Euro 2016 has thrown up unexpected stories at a welcome rate. But surely few imagined a British derby in the last 16 taking place on a continent newly abandoned by the United Kingdom.
On its own merits, this meeting remains a fascinating duel. But this is now the unavoidable and unexpected context in which today’s clash between Wales and Northern Ireland is set.
For every question yesterday about Wales manager Chris Coleman’s policy of playing three at the back, there were two on Brexit and its significance to a football match being played in Paris.
It was the same later, when Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, and his captain Steven Davis faced the media. Northern Ireland voted to remain, Wales to leave. Can this be a portent of what happens later today: Are Northern Ireland fated to qualify for the last eight, while Wales exit the Euros? Coleman just shrugged.
Neither he nor the players have been talking about the issue, he claimed. Coleman stressed that he, his staff and the players were living on planet football at the moment.
“I’m not sure what part of the country voted for in or out,” he said. “We’ve no idea. All we know is we are playing Northern Ireland tomorrow. The rest can wait. It’s all about the football for us.”
On this occasion, surely, footballers could be excused ignorance and lack of curiosity. Here are two groups of players for whom playing knock-out football is a novel, captivating prospect. They are understandably reluctant to let outside events, momentous though they are, interrupt their focus.
Wales have only qualified for the knockout stage at a major finals once before, Northern Ireland twice. But neither have done so in the last 34 years. So everything else can go hang – for now at least.
“When we talk about being in and out of Europe – we are still in it, and that’s all we care about to be honest,” added Coleman. “Yes it’s on the news but that is not our focus. We will talk about it when we get back, whenever that is. We have been watching all the football, that’s really been the focus.”
Edinburgh-based O’Neill, meanwhile, kicked himself for not putting in place the process to vote via post, or proxy. It is about the only thing the manager overlooked during otherwise immaculate preparations for this tournament, evidence of which is being so compellingly demonstrated on the pitch.
“I personally made an error as I didn’t give myself the opportunity to vote by a postal vote,” he revealed. “I’m disappointed about that myself.
“But it [the referendum result] is not an issue for us in any way, shape or form at this tournament. It’s something to deal with later down the line.
“To be honest I have not given it too much thought. It has not come into my formation in any way, or what team selection I will make – not yet at least. Listen, I don’t think our players are too concerned about it at this moment in time. They are focused on the football. They probably are not that focused on it in general anyway.”
A match providing the opportunity to qualify for the quarter-finals of a major tournament would be hugely irresistible in any case. But the fact it is a British derby, between teams so inexperienced at this level, piles on the intrigue. There is even an English referee, Martin Atkinson.
It was revealing to hear how both managers want their teams to approach the clash. Revealing because it underlined which side is perceived to have more class. Coleman hopes the match does not reflect the origins of the players by being played at 100mph. He fears both countries becoming distracted by tribalism, even if theirs is a less intense form of rivalry.
The Wales manager would rather the match reflected the stage where it is being set and proved a fittingly sophisticated spectacle. But then Coleman is privileged to have a world-class talent in Gareth Bale and a Premier League star in Aaron Ramsey.
Northern Ireland are more high street fashion compared to Wales’ haute couture, something O’Neill, whose team will be a mix of players from the English Premier League/Championship and Scottish Premier League, accepts. Coleman, by contrast, is operating with recruits mostly drawn from the English Premier League – and one from La Liga, of course.
Coleman shrunk from the idea of a British style cup-tie, while his opposite number welcomed it. “I want to play with loads of emotion,” O’Neill said, having been informed that Coleman will order his players to see past the familiar faces in front of them. “I don’t believe you can play without emotion to be honest,” he added. “I expect my team to play with emotion. I expect it to be a bit of a factor tomorrow night.”
O’Neill’s derby record is “mixed” he admitted. But then he played for so many clubs he has now lost track of how he fared in Dundee, Edinburgh and Tyne-Wear derbies, to name but a few local clashes in which he featured. But he has only tasted one Brechin City v Montrose derby – a 2-1 League Cup win for his Brechin side at Links Park in 2007. It isn’t often that an Angus derby gets name-checked at a press conference at Parc des Princes so it’s worth recording.
“When I was manager of Brechin, the Brechin-Montrose derby, the atmosphere was electric at times, so it was,” noted O’Neill. “Those 500 people could really lose it,” he added, with a grin. Nearer 50,000 will pack the stadium tonight for a game that might not grace the setting but may well prove chaotic enough to fit these turbulent times.