PARIS – Last time Wales reached the quarterfinal of a major tournament, 58 years ago against Brazil at the World Cup in Sweden, the decisive goal was scored a quarter of an hour from full time by Terry Medwin in a playoff against Hungary. The timing here was the same, but it’s hard to imagine Gareth McAuley’s own goal against Northern Ireland being recalled by future generations with quite such fondness.
Nonetheless, Wales is in the last eight after a 1-0 victory in the Euro 2016 round of 16 and there will play either Hungary of Belgium.
Not that any of the hordes who counted down the final minutes with renditions of Men of Harlech and Land of our Fathers will care, but for the neutral the prime reaction when McAuley put through his own net was relief: at least there wouldn’t be half an hour of what had been a drab, attritional game. It was a match that didn’t come close to living up to the stage.
With 48,000 packed into the Parc des Princes, most of them beery, noisy and clad in red or green, it was impossible not to contrast the scene with that at Aviva Stadium in Dublin five years ago when only 529 fans turned out to see Wales beat Northern Ireland 2-0 to avoid the wooden spoon in the ill-conceived Carling Nations Cup. How the fortunes of both sides have changed since then is something that is perhaps better to dwell upon than the nervous, disjointed spectacle they produced.
Wales, having to make the play for the first time in the tournament, looked nowhere near as effective as it has done, with Gareth Bale constantly double-teamed.
In qualifying, similarly, its poorest performances came against Cyprus and (taking into account the relative quality of the opposition) Andorra: Chris Coleman’s side is not at its best when the onus is on it to attack.
It was Northern Ireland that had the only two meaningful chances of the game, long-range efforts from Stuart Dallas and Jamie Ward that drew saves from Wayne Hennessey. Thirty-four years to the day since the fabled Gerry Armstrong-inspired win over Spain, it seemed Northern Ireland might be poised for its greatest result since then.
The quality was undeniably low, a fact acknowledged by both sets of fans chanting “Are you England in disguise?” This week, of all weeks, the question carried a political undertone: while Wales voted, like England, to leave the European Union, Northern Ireland voted to remain, prompting calls from Sinn Fein for a referendum on a united Ireland.
The mood here, though, was friendly, both sets of fans largely revelling simply in being in the knockout phase of a tournament for the first time since 1958 (Northern Ireland did get to the second phase of the World Cup in 1982 but that was a group format). The Wales fans outside the ground chanting that “you can stick your f***ing Brexit up your arse” seemed to be making less a political point than an apolitical one: this is a land of booze and football where politics doesn’t intrude.
On this occasion, there was rather more booze than football, although there was a lot of grappling in the approximate vicinity of the ball. Even Bale, dogged wherever he went by Dallas, was relatively ineffectual. “You’re just a s**t Keith Gillespie,” the Northern Ireland fans chanted, in reference to the former Manchester United, Newcastle and Blackburn winger. Bale did at least sputter with potential. Tripped by Oliver Norwood as he cut infield just before the hour, he then drew a fine parry from goalkeeper Michael McGovern with the ensuing free kick.
And it was Bale, ultimately who decided the game, his cross from the left after 75 minutes being turned into his own net by McAuley under pressure from substitute Hal Robson-Kanu. It had been McAuley who had scored Northern Ireland’s opener in its 2-0 win over Ukraine. Football gives, but it also takes away. Northern Ireland, back in a major international tournament for the first time since 1986, at least has the memories of Lyon to put on the shelf alongside those of Valencia 1982.
It was Bale, too, who, in the final seconds headed away a Northern Ireland corner at the near post. He is the ideal star for a side like Wales, gifted, powerful and utterly committed. Ashley Williams, the captain, meanwhile, played through the last 10 minutes with his left arm hanging limp by his side after a collision with Jonathan Williams, his place in the quarterfinals now in question.
For Wales, it was a matter of a job done, although this was by some way its weakest performance of the tournament. It may even be that it would rather play a Belgium side that will attack it and proved susceptible on the break against Italy than a Hungary team that, like Northern Ireland, would be dogged and sit deep.
But the important issue is simply that Wales is there–and this time there will at least be no Pele to break its hearts.