How Saints players fared at the Euros
Where else to start but Portugal? In any previous major tournament, 3 points and a 3rd place finish in the group stage would mean catching an early flight home. Luckily for Portugal this was not the case due to the revamped format for Euro 2016 and they went on to win the tournament against all odds. Having scraped three draws against Iceland, Austria and Hungary during the group stage, Fernando Santos` side knew they would have to change something in order progress much further. That`s exactly what they did against a Croatia team tipped by many to be tournament dark horses as they dropped Vieirinha and Ricardo Carvalho in favour of Saints duo Cedric Soares and Jose Fonte. Suddenly they looked a lot more solid at the back keeping a clean sheet in a 1-0 extra time win over the Croats before conceding their only goal in the knockout stages during a 1-1 draw against Poland which was eventually won on penalties. A 2-0 victory over Wales followed in the semi-finals before Eder`s extra time winner against the hosts France at the Stade de France gave the Portuguese their first major trophy. Saints fans were delighted to see two of their own win a major honour on the international stage, particularly Jose Fonte who became the first ever player to win both the Johnstone`s Paint Trophy and the European Championships in his career. Both players will receive a well-earned rest before joining up with Claude Puel`s side and few will say they don`t deserve it.
Also having a successful tournament was Steven Davis who captained Northern Ireland to the last 16. Little was expected from one of the most unfancied teams in the finals, but they overcame a tough group including Germany, Poland and Ukraine in order to progress. Despite losing to both the Germans and the Poles, a 2-0 victory over Ukraine was enough to go forward to the knockout rounds. All three results contributed to their progression however, with narrow 1-0 defeats in both other games being enough to see them qualify as one of four best third-placed teams. A 1-0 defeat to Wales saw Michael O`Neill`s side head home although most Northern Irish fans would have been grateful just to qualify in the first place and Davis can hold his head high having been one of his country`s star performers.
One player who many Saints fans had high expectations of following on from his heroics at St. Marys last season was Shane Long. The Republic of Ireland striker led the line for his country yet failed to score in four games as they crashed out in the last 16 against France. Drawn in the group of death with Belgium and Italy, many thought the Irish would need to win their opener against Sweden in order to stand any chance of making it out their group, particularly following on from a thumping 3-0 defeat to Belgium. This was not the case as Cieran Clark`s own goal meant they could only manage a 1-1 stalemate against the Swedes. Robbie Brady had not lost hope though and struck an unexpected late winner against Italy to set up a date with the French in Lyon. Despite Brady`s earlier penalty, a three-minute brace from Antoine Griezmann sent the Green Army back to the Emerald Isle in a 2-1 defeat. Long will be disappointed not to have found the back of the net this summer after his brilliant season in the Premier League.
Unquestionably the biggest disappointment of all teams containing Saints players was England. Fortunately, Fraser Forster and Ryan Bertrand cannot be blamed for a dismal tournament which ended in the most depressing manner with defeat to major tournament debutants Iceland in the last 16. Forster didn`t play a single minute which is not normally a surprise for a second-choice goalkeeper, but perhaps could have been a different story due to the awful form of Joe Hart. Having been caught out of position for Russia`s last gasp equaliser which ultimately cost England a group win and a last 16 tie against Northern Ireland, Hart dropped a clanger against Wales allowing Gareth Bale`s free kick to slip past his fingertips. Despite a clean sheet against Slovakia, Hart saved the worst until last as Kolbeinn Sigthorsson`s effort squirmed past his fingertips in a fashion not dissimilar to Bale`s to give Iceland victory over Roy Hodgson`s team. Ryan Bertrand`s only performance came against Slovakia as he played his part in England`s only clean sheet. Both players will be hoping to play a bigger part in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Last but not least was a man who has just taken the much-trodden path to the St. Marys exit door. Graziano Pelle joined Chinese side Shandong Luneng in a deal which has reportedly made him one of the world`s highest players. He was still a Saint though during Italy`s Euro 2016 campaign and his tournament will be seen by most as a successful one. He struck to seal a 2-0 win in stoppage time against much-fancied Belgium before doing exactly the same as holders Spain were beaten by the same scoreline in the last 16. Many had written off Italy before the tournament so to beat both Belgium and Spain (as well as a victory over Sweden in their second group game) to set up a quarter-final against Germany was seen as an achievement. Pelle`s Euros ended on a low note however with a poor penalty miss during the shootout defeat against the Germans. Only Simone Zaza`s comical effort spared Pelle from the spotlight as the Italians were sent packing by their German counterparts.