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Northern Ireland had never before made it to the European Championship

After Saturday’s 1-0 defeat by Wales, Northern Ireland are leaving Euro 2016 with a nagging, frustrating feeling they did not make the most of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Having qualified for their first major finals in 30 years, they succeeded in reaching the knockout stages. That is a fine achievement for an unfancied team that was in pot five when the qualifying draw was made back in February 2014.

But the fact their elimination came at the hands of Wales will rankle. Not world champions Germany, hosts France or holders Spain, but Wales, a team one place below them in the Fifa rankings.

That it was down to an own goal from the otherwise excellent Gareth McAuley strengthens the anguish.

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Euro 2016: Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland highlights

Once again, Northern Ireland’s superb fans stayed on in the stadium, singing themselves hoarse as they had done from well before the game, and manager Michael O’Neill and his players will thank the fans for their brilliant support at a public event in Belfast on Monday.

However, they will do so disappointed that they lost three of their four matches in France.

What now for manager O’Neill?

Michael O’Neill guided Northern Ireland to a first major tournament in 30 years

Northern Ireland’s next competitive match is on 4 September when World Cup qualifying starts with a trip to the Czech Republic. Having signed a new four-year contract, it is expected O’Neill’s hand will be on the tiller.

However, having won admirers on the big stage of a major tournament, will an English club make O’Neill an offer too good to refuse?

The 46-year-old’s previous managerial experience was with Brechin City and Shamrock Rovers, but his stock has risen with an enhanced reputation as an astute tactician who gets the best out of limited resources. Against Wales on Saturday, for example, his decision to play wing-backs cancelled out a lot of the opposition’s attacking threat.

O’Neill said during the tournament that if a job offer came up, he would evaluate it, although he added he is happy in his role.

“Michael has rejuvenated the team, got the players onside. None of them are crying off with injuries now,” said Hibernian manager Neil Lennon, a former Northern Ireland skipper.

“Northern Ireland have held their own at a major tournament and to top what Michael has done is going to be difficult.”

The legacy of Euro 2016

O’Neill believes the 23 players in his squad will have benefited from the experience of being at Euro 2016.

Assuming he remains in charge, he must now ensure all his key players are on board for the World Cup qualifiers against holders Germany as well as the Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.

During Euro 2016, he cited the example of Portugal defender Ricardo Carvalho who, at 38, is the oldest outfield player at the tournament.

O’Neill said he would be using that when persuading 36-year-old defenders Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes to carry on for one more qualifying campaign.

Skipper Steven Davis is 31 and most of the other players are in their mid to late 20s, so O’Neill’s resources appear to be healthy.

But they are in a difficult qualifying group – with only the top side certain of qualifying for Russia in 2018.

“The players have not got long to mull over what has been a fantastic time, get a break, pick themselves up and go again,” added Lennon, who is at the tournament as a BBC pundit.

“Whether we can make another tournament remains to be seen.

Northern Irishman and former golf world number one Rory McIlroy has been a vocal supporter of the national side

“A lot of revenue has come in because Northern Ireland got through the group stage and that money has got to be used in the right way.

“There has to be an infrastructure in place under Michael O’Neill and Irish Football Association elite performance director Jim Magilton.

“Hopefully, the benefits will be seen in four of five years’ time.”

Going by recent results, it may take time for really promising players to come through and strengthen the senior team. Two young players with Irish League clubs, Linfield’s Paul Smyth and Joel Cooper of Glenavon, were brought out to train with the senior squad in France, an experience which will boost their prospects.

But Northern Ireland have just one point from six qualifying matches for the European Under-21 Championship and are bottom of their group.

A tournament to treasure

There were good moments to cherish from Euro 2016, fond memories to treasure.

The victory over Ukraine which was celebrated in the midst of a thunderstorm on a never-to-be-forgotten night in Lyon.

The backs-to-the-wall defensive display against Germany, and goalkeeper Michael McGovern’s part in restricting the defeat by the World Cup holders to 1-0.

McGovern, who was chosen as the outstanding goalkeeper of the group stage by both Opta and BBC readers using the team selector, is out of contract at Hamilton Academical and veteran defender Hughes is without a club. They are among the Northern Ireland players likely to reap rewards from major tournament exposure.

NI played well for parts of the last-16 match against Wales, but the lack of cutting edge and firepower ultimately proved their downfall.

Belfast-born TV presenter Eamonn Holmes showed his support

And there were the Northern Ireland fans whose amazing support of their team won them many admirers and lit up stadiums in Nice, Lyon and Paris. Thirty minutes after losing to Germany at the Parc des Princes, the green-shirted fans were still singing their heads off in the stadium.

Former midfielder Lennon, who won 40 caps, added: “The fans have been incredible. They have been starved of these big occasions and Northern Ireland have covered themselves in glory both on and off the pitch.”

