… but the journey ends for Ollie and UlstermenChris Gunter can look forward to lining up in the quarter-final of Euro 2016, as his Wales team beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in the round of 16 at the Parc des Princes!
But the consequence of more Welsh history being made is that the remarkable journey of Oliver Norwood and the Ulstermen must finally come to an end.
The squad selections from Chris Coleman and Michael O’Neill pitched Royal against Royal as defender Gunter lined up in red and midfielder Norwood donned the green and white.
However there could only be one winner and it was the Dragons who got the decisive goal late in the game, courtesy of a Gareth McAuley own-goal.
The result means that the Dragons become the second nation to book a place in the quarter-final, following Poland’s shoot-out win against Switzerland earlier in the afternoon. Hungary and Belgium meet tomorrow – and Wales will face the winner in Lille next Friday.
After some probing from both sets of players in the opening exchanges, the most notable piece of drama saw Aaron Ramsey put the ball in the net – only for Northern Ireland to breathe a sigh of relief to see the assistant’s flag raised. Sam Vokes had risen well to nod down for the Arsenal man in the six-yard box, but he was correctly judged offside.
Both of the Royals boys were involved in their opposition’s final thirds – Gunter couldn’t quite a teammate in the middle after a surge forward from the right wing-back role, and Norwood’s testing free-kick from the left touchline needed dealing with by Ben Davies. But defences were largely on top during something of a stuttering first period.
The Ulstermen had seen more of the ball in the first period, and continued in similar vein after the half-time team-talks. When Joe Allen set off a Welsh counter-attack, Gunter was hacked down on the flank by Stuart Dallas – the Leeds man could count himself a little lucky not to pick up his second yellow.
Norwood had a pop from 25 yards which goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey fielded comfortably – and at the other end, it was a mistimed tackle from the Reading midfielder on Gareth Bale which allowed the Real Madrid forward a chance to hit one from a similar distance. The Welshman beat the wall with his free-kick but Michael McGovern sprung across goal to save.
However with 15 minutes remaining the deadlock was finally broken – and that goal went the way of Wales. Bale whipped in a low centre from the left and, in his desperation, Ulsterman Gareth McAuley accidentally turned into his own net. With Royals Academy graduate Hal Robson-Kanu on his shoulder and waiting to tap in, the centre-half was left with little option but to try his utmost to keep it out – but couldn’t quite wrap his foot around the ball.
Northern Ireland gave their all to try and nick an equaliser – including sending goalkeeper McGovern up for a late corner – but referee Martin Atkinson blew time on the fixture to send the red half of the stadium into delirium, and leave the Green and White Army despondent.
Our commiserations to Ollie and Northern Ireland as their tournament comes to an end. And our congratulations to Chris and Wales, and the very best of luck in the quarter-final.