Wales bowed out of Euro 2016 on Wednesday against Portugal, bringing to an end the involvement of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. One semifinal and three round-of-16 finishes were what the four countries had to show for their efforts in France over the last month.
There were some stony faces among Wales’ players as they boarded the bus in Lyon after losing to Portugal. Many nursed consoling cans of beer and sorrows were being drowned. Perhaps that was a reflection of the belief that had coursed through Chris Coleman’s team; losing to Cristiano Ronaldo et al was a missed opportunity, not a tale of plucky outsiders hitting their limit.
It might have been different had Aaron Ramsey not been suspended. Ben Davies was also missed, as James Collins was culpable in both Portugal goals after initially mastering Ronaldo in the air.
But such details will eventually be forgotten, in favour of memories of glory nights like thrashing Russia 3-0 in the group stage, or the thrill of beating Belgium 3-1 in the quarterfinals. The free-kick magnificence of Gareth Bale and Hal Robson-Kanu’s bamboozling of the Belgians are but two indelible memories from a glorious run.
Coleman, meanwhile, announced himself as a statesmanlike figure and was perhaps the best, most lucid talker of all the coaches in France. Whatever happens now, and hopes for Russia 2018 and beyond are bright, this will be recalled as a golden summer for Wales.
A word, too, for those who followed them, from Ramsey: “The fans have been unbelievable throughout this competition and it just shows how passionate they are, how proud they are of being Welsh and supporting their team,” he said in Lyon. “As players, it just makes us proud to be Welsh and representing our country.”
And Wales is proud of them. “We’ll go down as legends, hopefully,” said Joe Ledley. No need for hope, Joe.
National pride is not being felt on the other side of the border, as English football searches its soul once again, rudderless after manager Roy Hodgson resigned immediately following the 2-1 round-of-16 defeat to Iceland, who were organised, imbued with a team ethic and honed by rigorous preparation; everything that England were not.
Hodgson paid for his indecision. Wayne Rooney as a midfielder is an experiment that Jose Mourinho has already said he will discontinue at Manchester United. Meanwhile, the likes of Dele Alli and Harry Kane lost their way, perhaps exhausted by a long season at Tottenham, but not helped by tactics that never played to their strengths.
ESPN FC sources in the England camp suggest the players were bored. They certainly looked confused by the instructions of Hodgson and assistant Gary Neville. Conceding a late equaliser to Russia in their Marseille opener foretold their eventual doom: They failed to put away a poor opponent by not creating enough chances and then had malfunctioned at the back.
“I definitely feel like we are going to give someone a real beating soon,” Gary Cahill said after the 0-0 draw against Slovakia, a game for which Hodgson made six changes. The manager echoed those sentiments but it transpired that their own reputations would be taking that beating from the many travelling fans and media alike.
Republic of Ireland
For Martin O’Neill’s men, the aim was not to repeat the horror of Euro 2012, when a Giovanni Trapattoni-led team lost all three games, scoring just once, and was comfortably the worst in the tournament.
That target was easily surpassed, as Republic of Ireland played with spirit and, in beating Italy 1-0 in their final group game, supplied a golden moment to match glory days like beating the English in at Euro ’88 and the Azzurri six years later in the World Cup.
Ray Houghton scored the winner on both those occasions, but he now has Robbie Brady for company after the Norwich winger nodded in a cross from Wes Hoolahan, or the “Irish Messi”, as L’Equipe labelled Ireland’s playmaker.
O’Neill had completely reshuffled his central defence after losing 3-0 to Belgium and Ireland, in beating Italy, made the Round of 16. There they met France and, after Brady converted an early penalty, they had the hosts worried. Ireland were still leading early in the second half, before Antoine Griezmann seized the occasion to squeak the hosts through with a 2-1 win.
Cheered on by thousands of well-received fans, plenty of Irish players enhanced their reputations. Derby County midfielder Jeff Hendrick, for example, joined Brady as a breakout star. France will be recalled by the Irish as a happy adventure. Even assistant manager Roy Keane was caught smiling on occasion.
If Martin O’Neill took a winning gamble, then namesake Michael matched it in overhauling his team after Northern Ireland lost disappointingly to Poland in their opener, a 1-0 defeat not reflecting the overall balance of play.
Five changes and the dropping of previous talisman Kyle Lafferty helped bring about a 2-0 defeat of Ukraine that secured a round-of-16 place. A creditable display followed in their final group game against Germany, which ended 1-0 to Joachim Low’s men.
Northern Ireland ultimately exited at the hands of Wales, a 1-0 defeat coming in a wholly forgettable match. Still, a team made up of just five Premier League players, with the rest pulled from the English lower leagues, Scottish football and, in the case of Aaron Hughes, a free agent, delivered sweet memories and, along with their supporters, made many friends.
In Will Grigg, a Wigan Athletic player who did not actually play a second of football in France, they had the tournament’s cult hero. By the knockout rounds, stadium PA systems were playing Gala’s “Freed From Desire”, the tune to which “Will Grigg’s On Fire” had been sung across the country.