It’s lunchtime on the day that Wales face a date with football destiny.

That evening Ryan Giggs’ team will face Hungary in a winner-takes-all shootout to decide who qualifies for Euro 2020.

The stakes couldn’t be any higher and the pressure couldn’t be greater.

To quell their nerves and take their minds off appearing at a second consecutive European Championships – after Wales’ monumental passage to the semi-final of Euro 2016 – many Welsh fans have flocked to St Fagans National Museum of History, just outside Cardiff.

It’s an unlikely setting for supporters seeking sanctuary but it is actually the perfect place of solace. And one well-known Welsh fan is in his absolute element.

Comedian, actor and broadcaster Elis James is beaming as the automatic doors of the museum’s main entrance slide open and it’s as if the gates of heaven have opened.

There arranged in front of him are Wales international shirts covering 60 years of Welsh football history.

The reveal is certainly impressive. A biblical sight for Welsh football fans. So much so in fact I expect a heavenly chorus of hosannas to echo around the foyer of the building. Instead there is something even greater – the Welsh national anthem playing on a loop.

The shirts are part of the excellent exhibition the Art of the Wales Shirt – Celf Crys Cymru. Curated by football shirt aficionados Neal Heard and Simon Shakeshaft, it features 28 match-worn shirts including those of Len Allchurch, Terry Yorath, Ian Rush, and both current Wales managers, Ryan Giggs and Jayne Ludlow.

With his tousled hair and vintage Adidas track top, Elis James could be mistaken for a member of a Britpop band of yore. It’s no surprise then that Elis, who presents a Friday afternoon show on BBC Five Live with fellow comic John Robins, is something of a Wales football shirt authority, possessing his own impressive collection. And let it not be forgotten he was formerly a member of Cardiff indie punks Heck back in the early noughties.

He is understandably enraptured by the stunning vista he sees before him.

Arriving from London on the train that morning for Wales’ huge Euro decider, the comic had tweeted during the journey: “On the way to Cardiff for Wales v Hungary. Excitement at unsustainable levels.”

It’s fitting to be in a place of history, tradition and religion on a day like this – St Fagans transformed into a place of Welsh football worship. We’d light a candle for Wales’ hopes against Hungary if candles weren’t so obviously a massive fire hazard around the fantastic fabric arranged in front of us.

“It’s like Christmas coming here today,” he grins. “I’d seen a lot of pictures online but I wasn’t quite prepared for how beautiful they look when you get to see them.

“Seeing them in frames is not quite the same as the way they are presented today.

“If you buy a second-hand shirt on eBay it might have been washed 200 times, it may have been worn for someone to play five-a-side in for 25 years, whereas these shirts look like they were only worn yesterday because players only wore the shirts for a couple of games. They’ve obviously been well looked after.”

The 1984-87 Wales home shirt
(Image: Adrian White)

The 39-year-old, who now lives in London with his partner, the actress and comic Isy Suttie, and their two young children, takes me back to the Wales games that fired his imagination.

“My first game was Wales v Belgium, March 12, 1993,” he recalls. “Ryan Giggs scored on his full debut with a free-kick, Ian Rush became Wales’ record goalscorer with a header. We beat Belgium 2-0. They were a good side with [legendary playmaker] Enzo Schifo in their side. It was the start of the campaign for the World Cup in the US 1994 and I was hooked.

“The first game I can remember watching was when we beat Belgium 3-1 in October 1990. I was sat in front of the telly in full Wales kit. Not long after that we beat Germany. And then we beat Brazil. I thought to myself: ‘Oh my God. Not only am I Welsh, we’re the best team in the world. What a turn up for the books’. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t winning World Cups with players like Rush, Hughes, Southall and Giggs.”

Elis makes a point of paying tribute to Gareth Jones, the teacher who used to organise transport to Wales international football matches for the youngsters at his school, Ysgol Gyfun Bro Myrddin in Carmarthen, who sadly died recently.

