Untitled

Paul Saffer (@UEFAcomPaulS): I'll start with a question for you all – even when EURO was expanded to 24 teams, did you really expect to be seeing your country at a major tournament, let alone being in with a great chance of making the knockouts?

Mark Pitman, Wales reporter (@UEFAcomMPitman): There's been steady progress made by Wales over the last five years or so, and the expansion of the tournament did make it a very real possibility. Sometimes qualifying can be harder than progressing in a tournament like this, and if Wales don't make it out of the group it would be a big disappointment.

Graham Little, Northern Ireland reporter (@UEFAcomGrahamL): A large percentage of Northern Ireland fans, if they were honest, would say they never truly thought they'd see their country at a major championship again. But that said, as the players pointed out yesterday, Northern Ireland didn't need the expanded format to qualify. They topped their group in qualifying and have every right to be here.

Paul: That goes for you all – no play-off winners here!

Watch: Gareth Bale on Wales decider

Jóhann Ólafur Sigurdsson, Iceland reporter (@UEFAcomJohannS): When Lars Lagerbäck took over in 2011 I did not really envisage that Iceland would ever play at a major tournament. There had been some decent qualifying campaigns but seldom any real chance of getting through. But then came the campaign for the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and a place in the play-offs. Many felt that it was maybe 'the' chance to get to a finals but when that did not happen the feeling was of regret.

But Iceland managed to get through a tough group for this EURO, and I think they would have ended in first place had they needed to. Draws against Latvia and Kazakhstan at home when the berth was pretty much sealed put them down into second.

Tony Pandovski, Albania reporter (@UEFAcomTonyP): Honestly, no. Knowing the strength of the qualifying group in which Albania were placed – against Portugal, Denmark and a Serbia team full of talented players – I didn't think it would be possible.

After watching the 1-0 win against Portugal and the draw against Denmark in Albania, I thought we looked good and had a chance. The team appeared organised, disciplined and very solid, playing as a group and playing well for and with each other. The same style of play has been seen here in France

Mark: Also, having a superstar like Gareth Bale does bring with it a fair amount of expectancy.

Paul: That certainly sets Wales a bit apart from the other 'minnows' – and he's not the only player with a top club, which isn't really the case for Northern Ireland and Iceland. That said, from the outside, there seems to be a superb spirit in all your camps; what's it like to be part of it?

Mark: The team spirit in the Wales camp is quite unique. The players compare it to club football, and it's something they haven't experienced anywhere else in their careers. It's incredible to be part of it. The players are enjoying the whole experience and have been more than accommodating with any media requests.

There really is a family atmosphere with everyone pushing towards the same end result. There's a lot of mutual respect between players, fans, staff, press etc.

Tony: Fantastic. It's a phenomenal vibe, an atmosphere everyone is enjoying – the fans, the team, the staff and even us team covering them. Being part of it has been an amazing journey, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Jóhannn: It's really indescribable being part of this. The spirit in the camp is so good, there is a lot of unity and the players are very good friends.

And dealing with them professionally, there are no superstars, just a bunch of down-to-earth guys who are enjoying being at the EURO and showing they belong at this level. They are all so easy to speak to and work with. Being part of the ride for the Icelandic men's team's first finals is something that will be with me forever. The magnitude of this is enormous for Icelandic football.

McAuley's pride after historic Northern Ireland win

Graham: There's the impression of a collective movement, without doubt. The players say that the best thing about the squad is that there are no levels between them. We have players in the Premiership and players in League One, and there is no pecking order, they are a very tight-knit group.

Their relationship with the fans is legendary. Stuart Dallas yesterday described them as the best fans in the world. Two fans dying around the first two games has added a new emotional level to that relationship and the players feel a very real responsibility to perform for them.

Paul: All your fans have really stood out – I experienced the Wales fans and their anthem singing first hand in Bordeaux, and we've all heard the Iceland fans and their war cry. It must be immense for them to be at the party?

Graham: A once-in-a-generation experience for Northern Ireland. Truly they are just happy to be here, but now they are desperate for this to continue.

Tony: Right on. They just know how to party. They been dreaming about this for a long time and now they are in, they've embraced this situation with a lot of positivity.

Mark: Definitely, generations of Welsh fans have been denied this opportunity, and the ones that are here in this moment appreciate and understand what it means. Their passion to get behind the team is from a determination for this not to be another chapter of Welsh football disappointment.

Jóhann: It certainly is. I think many view this as a once-in-a-lifetime thing, although I disagree. Six to seven thousand fans flocked to the game in Saint-Etienne and had a big party. I was not sure what to expect for the game in Marseille. But after the draw against Portugal there was a big surge in Iceland in flight sales to France. It's estimated that 10,000 Icelanders were there yesterday. That's just stupendous given the population is around 330,000!

