against New Zealand. Craig Bellamy spoke to me before the game, but it was a bit of a blur. To hear the National Anthem was incredible, and I obviously wanted to win. But when you’re so young, you focus everything on yourself and make sure everything is neat and tidy. It was a mad game; 2–2 before I went off at half-time, but I was involved in the build-up to one of the goals. It was very surreal having someone like Ryan Giggs as my captain, it was ridiculous for me.
Whenever people talk about the 6–1 loss to Serbia in Euro 2014 qualifying, the main thing I remember is being at the airport for the flight back home straight after the game. Nobody was in there, just us. The mood was terrible—a squad of embarrassed players. I wanted to get out of there but didn’t want to go home and face everything. Tough night. I went straight from Cardiff airport to my parents’ house in Newport. I got there, stayed in bed until they went to work, slipped out and made my way back to Reading because I needed to be on my own for a bit. Embarrassing really, feeling like you had let people down. That was a real low, low time.
Before the Andorra game in Euro 2016 qualifying Chris Coleman told us that whatever happened we should make sure we win. It was their first game, and they were up for it. We started off badly, going 1–0 down. We got back into it just before half-time. But we never had too many chances in the second half. People talk about Gareth’s goal against Belgium, but the one against Andorra was, without doubt, the biggest one of the whole qualifying campaign. Without that, you can only imagine what the press and the people would have been saying back home.
Every game from there seemed to keep getting bigger. Every time we met up they’d say, “This is Wales’ biggest game for ten years”. That’s where Chris Coleman was really good. He would say “Good, that’s what we want; it shows that we are doing well”. We never saw it as a bad thing, all the pressure. At the time, I thought we had a real chance, especially after Belgium at home. After that, we had to take care of the next game to have a really good chance. Deep down we probably all knew that we would get there, it was a strange feeling."
Photo: Simon Stacpoole / Offside.
"Walking out in Bordeaux was special. It was something that Wales had wanted forever, the big stage. The anthem was incredible and got us off to a really good start. Then they scored, and I thought—with it being such a big game—how much it meant. Then, when Hal scored, it was carnage. Then, after celebrating with the fans—I was lucky to pick out my brother and mates—and just see the joy on their faces; it felt like we were away from home but that everyone was there. It didn’t matter whether you were a fan of Swansea, Cardiff, or Newport—we were all there together. It was a special day that. Knowing that the whole of Wales had been waiting for so long and that we managed to deliver it for them.
I felt really low after the England game. As we were holding on at 1–1, I saw a Welsh fan crying on one of the stadiums big screens. I thought “come on, we can hold on here”. Then they score and so I can imagine how he and everyone else was thinking and feeling. After the game we were obviously devastated, it was awful. I knew that for the people in the stand there was nothing worse. So I went over to them and gave them the chin up. I knew how they’d be feeling and, not to send a message necessarily, I wanted to show them that the players still felt positive. I didn’t think it would have the reaction it did. It was worse because it was England, you can’t deny that. But we still needed the fans for the next game.
We went on to beat Russia and Northern Ireland and were now facing a top team in Belgium, who people were tipping to win the tournament. There were no expectations at this point, but we knew that if we played the way we did, we had a chance to beat them. We had and we did.
Before the final whistle, it felt like that it was the first time that we were really far away from home. This little country doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, but that everyone was watching. After the game, it wasn’t relief, everyone was catching their breath. Not that it was flat, but everyone was trying to take it all in. Football never goes this well, something always seems to go wrong. Not this time, most Welsh footballing people would go back to that last ten minutes in a heartbeat.
It felt strange to be captain when I won my 85th cap. Nothing really changes in terms of what you have to do. It was nice that it wasn’t in a competitive game as I could take it all in a little bit more. Normally after a Welsh game, I’ll stay down but I remember driving back up to Reading that night. It was probably the most enjoyable two-hour drive of my life, to be honest. Just reflecting on everything really and thinking of my caps and equalling Gary Speed’s number was something I can’t really explain. I still see him as different to myself really and I received a trophy from his parents to say congratulations. I think that’s when it hit me slightly that to match him and to be acknowledged by his parents was incredible, really. And obviously, to captain your country was a special occasion, to have all of my family and friends there and to make them proud really, and for yourself. It is strange to say, but if you see other people happy, it makes you happy too."