Northern Ireland are homeward bound but their fans are leaving on a high

Northern Ireland fans

For Northern Ireland the ride stops here; albeit with a rueful, celebratory roar rather than the usual tournament tears.

The Parc des Princes was throbbing with red-shirted glee at the end of this gruelling all-British knockout tie as Wales reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 via a stodgy single-goal victory. For Northern Ireland this was a defeat, but not a bitter one. At the final whistle, the players sunk down and squatted on the turf briefly, before being dragged back up to their feet by that familiar bouncing wall of noise.

The memories of this oddly irrepressible trip will live on. They’ll always have Lyon. Will Grigg is no doubt still in an ongoing state of combustion. Michael O’Neill’s team can look back on one of the great moments in Northern Irish football history, to stand with the glories of the 1980s and the World Cup team of 1958. In Paris the fans in green will celebrate into the evening, just as they were dancing – in the familiar drunk-dad style – before kick-off on the pavements of south-west Paris. For now though, after drinking just a little more beer, it really is time to go home.

It must be said Northern Ireland’s contribution to the unbound gaiety of France 2016 has been confined in the main to what happens off the pitch. There has been a minimalism to their football, as there was in this match. Only four teams have scored fewer goals. In the group stage no team managed fewer shots, completed fewer passes, took fewer corners, or had the ball so little of the time.

No surprise there. This is a team who have overachieved, a collection of players from mid-table Premier League clubs, the Championship and other places south. They have been expertly managed by O’Neill, a canny, ever-adaptable master of wringing the most from his component parts, and another at this tournament to offer a refreshing counterpoint to the cult of the superstar coach.

It has been an expertly tended run, not so much a rollercoaster as a slow but steady golf cart ride over a series of surmountable hillocks.

It must be said, though, that at the Parc des Princes Northern Ireland did not look like a team worthy of the last eight of a major tournament. The triumph has been simply getting here, escaping the group stage and noisily adorning the periphery. No mean feat for a nation that was playing just its second ever tournament knockout game here, the last one 58 years ago in Sweden where they lost 4-0 to the decorative French team of Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa. The best players in the current team are a pretty senior bunch. It is a moment to savour. There is no guarantee Northern Ireland will be back here any time soon.

Here they shaded a low-quality first half, during which Wales seemed to gulp a little and look down for the first time. Both teams have until now been happy to be here, unburdened by years of expectation and the attendant rust of waste and curdled hope. For the first time, with the only real ace on the pitch, Wales were expected to win.

O’Neill is an adaptable manager, switching his players around as the currents of the game demand. Here he produced another interesting shift, with three at the back and a pair of wing-backs who shuttled back into a five-man line with neurotic caution. The end result was a muscular game of human dodgems. Stop Gareth Bale is always the plan against Wales and for a while it worked. Bale’s closest early attention came from Oliver Norwood (Reading via Huddersfield and Scunthorpe) and Stuart Dallas, who was playing at Crusaders three years ago, and here went for the world’s most expensive player with some gusto.

In the end the breakthrough came the way that always seemed likely. Northern Ireland tired. Aaron Ramsey, in space finally, looked up and found Bale. His cross was spanked across a crowded goalmouth towards a clutch of red and white shirts. Gareth McAuley was the unlucky defender, drawn into prodding the ball into his own net.

One goal was always likely to settle this bruising arm-wrestle of a game. If the presence of these two teams was a tribute to the qualities and spirit of British football the game itself was at times a good advert for the beneficial effects of a late-afternoon nap.

Not that anyone here was sleeping on a good-natured, unceasingly boisterous afternoon. Much has been made of Northern Ireland’s fans in France, that peaceable green-shirted horde on a two-week spree, whose progress has had the feel of a drunk and garrulous family wedding. In the days after the imported aggression of Marseille there was a temptation to make slightly tearful, damning comparisons with England’s own less well-behaved minority.

Look at them, the Irish, out there spreading the light, the power of craic, across a country still rather warily embracing these Euros. This has been something of a theme, albeit a fanciful one. Europe’s wider problems might just extend beyond even the healing powers of banter. For all that Northern Ireland have still decorated this tournament, an embodiment of the spirit and well-drilled caution that has taken international teams a long way both at Brazil 2014 and in France, a run that came to an end here in a wall of celebratory noise.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Barney Ronay at the Parc des Princes, for The Observer on Saturday 25th June 2016 20.17 Europe/London

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