Wales remain and Northern Ireland leave after Paris battle


If the UK's vote to leave the European Union this week left some on the continent pining for quintessentially British things they might come to miss years from now, the thud and blunder Euro 2016 encounter between Wales and Northern Ireland in Paris on Saturday went some way to disabusing the notion.

Before this last-16 encounter at Parc des Princes, Wales boss Chris Coleman urged his players to detach themselves from the emotion of the occasion and settle into the potent work in possession that scythed down Russia.

He felt Wales were too emotionally involved in their group stage defeat to England and his fears of a similar showing proved valid during the first half - their passing was rushed and overly direct as an intensively well-drilled Northern Ireland defence watched numerous searching balls scoot over a pristine Paris surface for goalkicks and throw-ins.

By contrast, Michael O'Neill asked his Northern Ireland to "play with plenty of emotion" and turn this into a typically British cup tie.

The general dearth of quality will have caused many detractors to smirk at the sentiment - replace the piercing blue of the Parisian sky with a dank, damp darkness and this could easily have been mistaken for a League Cup second-round tie.

Southampton's Steven Davis was one of the few to operate on a higher level, regularly combining with the waspish Jamie Ward as Northern Ireland made better use of the ball early on.

After the 1-0 Group C defeat to Germany, O'Neill claimed none of his players had Champions League experience to compare with the world champions as Jonny Evans' distinguished years with Manchester United slipped from his thoughts.

Now at West Brom, Evans offered a supreme demonstration of his pedigree on the left-hand side of the narrow Irish defence, his instincts clearly sharpened by the presence of Gareth Bale.

The Real Madrid superstar, fresh from a goal in each group match, could not bend this game or a steely Northern Ireland to his will. But he offered a pleasing contrast to the histrionics spewed by his club team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo at this venue seven days ago.

Ronaldo worked himself into a raging funk and missed a penalty during the 0-0 draw against Austria, railing against his team-mates, opponents and the world. As the strop spilled into this week, a reporters' microphone met a watery grave.

Bale has been a friend of the press at this tournament, somehow seeming to hold news conferences more often than he scores goals.

Here he found himself heading Northern Ireland corners to safety from the near post, regularly pursued by three defenders, clattered by Stuart Dallas and called a "S*** Keith Gillespie" by the Irish faithful. He shook his head ruefully, got on with the unglamorous job at hand and was rewarded 15 minutes from time.

His poor namesake McAuley deserved better. The 36-year-old centre-back was a towering inspiration during qualification and here in France, scoring to set in motion that incredible 2-0 triumph over Ukraine.

Bale's delivery was whipped and fizzed with high-class precision. Hal Robson-Kanu muscled in behind McAuley and the veteran could do no more than put sorrowfully through his own goal.

The first among equals in this Wales ensemble, Bale accepted his team-mates' joy with arms outstretched. 

And so, in a reversal of their country's respective takes in the referendum, Wales remain and Northern Ireland leave - they should do so unbowed and with an arm around McAuley.

Customarily also-rans of the international game, the exploits of these Britons in France should be celebrated far beyond the content of this clattering 90 minutes. It is probably just as well.