“My geography teacher Gareth Jones, who was known to all of us as GO, would organise the buses to take hundreds of us to the games. What an influence on me and generations of kids from the area. He was a passionate football fan and we were a complete rugby school who produced players like Stephen Jones, Rhys Priestland and Ken Owens. There was no football at all.

“I remember one game I couldn’t make so he got me a programme. Also I remember the infamous Wales v Romania game in 1993 when Bodin hit the bar. It was sold out so he called the Football Association of Wales and said: ‘I’ve been bringing kids to the games when there was no-one there, you’ve got to give me 500 tickets’ and they found them for him. The guy was an absolute legend.”

Elis has his own enviable collection of Wales tops

Elis has his own enviable collection of Wales tops
(Image: Adrian White)

Working his way around the comedy circuit since the early noughties, Elis’ broadcasting career has flourished in recent years thanks to his comedy partnership with fellow stand-up and best mate John Robins – the pair having recently transferred their hugely-successful Radio X weekend show to BBC Five Live on Friday afternoons.

It was a comedy gig in Cardiff in 2005 that brought the duo together.

“It was my second or third gig with John and it was his second or third gig,” Elis remembers. “It was at the Yellow Kangaroo pub. Because of the way the scene is, if you’re a new comic in Bristol you meet all the new comics in Cardiff – and you play each other’s gigs.

“John and I are the same age and we became very good friends. We just clicked, found each other funny, and became firm friends. That sort of thing happens all over the circuit. It’s like having a school year and in my school year there were comedians like John Robins and Joe Wilkinson. Josh Widdicombe was two years below me in comedy school.”

A love of radio brought the pair to the nation’s airwaves via indie music station XFM, which then relaunched as Radio X.

Launching their show in February 2014, the duo quickly procured a large and loyal following.

“I had no real idea how it would turn out,” recalls Elis. “We weren’t expected to be slick broadcasters, thankfully, because we weren’t.

“What we were, though, was two very good friends who were very much match fit, because we were doing the circuit five nights a week. When we got stuff wrong, which we inevitably did, rather than clam up the other one would jump in take the mickey.” You listen to Elis and John in their new Five Live slot and there is a wonderful, warm chemistry, even if they do appear polar opposites – Elis the archly cool indie kid and John unashamedly Queen’s biggest fan.

“He is early and I am late, he is organised and I am chaotic,” says Elis. “I think we were more similar in our 20s because our lifestyles were similar. We were two single men doing the comedy circuit. But then I’ve settled down and I’ve got two children, he doesn’t have children and now I think our difference is where the comedy lies.

“The other thing that never fails to appeal to me about John is that he is such a deep well of weirdness. It is never-ending. He always has something to say. He sees the world differently and I have to say I’ve never really met anybody else like him.”

Elis and John have also started a new BBC podcast called How Do You Cope? With Elis and John and previously released a book together

Elis and John have also started a new BBC podcast called How Do You Cope? With Elis and John and previously released a book together

Finding success with the XFM/Radio X podcasts, Elis has unsurprisingly found a home combining his broadcasting skills with his love of Welsh football.

Recording a series of podcasts called Elis in Euroland for BBC Wales during the Euro 2016 tournament, he was then asked in 2017 to create a podcast for fans. What resulted was Elis James’ Feast Of Football, or EJFOF to the many who love the podcast, now in its third season and which features Elis alongside former Welsh internationals Danny Gabbidon and Iwan Roberts.

Next up for the football-loving funnyman is something that is very close to his heart – a three-part documentary about Welsh comedy called Funny Nation, which will air on BBC Wales next month.

In it the proud Welshman meets some of the nation’s best comedy writers and performers to explore the vast Welsh comedy history from pre-wartime to today. “I got a huge amount from making this series,” says Elis. “I discovered comedians from the past I’d never heard of and found putting modern Welsh comedy into a historical perspective fascinating. I think this is a golden age for Welsh comedy but I was certainly guilty of overlooking some of our greats from previous generations.

