Belfast Telegraph

Take a bow, boys - but it could have been more

By Norman Whiteside

The familiar tale of gallant failure by Irish teams must also be tinged with regret at the knowledge both Northern Ireland and the Republic could concievably have been looking forward to quarter-final ties here in France this week. How incredible would that have been?

Instead the two sides are on their way home to a heroes' welcome. Michael O'Neill and his boys take their bow at at Titanic Belfast tonight and it promises to be a wild celebration of the squad's achievement in going as far as the first knockout stage.

Both sets of fans will consider their sides to have performed exceptionally well, in terms of progress, given the strength of the opposition ranged against them in the qualifying groups - it is to the extreme credit of both squads and their managers that a large swathe of so-called expert opinion was proved wrong.

That is particularly true in the case of Northern Ireland, playing in our country's first tournament finals in 30 years. The vast Green and White Army travelled more in hope than expectation and before a ball was kicked would surely have accepted reaching the knockout stages as a satisfying outcome, which it was.

But in the cold light of day, when the homecoming cheers have died down and the fans return to their studies, their work or their gardening, the two O'Neills will sit down quietly with their match DVDs and, when they have completed their own critical analysis, I just know the absorbed football men that they are will have their initial conclusions confirmed - that their teams were capable, in the two games they played at the weekend, of going the extra mile to the quarter-finals.

Wales are there on merit over the course of the tournament and I take nothing away from them. But, let's be honest, Saturday's game wasn't great and, while not exactly there for the taking, we were the better side for the most part and ought to have had the winning of it. We achieved the objective of keeping Gareth Bale quiet but didn't create the chances to capitalise.

Once again, I noted a concern at the distance between the midfield and Kyle Lafferty up front. When Jamie Ward got close to Kyle and there was a bit of interaction between them, things did look a bit more promising but it didn't happen often enough. Kyle needs someone in behind him, between the midfielders and himself, otherwise we are hitting 30 yard balls and seeing them knocked straight back at us.

Overall our boys can hold their heads high, none more than Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley, two of the players of the tournament overall.

Gareth was desperately unlucky with the goal. When you are facing your own goal, a cross whipped in the way Bale did (and it was the only thing he did all day) is the hardest thing in the world to defend. If Gareth hadn't gone for the ball, the Welsh player, Hal Robson-Kanu, would have scored in any event. So Gareth has nothing to reproach himself about and I hope, even in the twilight of his career at 36, he stays around for the World Cup qualifiers in September.

Michael has the nucleus of a good side capable of further progress and development and even though we have Germany again in the qualifying, the last campaign proved what can happen when you Dare to Dream.

Michael is the most important component of all and, while I am sure he has has ambitions to test himself at a high level in club football, I hope he delays that decision to see the belief he has in achieving more with this group borne out. I wish him well.

As for the Republic, they were easily the better side in the first half against France. Where most people might have expected backs to the wall, they were intelligent and creative but ought to have taken their chances. Every coach and manager will tell you the first 10 minutes after half time are crucial, when you must keep your concentration. But the Republic were undone eight minutes in and three minutes later they were on the back foot. Shane Duffy's sending off was the final nail in the coffin. Both teams now return with heads held high but also with a sense of what more could have been.

Belfast Telegraph