KEIR RADNEDGE in PARIS: Gareth Bale did not score in the British derby at Euro 2016 but he did the next best thing – provoking the own goal by Gareth McAuley with which Wales beat Northern Ireland to reach the quarter-finals.
The Real Madrid superstar was in a class of his own in a scrimmage of a match between two journeymen teams and his decisive contribution was entirely appopriate.
If the two sets of cheery and loyal fans were all-square in terms of the passion of their support it was the Welsh team who had an edge in ability which finally made itself tell in the final stages.
The timing of the derby could hardly have been more delicate, after the populations of the two British home nations have voted contrastingly in the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union.
Wales had supported the Leave cause while Ulster had backed Remain. It a footballing twist of fate it is Wales who remain in France, to play Hungary or Belgium in the quarter-finals, and Northern Ireland who have left the Euros.
Wales, by general consensus, had the better squad with more Premier League experience plus, in Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, one of the very finest individuals in the entire tournament. Northern Ireland prided themselves on bringing greater heart to their first appearance in a major finals since the 1986 World Cup.
The opening halfhour, as would have befitted an English club game, was compact with effort and endeavour and no openings worth the game. Wales’ Wayne Hennessey was the more active goalkeeper, beating for a corner an angled drive from Stuart Dallas and then tipping Jamie Ward’s drive over the bar.
It was almost as if the players did not realise this was a knockout round; they thought they were still playing for a point apiece in a group match.
All the players, that is, except Bale. Just before the hour, after being tripped, he unleahsed a trademark free kick denied a goal only by a fine save from Michael McGovern, diving to his left.
Inevitably it was Bale who forced the 75th-minute breakthrough, with a hard and fast cross from the left. Bale delivered his cross at such velocity that it caught covering defender Gareth McAuley wrongfooted and he jabbed the ball over his own goal-line.
Wales in their first major tournament snce 1958, have progressed as far as they did then. Back 58 years ago Wales were beaten by Pele’s Brazil. Neither Belgium nor Hungary can compare.