After the painful experiences and logistical hassles of South Africa, Ukraine & Brazil, we've been looking forward to this tournament for quite some time. Lots of flights, a great train network and plenty of sunshine. What could possibly go wrong?!
Not ISIS. Not Arthur Scargill's French protégés paralysing the train network. And not the local law enforcements tendency to get their batons/tear gas/rubber bullets out first and think later. Or so we were hoping...
Our flight in to Lyon went pretty much to plan, as did the train journey down to Marseille. As we expected though, the day of the game did not exactly pass without incident!
Drinking in the port area was never going to be a calm and relaxing experience but we're not out here for two weeks of R&R so ventured down to the vicinity around mid afternoon to sample the atmosphere. After taking in the first half of Switzerland-Albania - and having convinced the bar owner to extend the kitchen's opening hours - we tucked in to a nice lunch a few hundred yards away from the port.
In the background was the distant hum of a typical England away trip. Nothing unusual, and for a long time now, nothing to really worry about. Don't get me wrong. You wouldn't take your mother-in-law to soak in the atmosphere. You probably wouldn't take your Wife. Maybe not even your Dad if he's on the conservative side. But nobody's getting hurt and there's far less violence/unpleasant behaviour than you'd fine in any local town on a weekend. The local economy is getting a huge boost. And a few obnoxious 20-somethings will be nursing their weekly hangover tomorrow in a country they've not been to.
The next few hours have been extensively "reported" on. I can only write about what we saw but I'd like to think it's a balanced view. It's a shame though because this is not what you want to read or I want to write about.
You would never call any of our group "hooligans" but we like a drink and are fairly streetwise. Some of the journalists "accounts" and "reports" may well be eye witness accounts. But they're given by people basing themselves at the port for one reason and one reason only. Everyone knew it was going to "kick-off" there and too many journalists seem to have agendas to meet. Ninety per-cent of the traveling England fans were drinking on the outskirts of this area because they too knew the Port would be trouble.
As we finished our lunch, a different "noise" could be heard. Quiet at first, but getting louder.
"Lads. That not an England noise. And it's aggro".
As the noise got louder you could see a few English fans who had previously been quietly sat eating get twitchy. A matter of seconds later, bottles were flying in our general direction and a group of 20/30 Russian's had announced their presence! It was all over quite quickly but the atmosphere had changed. Guards were up.
Ten or so minutes passed as the Switzerland game edged towards half time. A local dancing troupe were doing the rounds trying to get donations for their act. Much to everyone's amusement a slightly rotund England fan joined in. Shirt off. Moobs everywhere. Very funny.
Just as the mood was calming we heard the unmistakable bang of a tear gas canister being fired. Quite a lot of England fans came running up the street at this point and the bar workers were straight in to action closing up the front shutters of the bar.
Tear gas takes a while to settle but in a couple of minutes we were all starting to feel the effects even though we were 100-200 yards from the apparent trouble. Seeing trouble at an England game is not a unique phenomena and nobody was particularly concerned until a second wave of tear gas came down the street. This was really quite strong and with a tab of over a hundred Euros to honour we took refuge behind the shutters of the bar.
Word from those successfully "dispersed" was that a big group of Russians had moved in to the area and the Police had reacted by firing off the tear gas.
At this point we had probably got closer to the Port than we really wanted to be. It wasn't a hard decision to make the call to walk up towards the ground, away from the high jinx. It's a 45 minute walk, so we punctured that with a couple of refreshment stops on the way, and arrived outside the ground with a few hours to spare.
Bars round the ground were doing a roaring trade and the atmosphere "normalised" with lots of singing about football coming home, historical military confrontations, continental referenda and League 1 footballers igniting.
Entry in to the ground was depressingly normal. Tournaments always create security fears and with that comes the propensity to implement 15 checkpoints prior to entry via a handful of "gates". The process generally takes too long because there isn't enough entrance points and it looks like France will be no different. We got there more than an hour before kickoff as well. Chaos.
I thought England played well but missed chances can always be costly and the second half performance did not live up to the first. A nod to the skipper though - after all the negative press I thought Rooney was superb.
The most stressful bit of the game for me was the massive fire cracker that went off just before full time. It sounded like a bomb going off outside the ground but fortunately it was not a repeat of Paris last November. Quite how anyone can get a device like that through all the security checkpoints is beyond me though and that only adds to frustrations about the entry arrangements.
We didn't venture back in to the city after full time, choosing instead to have a few beers by the ground then hail cabs back to the hotel at a relatively "early" time for us.
Much has been written / said about the trouble and a lot is depressingly predictable. Kudos should go to 5Live's Ian Dennis whose tone has been about right. He more than any other seems to "get it". The less said about Gary Linekar the better... This was organised attacks on England fans by multiple groups of aggressors. We are no Angels. But on this occasion your honour. Not guilty.
We traveled back on Sunday and will be back to Lens, via Lille, on Thursday. Who knows what will happen next but I suspect the English and Welsh will stick together before the game. Especially given the ridiculous advice for everybody to drink in Lille. Where the Russians will be! After the game could be a different story but any incident is likely to be isolated. The press will jump on any sniff of bother though so let's hope it goes peacefully.
On the pitch, Englandfans everywhere are desperate to win the group. That will keep us in the North of France for the rest of the tournament. Much easier to navigate logistically, and generally less of a "pain in the arse". Realistically we need to win both remaining games to secure top spot though and experience of previous tournaments suggests we will play as far away as possible then lose on penalties in the quarters.
It's the hope that kills you...