“I do think Welsh comedy is distinctive. It’s very hard to define but I can feel my sense of humour alter if I’m in a room full of Welsh people. Wales is a country of small towns and villages and Welsh comics are often quite low status. I think this is rooted in a fear of being seen to be ‘too big for your boots’ and from coming from a place where your nearest Debenhams might be 50 miles away.”

It's fair to say Elis wasn't looking quite so fresh-faced the morning after the game

It’s fair to say Elis wasn’t looking quite so fresh-faced the morning after the game
(Image: Adrian White)

It’s fitting, though, to end where we began. When I ring Elis the morning after the night before – he’s in bits, emotionally and physically. And who can blame him after witnessing one of the most triumphant moments in Welsh football history – Wales securing their passage to their second consecutive European Championships with a 2-0 victory over Hungary, a performance so self-assured and decisive you could scarcely believe what you were witnessing.

I feared that he may have ended up, top off, in a bin.

Having stayed overnight at hotel in the city centre, I had an idea of the fragile state the Welsh superfan was in when he tweeted a picture of himself – a dishevelled, semi-coherent but joyous wreck of a man having had to catch an early train from Cardiff Central back to London.

When I ask him how he is feeling via Twitter message he replies: “Mixed – elation and extreme headache.

“We’ve had so many of these one-off games since 1958, and lost every one. It was something I’ve dreamed about for 30 years, happening in front of me. A winner-takes-all game, but this time our best players are all fit and get the job done.

“We qualified for Euro 2016 in quite a strange way because we ended up losing on the night it was confirmed, but last night was everything that is brilliant about international football.”

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We promise to catch up later when he is back home. That afternoon we reconvene by phone and he admits he’s struggling. Looking after two young children is presenting something of a herculean task for the hungover Welshman.

“It’s a very rare hangover this when you’ve been given very good news and you’ve got a splitting headache,” he laughs. “Isy is working in Manchester and we’ve got two children – and what a test of stamina this is proving to be. This is harder than the Tour de France, it’s quite the endurance test.

“I’ve got to cook their tea in a minute. All I need to do is put fish fingers on a baking tray but I’m trying to work out if there is an easier option, easier than walking to the freezer, then approximately four paces to the oven, then two paces to the table, but I tell you what, my 10-month-old doesn’t care what state I’m in. He couldn’t care less.”

(Image: Adrian White)

Understandably he’s keen to talk about the football but also how he also believes we as a Welsh nation are living through unprecedented times culturally.

“We are living in a golden age, most definitely,” he says. “It’s uncharted territory for us. I remember in the early 1990s, especially when we failed to qualify for so many things and then the rugby team were doing so badly, at one stage I was into powerboating because Jonathan Jones from Cardigan was the three-time world champion. You have to get your glory where you can get it. I don’t think I’m doing him a disservice by saying powerboating isn’t my number one sport.

“But look at us now. I’ve written a Welsh language stand-up show which I’m so delighted with. I recently performed it at The Lyric in Carmarthen and there were more than 700 people there. Who says the Welsh language is dead?

“I was trying to choose songs for the opening sequence of the show, so I was listening to incredible Welsh bands which are coming through like Adwaith, Los Blancos and Alffa and I realise that the only things I really care about – outside friends and family, obviously – are football, comedy, and music and we’re living in a golden age of Welsh music, a golden age of Welsh comedy, and a golden age of Welsh football.

“It’s Welsh sport in general as well. You look at how well Warren Gatland has done with the Wales rugby team and then you look at people like Jade Jones in taekwondo – it is just fantastic.

“I look at 10-year-olds and they have absolutely no idea. All this is normal to them.”

The long-suffering Wales football fan says that the Hungary game was absolution for him. An exorcising of long-held demons.

“When they played Andy Williams’ Can’t Take My Eyes Off You at the end of the game I felt the clouds of 1993 lift. It was then I realised I was using the language of the therapist.

“I wanted to tell my 13-year-old self that everything was going to be okay.”

The first episode of Funny Nation airs on BBC One Wales on December 9 at 10.45pm. The Art of the Wales Shirt exhibition runs until Sunday at St Fagans National Museum of History between 10am and 5pm. Entry is free.