Jonny Evans believes Northern Ireland’s incredible fans have a huge role to play as the aim to extend their Euro 2016 adventure against Wales in Saturday’s last-16 clash at the Parc des Princes.
The massed ranks of green-clad supporters illuminated the same venue during a 1-0 loss to Germany on Tuesday, with the slender margin of defeat ultimately meaning Michael O’Neill’s men progressed as one of the four best third-placed sides in the expanded 24-team tournament by virtue of superior goal difference.
They will be underdogs once more as they go toe-to-toe with Gareth Bale and company in a battle of Britain that will be refereed by Englishman Martin Atkinson.
Evans, who performed manfully in the face of Germany’s vast attacking riches hopes vocal backing can roar the Irish into an improbable quarter-final berth.
“That can definitely push you on,” he said. “You see the reception we got.
“We’re in such a position here to create history. That can last a long time and we don’t want to let go of that.
“We want to go as far as we can and not waste this opportunity.”
Their extended stay in France owes much to Michael McGovern, who made a string of excellent saves to frustrate the likes of Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze last time out.
As former under-21 team-mates, Evans has enjoyed a long view of the Hamilton Academical goalkeeper’s progress.
“I think he’s improved a lot. First time I ever played with Michael was in the under-21s, against Scotland in a friendly in Northern Ireland and he did the same that night.
“I remember thinking this guy’s unbelievable. He was a great shot-stopper.
“I think that’s one of his great qualities and his ball control, he’s very comfortable with the ball at his feet, he’s added that.
“He’s a very good goalkeeper and probably could be playing at a higher level.”
O’Neill’s main quandary comes at the other end of the pitch, where his top scorer from qualifying, Kyle Lafferty, could push for a recall.
Bale will carry Wales’ threat as he aims to add to his three goals in as many matches and make McGovern a busy man once more.
Nevertheless, the Real Madrid star turned his focus towards a man whose midfield battle with Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis could be pivotal for the outcome.
“There’s always a Joe Allen appreciation day for us,” Bale said, confirming the unusual ritual captain Ashley Williams told Wales Online his squad uphold on a weekly basis.
“He’s been amazing. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He does the dirty work and it goes unnoticed, but we know how vitally important he is, we appreciate him very much.
“He might not get the headlines but he does in the squad. He’s an incredible player.”
Key Opta stats
– Northern Ireland have won none of their last eight games against Wales (D4 L4). Their last victory dates back to May 1980 in Cardiff.
– This is the first encounter between two British teams in the knockout stages of a major tournament.
– Wales have lost only two of their eight games at major tournaments, both by a one-goal margin – 1-0 against eventual World Cup winner Brazil in 1958 and the 2-1 reverse against England in Lens.
– All three goals conceded by Wales at Euro 2016 have come from the 56th minute onwards. They’ve also all been scored by substitutes.
– This is the first time Northern Ireland have made it to the knockout stages of a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup where they were eliminated by France, bowing out at the same quarter-final stage as Wales.
– Northern Ireland have not conceded more than one goal in their last 16 internationals. The last time they conceded twice was in a 2-0 defeat to Romania in November 2014.
– Gareth Bale became the first player to score in all three group games at a European Championship since Milan Baros and Ruud van Nistelrooy did in 2004.