Belfast Telegraph

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Euro 2016: Northern Ireland shoulder to shoulder on the brink of history

By Steven Beacom in Paris

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill gathered his team together last night and told them to play with 'emotion' in tonight's mouthwatering Euro 2016 knockout clash against Wales in Paris exactly 34 years to the day since the country's greatest football triumph.

In a remarkable twist of fate, Northern Ireland's last 16 match with the Welsh falls on the anniversary of that epic night in Valencia when Billy Bingham's legendary side defeated hosts Spain 1-0 in the 1982 World Cup finals.

Back then Gerry Armstrong was the goalscoring hero and almost three and a half decades on, a victory for O'Neill's band of brothers, who epitomise togetherness and spirit, would surpass that result and take Northern Ireland into the quarter-finals of the tournament in France.

Tonight at the Parc des Princes stadium (kick-off 5pm) Northern Ireland will play in white shirts, just like Bingham's side in 1982 when they beat Spain.

O'Neill's men became the first Northern Ireland team to reach the European Championship finals and are determined to make more history and move into the last eight in France.

Ahead of the biggest match of his career as a player or manager, O’Neill said: “The message for the team is simple — play the game of your life. We don’t want this to end. We want to be going forward to the next round. We have wrung every drop we can out of this experience and we want more.”

The Battle of Britain encounter could be an explosive affair.

It was interesting that Wales boss Chris Coleman insisted that he wanted his players to take the emotion out of the game, while O’Neill held a completely different view.

“I want my team to play with loads of emotion. I want them to fully understand the significance of the game,” he said.

“I don’t think you can play without emotion. I don’t expect my team to and I think it will be a big factor in the game.”

O’Neill added: “There will be an edge to the game because of the massive prize at stake.”

That prize would be a quarter-final in Lille on Friday against either Hungary or Belgium.

For the Irish FA it would earn them €2.5million to add to the €8million they received from Uefa for qualifying, the €1million earned from beating Ukraine 2-0 in Group C and the €2.5million for reaching the tournament’s knockout stages.

If Northern Ireland were to make it to the semi-finals, local football’s governing body would land another €4million. The winners of the competition get €8million with €5million for the runners-up.

Victory for the Northern Ireland players and all the Northern Ireland supporters here in France and at home, though, would be priceless.

O’Neill and his players have worked wonders throughout their fabulous Euro journey.

There might just be one last big performance in them in this tournament.

Stand by for what could be the finest achievement in Northern Ireland sporting history.

Belfast Telegraph