Wales bring Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 adventure to an end
Gareth McAuley’s own goal the difference but Michael O’Neill’s side bow out with pride
Hal Robson-Kanu wheels away after Gareth McAuley scored the own goal which gave Wales a 1-0 win over Northern Ireland in Paris. Photograph: Getty
Fin. Northern Ireland’s vivid, dramatic Euro 2016 adventure came to an end in Paris in a manner undeserving of what Michael O’Neill’s inspired and inspiring squad have contributed to the competition.
Gareth McAuley, who scored that soaring header in Lyon against Ukraine to set up the three points that took the North into the last 16, scored a 75th minute own goal, diverting a Gareth Bale cross past the helpless Michael McGovern.
The tiring Irish were on the back foot for the first time in a game they were better in from the first minute.
Aggressive, skilful and committed, Wales were confronted with a team in the true sense. The talents of Bale and Aaron Ramsey did not fully blossom at any time but Ramsey in particular emerged in the second half.
On the final whistle O’Neill could not conceal his disappointment and it was both telling and touching that when the Irish players walked back towards the tunnel that they were given an ovation from Chris Coleman’s staff.
O’Neill’s Northern Ireland have much to be proud of.
O’Neill made one change from the XI who started here against Germany four days ago. That was Kyle Lafferty for Conor Washington. Anticipated other tweaks such as Chris Baird coming back into midfield to patrol in front of the back four did not happen.
When the game kicked off it was apprarent that Corry Evans had that task, in a 4-4-2 formation. But this was fluid - just like Bale - and Stuart Dallas would quickly drop back to help Jonny Evans on the left. That made it a back five.
Wales, who had one day more rest, kept the same team that had glided by Russia in what was seen as the best Welsh performance in years, perhaps decades.
But it was the Irish who started better. And they kept it up. That “intensity of spirit” O’Neill speaks of was again obvious, though maybe “controlled” should preface it.
With Lafferty joined by Jamie Ward in attack, the two pressed the Wales back three. Bale and Ramsey can only prosper if they have the ball and the clear aim was to shut down the supply line to the danger men in red.
Behind them Jonny Evans was getting as close to Bale as fast and as often as possible. Evans has had a marvellous tournament. He looks like the kind of defender Manchester United should buy.
It was his brother Corry who initiated the game’s first chance, nicking the ball off Joe Ledley in the Irish final third. There were 70 yards to goal but via Davis, Lafferty, and Ward the ball came to Dallas whose left-foot shot on the run was palmed away by Wayne Hennessey.
That was the tenth minute. This was promising. Twelve minutes later a Ward shot was tipped over by Hennessey, then Lafferty floated a header over. Northern Ireland were the better team.
Wales did get the ball in the Irish net - a Ramsey flick - but he was well offside.
Coleman’s team were struggling to find previous fluency. Passes were being knocked into touch. Bale still possessed the potential to worry but Ramsey was a vague presence and Joe Allen was unable to dictate the midfield.
The one downside for the Irish was Dallas’s yellow card - collected for a minimal foul on Bale.
The question for O’Neill at half-time was if his players could maintain this effort.
The immediate answer was: yes. The second half began as the first had, with Northern Ireland pushing on, winning free-kicks and corners and pressurising Wales. To O’Neill’s irritation on the touchline the deliveries were unusually short of their normal accuracy.
Wales, meanwhile, were playing their way slowly back into a contest they thought they would be controlling.
There was a 53rd minute header from Sam Vokes that was sent wide when it should have hit the target; then Bale ‘won’ a free-kick 25 yards out. The Real Madrid winger took it but Michael McGovern, the Hamilton Academical keeper, saved it.
It was a sign of things to come. Now Ramsey, dropping deeper, was beginning to grow and it was the Arsenal midfielder who created the goal.
First Ramsey probed forward and found Vokes’ replacement Hal Robson-Kanu on the edge of the area. The ball was returned to Ramsey who slid it wide to Bale on the left. Bale, in space at last, wrapped that great left foot around the ball and sent a speeding low cross into McGovern’s six-yard box.
McAuley, back-tracking and with Robson-Kanu behind him, had to intervene. Unfortunately McAuley’s touch took the ball in. It was over and it was harsh way to end.
O’Neill’s players merit praise not commiserations.
Wales (3-4-2-1): Hennessey; Chester, Williams, Davies; Gunter, Allen, Ledley (Williams 63) N. Taylor; Ramsey, Bale; Vokes (Robson-Kanu 55)
Northern Ireland (4-4-2): McGovern; Hughes, McAuley (Magennis 84) Cathcart, J. Evans; Davis, Norwood (McGinn 79) C. Evans, Dallas; Lafferty, Ward (Washington 69)
Referee: M. Atkinson (England)