Northern Ireland exit Euro 2016 with pride

The Northern Ireland fans stayed long after the final whistle Saturday and the departure of their players to sing their songs at the Parc des Princes, and of course "Will Grigg's on fire" was among them.

Even Euro 2016 volunteers had sung it through a megaphone long before the kick-off, and manager Michael O'Neill was asked after their last 16 exit from a 1-0 defeat against Wales why Grigg hadn't played at all in France.

"He is our fourth-choice striker. It is unfortunate but I don't pick my players based on what the fans sing," O'Neill said.

Instead, O'Neill has not too much space for strikers in his line-up because a firm defence and tight midfield comes first for a Northern Ireland he readily admits is not as gifted as many of the opposing teams.

"You have to be strong tactically if you are not top level and with world class players," he said. "We came against a team with world class players and stifled them for majority of the game."

O'Neill's men managed to contain Wales stars Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey almost throughout the game, and it took a 75th-minute own goal from Gareth McAuley off Bale's whipping cross to go down.

"It is a very cruel way to lose. We didn't deserve to lose in this nature. It was a very tight game and we had the better of that to be honest.

"Not many people gave us a chance of doing anything at the tournament and we came close to be last eight. The pride and commitment to play for the country was a fantastic experience for everyone," O'Neill said.

Playing their first major tournament in more than three decades since the 1982 World Cup, Northern Ireland with its many players from second tier clubs suffered a late 1-0 loss against Poland, then beat Ukraine 2-0 before going down just 1-0 against world champions Germany.

Goalkeeper Michael McGovern was the hero in that game as the Germans had almsot a dozen first-rate chances. Wales never got that Saturday, with a free-kick from Bale their only shot on target, but McAuley's misfurtune then saw them through.

"It's the nature of football. We are certainly not pointing fingers. It was a split decision and unfortunately it went against him," O'Neill said.

Wales manager Chris Coleman was relieved to have won in a tense second "Battle of Britain" in France, after losing in the last minute against England in the group stage, and credited Northern Ireland in general and O'Neill in particular.

"Michael is a very smart man," Coleman said. "They frustrate the opposition and they have good players also. They are very good at what they can do.

"They didn't arrive her by luck. They lost only two games of their last 15 and got into the last 16 when no one expected it."

But while Wales now look ahead at a date with Hungary or Belgium, Northern Ireland go home with their heads up high.

"Tomorrow we will look back at it with a sense of pride. It was the best time of my career by far," McGovern said.

Last update: Sun, 26/06/2016 - 11:09
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