Paul: True, it must be a bit empty back on the islands. I remember the former women's football coach there talking about a ridiculous percentage of the population watching the Olympic handball final that Iceland were in, but that was on TV.

Jóhann: Indeed, it was in China. But the country ground to a halt that day, people just watched it wherever they were. I saw a figure from Iceland that about 67% of people in Iceland aged 12–80 watched the game against Portugal.

Paul: What were the others doing???

Jóhann: I guess there are people in this world who don't like football, as silly as that sounds!

Sigurdsson: We proved Iceland belong at this level

Mark: Thousands of fans from Wales have come over without tickets and without any intention of going to any games, but just want to be part of it in some small way.

Graham: Some of the most incredible scenes I've seen are actually in Belfast. Ten thousand people going mental in a fan zone in the Titanic Quarter watching the Ukraine game. It has also been incredible to see so many local celebs being part of it like any other fan. Jimmy Nesbitt at the forefront, backed up by former players like Keith Gillespie, and people from other sports like Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton. Everyone is involved and everyone is equal as a fan.

Paul: I'd also like to ask about the press packs. For the big countries this is something you expect to cover every two years but if you have been covering Wales, Iceland, Northern Ireland, they've been more used to a lot of defeats and the odd near-miss. How have they enjoyed being here in the UEFA bubble?

Mark: It's a new experience for everyone, but the press have been well looked after by the FAW and the reporting has been very positive. As I mentioned earlier, everyone is pushing in the same direction. Everyone wants Wales to succeed and make this event as memorable as possible.

Jóhann: They are certainly enjoying it here in France, and the coverage is huge back home with a large contingent of reporters here. The press are used to going to finals in handball but the scale of this is not comparable to handball, I think. The feeling in the camp is just great, everyone stays at the same hotel and it's just like a big family. The reporters have talked about the scale of it all; they couldn't have imagined how big it really is.

Tony: They have enjoyed it, but at first I don't think anyone realised what it means to be on this stage – what requirements come with the success of being among the top 24 teams in Europe, starting with the press coverage, PR, coordinating activities, being punctual etc. As the days went by, everyone started to get more comfortable with the workload and things started to flow smoothly.

It has been an amazing experience for all and they hope to continue and be part of it in future tournaments.

Graham: Having some success to report on for the last two years has been more than welcome. The rapport with the players makes it difficult for the press in a small country to be impartial and objective – most of us have known most of the players for at least ten years, and I've known several since we were kids.

It's important that the press keep a professional distance and objectivity but it's definitely difficult when there is such a strong and positive national identity being forged. Northern Ireland's unfortunate political history adds another element too, no doubt.

Paul: I think it's apt you mentioned Carl Frampton and Rory McIlroy earlier. They, like Barry McGuigan in the past, did seem to be able to transcend that sort of thing.

Graham: They have made a conscious effort to do that but also the country has changed beyond recognition in recent years. This EURO experience feels like further evidence of a bright new future.

Hysaj on Albania fans

Mark: It's noticeable how all the Welsh press are passionate Wales fans too – the mood changes dramatically with results!

Paul: If nothing else, it means the expense accounts are stretched for a few more days ...

Anyway, a question to end – whatever you expected when you came here, do the results so far mean you'd be more than a little disappointed not to get out of the group?

Mark: Having started with a win, then yes. It was perfectly set up with that victory and against England we were 45 minutes away from guaranteeing a place in the last 16. Wales came into the tournament with a realistic aim of reaching the knockout stage and it's now very much in our hands.

Graham: Yes. I think the Poland game was such a disappointment for everyone and if Northern Ireland don't go through, they'll really look back at that match as the missed opportunity. Coming into the tournament on the back of a 12-game unbeaten run there was genuine hope they'd really do well. The Ukraine performance gave everyone something to celebrate but I do feel the players will be very disappointed if they aren't around for another week.

Jóhann: I think so. I expected the team to be able to get third place and hopefully qualify for the last 16. I did not expect to take a point off Portugal but a win against Hungary, I had hopes for.

Overall Iceland can't complain – the positive thing is that they have it in their own hands. Win against Austria and they are through, while a point could be enough with some luck. Icelanders are still very positive, we feel there is a good chance of making a bit more history here before we bow out.

Paul: Best of luck to you all, thanks a lot!

About the author : Jasper McDonald

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  1. empire777 login - March 16, 2017 at 4:00 am Reply

    I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!

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