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Jun 262016
 

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Euro 2016: Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland highlights

With fans whose pre-match song of choice is by Zombie Nation, Wales’ Euro 2016 campaign feels like a footballing nation rising from the dead.

Absent from major tournaments for 58 years, Wales have had to watch on enviously as international football’s elite do battle at World Cups and European Championships.

Yet their rise has not merely ended that wait for qualification; their march to the quarter-finals in France has now captured the imagination of an entire nation.

While a sea of red shirts roared Wales on to victory over Northern Ireland in Saturday’s second-round tie at Paris’ Parc des Princes, a similar mass of bodies gathered at Cardiff’s fan zone and countless bars and living rooms across Wales.

The country is captivated, and its people are daring to dream.

“It goes beyond football to the whole nation, people who don’t even like football,” said former Wales striker Dean Saunders.

“The players have made the whole nation proud even if we get knocked out in the next round.”

Wales’ players refer to their fans as the Red Wall, in homage to the Yellow Wall that German club Borussia Dortmund’s fans form at their imposing Westfalenstadion home.

Their vocal support and good behaviour outside grounds has brought praise from French media and tourism companies, and they were at their vociferous best in Paris.

Wales’ players and coaching team insist they cannot look any further than their quarter-final but, as far as the Red Wall is concerned, manager Chris Coleman sees no reason to curb fans’ optimism.

“We won’t look ahead but the fans can get carried away. Keep dreaming, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.

“They had to be patient with us [against Northern Ireland] – they sensed we were under pressure but they stayed with us. That’s when you need togetherness. They were fantastic.”

Gareth Bale tweeted a photo of a happy Welsh dressing room

‘Courage and strength’

If the demolition of Russia was an exhibition of thrusting, enterprising football, the triumph over Northern Ireland was one built on patience and perseverance.

Coleman praised Northern Ireland for their defensive display – well organised and immaculately disciplined as they contained the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey.

Yet Wales gamely stuck to their task and their persistence eventually paid, Bale freeing himself from Northern Ireland’s shackles to produce the match-winning moment of class.

“We needed our team spirit, when you’re not playing well but you dig in,” said Coleman.

“That’s when you’re showing your courage – and that’s strength. Not giving up when you have nothing left to give, finding something, and we had to do that.”

Creating a legacy

Whether it is Coleman, Bale or any other member of the squad, Wales have insisted throughout their time in France there is no limit to their ambition.

Bale says he believes Wales can win Euro 2016, while Coleman has said qualifying for a first major tournament for 58 years should usher in a new era of regularly competing at such events.

This is a team already immensely popular, and the further they progress in France, the greater an inspiration they will be for future generations.

“It is not just about this tournament and what is going on now but we want to qualify for other tournaments and grow football in Wales, get other kids playing and be role models to make football even bigger in Wales,” said Bale.

“Hopefully that will give us a better national team in the future as well.”

Wales and Iceland (who are undefeated in Euro 2016, their only major tournament appearance) have excellent records in major championships – but it should be noted that Wales have played nine games compared to Italy’s 119 and Germany’s 152.

What next?

Whether it is Belgium or Hungary who await in Friday’s quarter-final, one could argue Wales’ campaign is a success regardless of the result in Lille.

However, such carefree contentment does not register with this Welsh side.

Hungary finishing top of Group F, ahead of Portugal and Austria, is perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament so far. Ranked 20th in the world, they would be a more favourable draw than a Belgian side second in the current standings.

Yet Marc Wilmots’ men were in the same position when they were memorably beaten by Wales in Cardiff in a qualifier for this competition last year.

Before preparations begin in earnest, though, Wales are going to celebrate.

“We need to be away from each other for 24 hours! We’ve been together for five weeks, which has never happened before,” said Coleman.

“The thing that keeps it all knitted together is those not playing, because they keep going, and they’re fantastic in maintaining the spirit.

“We’ll be in the same hotel tonight, have a bite to eat, then they’ll have a few hours to themselves and then back to Dinard [Wales’ French base] and prepare for the next one.”

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Hodgson has been in charge of England since May 2012

England boss Roy Hodgson says he will not “beg” the Football Association for a new contract after Euro 2016.

Hodgson’s deal expires at the end of the tournament and FA chairman Greg Dyke has said the 68-year-old will only stay on if England “do well” in France.

“I’m prepared to carry on,” Hodgson said before Monday’s last-16 tie with Iceland in Nice (20:00 BST).

“It is different to wanting it. I’m prepared to carry on if the FA want me to.”

England started the tournament with a 1-1 draw against Russia before beating Wales 2-1 and drawing 0-0 with Slovakia in their final Group B game – results that left them in second place and in a tougher half of the draw.

Hodgson’s decision to make six changes for the Slovakia game has also come under scrutiny, with reports suggesting it upset some in the FA hierarchy.