Whenever Chris Coleman’s players return from France – and it could be a while yet – the homecoming is guaranteed to be more lively than the last and only other occasion they reached the quarter-finals of a major tournament.
Back in 1958 four players got the train back to Swansea High Street station after losing to Brazil in the World Cup and Mel Charles, the Wales international, bumped into a friend on the platform. “Hi Mel. Where have you been, on holiday?” came the response.
Times have changed and everybody in Wales will know what Gareth Bale and his team-mates have been up to at Euro 2016 when they finally fly back to Cardiff airport. This group of players have written their names into the history books with a slender victory over Northern Ireland that sets up a quarter-final against Belgium or Hungary in Lille on Friday, to follow in the footsteps of Ivor Allchurch, Cliff Jones and John Charles, who lost to Brazil at the same stage in Sweden 58 years ago.
These are special moments for a nation of three million people and there were some lovely scenes at the end as the players’ families joined them on the pitch. Bale was being led a merry dance by Alba, his three-year-old daughter, as he chased her all over the field before throwing her up in the air and catching her in front of the mass bank of Wales supporters at that end of the stadium. Zombie Nation, the soundtrack of Wales’s qualifying campaign, was playing in the background, and a party was under way.
In truth the result will be remembered much more than the performance on a day when Wales never played with anything like the confidence and conviction they showed against Russia on Monday night in Toulouse. Winning, however, was the only thing that mattered and in Bale, who now has an assist to go with his three Euro 2016 goals, Wales possess a player who makes it seem like anything is possible for this team.
It was his wonderful cross from the left that was turned into his own net by Gareth McAuley, with Hal Robson-Kanu breathing down his neck, to take Wales into the last eight. It was also Bale’s near-post header, with the game deep into injury time, that cleared Niall McGinn’s corner and provided the final action of a game that never really ignited. Martin Atkinson blew the whistle, Coleman shook hands with Michael O’Neill, his opposite number, and wild celebrations broke out.
There was a feeling of relief as well as joy in the Wales camp at the end of a match when they never looked comfortable being in a position where the onus was on them to make the running. Northern Ireland, the underdogs, rattled them with their industry and energy, in particular in the opening 45 minutes, when Coleman was unable to conceal his frustration. “Wake up, Rambo,” the Wales manager shouted at Aaron Ramsey at one point.
The Arsenal midfielder was far from the only one who needed shaking into life. Everything felt flat from a Wales point of view. They were second best on the pitch in the first half and in the stands for a while, where the Red Wall – the name Bale has given to the Wales supporters – struggled to find its voice. Even a rendition of Land of my Fathers, midway through the first half, was rather half-hearted. It was as if the occasion had got to everyone in red.
Wales looked nervous and edgy, unrecognisable from the team that carved Russia open. Northern Ireland were snapping into tackles much quicker, Steven Davis was controlling midfield and Michael McGovern never had a save to make until the 58th minute, when Bale thumped a dipping free-kick from 25 yards that was beaten away.
The world’s most expensive footballer is the game-changer in this Wales team, the man who is capable of single-handedly winning matches with a moment of brilliance, yet it was hard for him to find the time and space to wreak havoc. Wales never had enough of the ball for a start, certainly not in attacking areas, and trying to break down a team that sits deep is awkward for Coleman’s team, who prefer to play on the counterattack.
Belgium, should they beat Hungary on Sunday night, could prove to be more welcome opponents in that sense, especially as Wales took four points off them in qualifying, including a 1-0 victory in Cardiff a little over 12 months ago, when Bale proved to be the match-winner. Bale, however, could do with a bit of help from elsewhere.
The centre-forward position remains a problem for Coleman, who started with Sam Vokes but replaced him early in the second half, not long after the Burnley striker had spurned a decent chance. Robson-Kanu came on in his place and, in a bolder change that reflected the need to add some more creativity to the Wales team, Coleman brought off Joe Ledley in favour of Jonny Williams.
Bale had been policed reasonably well by Northern Ireland up to that point, yet one concentration lapse proved fatal. Drifting to the left-hand side of the pitch, Bale was picked out by Ramsey and whipped in a superb cross that McAuley succeeded only in prodding into his own net. Wales finally had their goal, a place in the last eight within their grasp, and “don’t take me home, please don’t take me home” was once again ringing out from the sea of red shirts. Next stop Lille.
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