Northern Ireland's heartbreak as own goal ends the fairytale
Round of 16: Wales 1 Northern Ireland 0
THERE were tears in his eyes as he spoke. Saturday’s game hadn’t been ‘bonus territory’ for Oliver Norwood; he desperately wanted to win so Northern Ireland’s journey would continue.
They could have won too, and that made it harder to take. Michael O’Neill’s battlers shaded the first half at Parc des Princes and Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward both drew saves out of Wales ’keeper Wayne Hennessey.
There was nothing between the sides in the second half either. The only save Michael McGovern had to make was from a Gareth Bale free-kick and it wasn’t until 20 minutes from time, when they were invigorated by Jonny Williams’s industry in midfield andHal Robson-Kanu’s ability to hold the ball up in attack, that Wales looked the more likely winners.
A little quality from Aaron Ramsey and Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale finally forced the crucial, cruel breakthrough.
Seventy-five minutes had gone by when Arsenal’s Ramsey picked the ball up at the edge of the box with Bale in space to his left. Bale swung in a cross and Gareth McAuley, as faithful and capable a servant as Northern Ireland have ever had, poked the ball past Michael McGovern with Robson-Kanu breathing down his neck.
If this is the end for McAuley he deserved a better one, but that’s football for you.
Norwood cursed his side’s bad luck afterwards as he choked back the tears on the way to the team bus,
“For us to go out the way we have is devastating,” he said.
“I thought we played as well as we have in the tournament today. You need a bit of luck in football sometimes and we didn’t quite have that with us today.
“We left everything out there and we’re devastated to be going home, we didn’t want to be going home. We played really well today, it’s just a cruel, cruel game at times.”
His emotions were raw and it’ll take time to heal the wounds and Norwood doesn’t intend to watch the remainder of Euro 2016 on TV. However, he accepted that heartache is part of taking part in a major tournament.
“There’s more to come from this team, from this squad and we know that,” he said.
“We can’t leave it another 30 years before we enjoy this experience again, we’ve got to make sure it’s a more regular thing and we’re confident that we can kick-on and enjoy more of these experiences.
“The heartbreak is part of it too. We’ve probably played the best we’ve played in the tournament today and to go out like this is cruel but it’ll make us all stronger as characters and we’ll come back stronger.”
As he left a female Russian journalist shook her head – she was on the verge too.
“Oh my God, the tears in his eyes…
“You would never see a Russian player like this, with the tears. Is he married?” Off she went to find out.
There were tears in the stands too after Saturday and no lack of commitment or energy on the field throughout a cagey game in which both sides pressed the ball and got men back in numbers to defend.
Northern Ireland had Kyle Lafferty up front, Wales had Sam Vokes with occasional support from Bale who had the excellent Jonny Evans for company every time he got on the ball in Northern Ireland’s half.
There were flashes of good football but the action in the stands never ceased as both sets of fans went through their lengthy playlists.
NI: Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified…
Wales: One song, you’ve only got one song…
NI: Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified…
Wales: Are you England in disguise?
NI: You’re not very good, you’re not very good…
Wales: Team Gareth Bale, team Gareth Bale…
NI: Oh Gareth McAuuuuley, Oh Gareth McAuuuuuley…
NI: Will Grigg’s on fire, your defence is terrified… (Grigg showed some lovely touches during the half-time kickabout)
NI and Wales: Don’t take me home, don’t take me home, I wanna stay here and drink all the beer…
NI: You’re just a small part of England…
Wales: You’re just a small part of Ireland…
NI: Green and white army, green and white army…
NI: Jonny, Jonny-Jonny, Jonny-Jonny, Jonny-Jonny Evans, Corey, Corey-Corey…
Wales: 1-0 to the sheep-shaggers, 1-0 to the sheep shaggers…
NI: Ulster ’til I die…
McAuley’s OG silenced the Northern Ireland fans temporarily and as the game drew to a close it was the Wales anthem - ‘Gwlad, gwlad, pleidiol wyf i’m gwlad’ (Country, country, faithful I am to my country) - that resounded around the ground.
Josh Magennis and Niall McGinn were both thrown into the fray and Northern Ireland fought to the finish. Goalkeeper McGovern raced up for a corner at the death but Bale got his head on it to clear and referee Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle to end it.
Wales progress to a quarter-final of Friday secure in the knowledge that they can grind it out when they need to and play if they’re allowed to. In Bale they have a proven matchwinner. Dallas and Steven Davis were both booked for tackles on him, but in the end the Galactico produced the moment that decided the game.
“You get one win and momentum grows, confidence grows,” said Bale afterwards.
“You kind of just ride the wave. We are very confident at the moment.
