SINCE the team’s mesmerising Euro 2016 exploits, Welsh football fans have become known as the Red Wall.

And running through a brick wall is about the only thing one diehard Powys fan hasn’t done yet in a bid to see his team play again at the European Championships, four years later. Well, technically, it’s five years later following Euro 2020’s postponement last summer due to the Covid-19 outbreak. And even though fans are expected to travel in their hundreds to Azerbaijan and Italy over the next month rather than their tens of thousands like France five glorious summers ago, Ashley Thomas will be among the few bricks in the Red Wall.

Ashley, from Llandrindod Wells, described watching Wales throughout France at the 2016 tournament – memorably beating Belgium to reach the semi-finals in Wales’ first appearance at a major competition in over 50 years – as the “summer of my life”. Welsh fans have been chasing those unimaginable highs ever since, something made more difficult, despite qualification, due to the pandemic, which has cruelly robbed football fans all over the globe of the one thing that fuels their passion more than anything else – watching their team play live.

Wales fans have been urged by the Welsh Government not to travel to Europe for the tournament, with the Dragons kicking off their campaign this Saturday, June 12, in Baku against Switzerland. Robert Page’s boys then face Turkey in the same city next Wednesday before taking on mighty Italy in Rome on June 20. But Ashley is undeterred – despite the financial implications, extended travel, Covid tests and the fact he will be going alone.

“Once I’m out there I think all the doom and gloom will disappear and football festival mode will kick in,” said the 29-year-old.

Planning a trip criss-crossing a continent is tricky at the best of times, but that has been exacerbated by the pandemic – which has left Ashley needing to take three planes just to get to Baku in time for the big kick-off.

“My first flight is from Stansted to Athens, then Athens to Georgia and finally Georgia to Baku. There are no direct flights landing before Saturday and I want to be there for the day before the game, it’s usually the best day. So, that means 12 hours of travelling, including a six-hour stopover in Georgia.”

Ashley has tickets for the Switzerland and Turkey games and was planning to jet to Rome for the Italy game too, but decided against that as you cannot fly from Baku to Italy because Azerbaijan is on Italy’s red list.

It’s a good job Ashley, who lives in Cardiff, is a financial consultant with all the calculations he’s had to work out. He has given himself a budget of £1,500 and estimates he’s spent nearly £1,000 of that – on match tickets, accommodation, trains and flights, as well as £200 on Covid-19 tests.

Scores of Welsh fans – as well as those supporting the 23 other teams competing – decided the list of hoops fans have to jump through to attend were just too insurmountable.

Ashley needed to pass a PCR test in order to receive a ‘fit to fly’ certificate – that has been made even more tricky by the fact it had to be negative by the time his flight leaves on Thursday at 5pm, although results older than 48 hours would also be void. There’s also a test he has to complete in Azerbaijan before he leaves a week on Thursday, as well as quarantine to worry about when he gets back. Plus subsequent tests travellers must complete if they’ve visited a country on the UK’s amber list 10 days before you arrive.

Ashley admitted his friend Jonny Williams (no, not the Wales midfielder) had been the trip’s catalyst and the two – who went to Euro 2016 together – had been planning to travel again this summer. A freak accident at a bonfire on the eve of the trip last Friday, however, left Jonny unable to travel.

“He was the one who persuaded me we should go. ‘When else can you go to Azerbaijan?’ he asked me,” said Ashley.

“He got a bit too close to the bonfire and suffered first degree burns. He had to get airlifted.

“We’re both well and truly gutted he can’t go. We went to France together and we try to go to as many away games as possible. In a way, it makes me a bit more determined to go on my own, I’ve got to do it for him.

“But I think it’ll be OK once I’m out there. There’s probably going to be less than 1,000 Welsh fans, so it won’t be the same because of that and because I’m on my own, but I’m sure I’ll latch on to a few other Wales fans. We’ll be loud and hopefully we’ll all be together and there’ll be a good atmosphere.”

As if Ashley’s passion was not already apparent, he’s then planning to jet off again to one of three new possible destinations should Wales make the knockout stages – which could be London, Amsterdam or Bilbao.

“I’ll be coming home Thursday morning and then, depending on how we do, hopefully we qualify, I’m definitely going to be going if we qualify,” said Ashley, who has last-16 tickets.

“I won’t do day five test because I want to be released from quarantine to go again, wherever we’ve got to go. It’s not every tournament Wales qualify. It’s coming to the end of the golden generation of (Gareth) Bale, (Aaron) Ramsey, and (Joe) Allen. We’ve got some good talent coming through but we haven’t got a Bale. It’s not guaranteed that Wales will be here again.

“I’ve booked my leave, so it’s too late to cancel. I had a great time at Euro 2016, it was the summer of my life, so that’s why I’m going to all this trouble.”