“We know we have had difficult games and this one was especially. We knew it was going to be very difficult and that they wouldn’t give us much room or time on the ball. We knew what game it would be and we battled like we have always done. We turned up, we showed our confidence and our team spirit and passion. We’ll keep working hard every game to try and get as far as we can.”
The dream is over for Northern Ireland but what a tournament they had. Four games, three losses, two goals, one win and a million memories for their fans.
MICHAEL McGOVERN: Was nowhere near as busy as he had been against Germany in the same stadium and had no chance with the own goal. 7
AARON HUGHES: Surprisingly used as a right-wing back, the 36-year-old offered little going forward but he coped with Bale and others well enough. 6
GARETH McAULEY: Ultimately it was his own goal that decided the tie, though he did little else wrong and had to stop Gareth Bale’s cross reaching Hal Robson-Kanu for the cruel
CRAIG CATHCART: Part of a typically solid Northern Irish backline, although he was fortunate Sam Vokes headed wide when he lost him. 7
JONNY EVANS: Another colossal performance from the North’s best outfield player at the tournament. 8
CORRY EVANS: Popped up everywhere in midfield in an energetic display which was only outdone among his colleagues by his brother’s own showing. 8
STEVEN DAVIS: Would have enjoyed seeing plenty of the ball having previously chased others in France and he helped drive Northern Ireland forward. 7
OLIVER NORWOOD: His set-piece deliveries were poor, though he was industrious in the midfield before tiring and being replaced. 7
STUART DALLAS: Almost opened the scoring with a swerving first-half effort that was saved by Wayne Hennessey and bombed up and down as usual on the left. 7
JAMIE WARD: Deployed as a strike partner, rather than out wide and he never really got going, though he did test Hennessey with a rising try before being substituted. 6
KYLE LAFFERTY: Recalled to the starting line-up and gave everything he had, holding the ball up well, yet he had no sniffs of goal. 7
Conor Washington (on for Ward, 69): Dropped for Lafferty and failed to have any influence even after Northern Ireland fell behind. 5
Niall McGinn (on for Norwood, 79): Not the super-sub on this occasion as he saw his late crosses instantly cut out by the Welsh full-backs. 5
Josh Magennis (on for McAuley, 84): Had created the second goal against Ukraine but there were to be no late heroics here. 5
WAYNE HENNESSEY: Produced two decent saves in the first half to keep Northern Ireland at bay and steady under high crosses. 7
CHRIS GUNTER: Tried to add width to Welsh attacks but little thrust off and targeted by Northern Ireland as Lafferty pulled onto him. 6
JAMES CHESTER: Solid performer all tournament and once again stood up to the challenge to stop everything which came his way. 8
ASHLEY WILLIAMS: Hit the ground in frustration when he appeared to suffer an ankle injury and manfully battled on for the full 90. 7
BEN DAVIES: Kept his concentration well to win a couple of vital defensive headers and ensured that no one got the better of him. 7
NEIL TAYLOR: Licence to get forward and delivered one decent ball for Vokes to attack and did defensive duties well. 7
JOE ALLEN: Ran the show against Russia but found it a lot harder this time with white-shirted midfielders snapping at his heels. 6
JOE LEDLEY: Recent injury seemed to catch up with him as he made little impact in midfield before being substituted by Chris Coleman just after the hour. 5
AARON RAMSEY: Danger when breaking forward in first half, began to get on the ball and probe to good effect in the second. 7
GARETH BALE: Shackled for the most part but broke free to deliver the telling cross which led to McAuley’s own
SAM VOKES: Ran some useful channels but had little change from Northern Ireland defence and planted best chance wide. 5
Hal Robson-Kanu (on for Vokes, 55): Provided extra mobility to Wales attack and got in the box to force McAuley mistake. 7
Jonathan Williams (on for Ledley, 63): Quick feet added impetus to Wales attacks and survived collision with skipper Williams. 7
Wales: Hennessey, Chester, Ashley Williams, Davies, Gunter, Allen, Ledley (Jonathan Williams 62), Ramsey, Taylor, Vokes (RobsonKanu 55), Bale. Subs Not Used: Fon Williams, King, George Williams, Edwards, Richards, Cotterill, Collins, Vaughan, Church, Ward. Booked: Taylor, Ramsey. Goals: McAuley 75 og
Northern Ireland: McGovern, Hughes, McAuley (Magennis 84), Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Ward (Washington 69), Davis, Corry Evans, Norwood (McGinn 79), Dallas, Lafferty. Subs Not Used: Carroll, McLaughlin, Ferguson, Baird, Grigg, McCullough, McNair, Hodson, Mannus. Booked: Dallas, Davis.
Att: 44, 342
Ref: Martin Atkinson (England).