Croatians hit Ulstermen in Belfast duel
Mandzukic, Cop and Kramaric rock the Irish
If this was Michael O’Neill’s final farewell to Northern Ireland before an unlikely switch to Scotland, then it would not be a befitting way to sign off after five years at the helm.
It was scrappy and unlike the side we’re used to seeing under the 47-year-old, as Croatia won with goals from Mario Mandzukic, Duje Cop and a second-half screamer from Andrej Kramaric.
Yet all the attention was on O’Neill, who lives in Edinburgh and has seen speculation that he could take over from struggling Scotland boss Gordon Strachan intensify.
O’Neill maintains he will be in charge when Norway come to visit in March but a lot can change in four months in football, and he gave no long-term guarantees in the build-up to this tie.
This was not a game to tell the grandchildren about from a Northern Ireland point of view, nor a true show of O’Neill’s talents.
Yet if Scotland do consider him as their next head coach, they will look at what he’s done in five years, not 90 minutes.
O’Neill led Northern Ireland to their first-ever European Championship in the summer and saw his side put four past Azerbaijan in their World Cup qualifier on Friday.
They are second only to world champions Germany in their qualifying group and here was a chance to flex their muscles against a Croatia team captained by Juventus star Mandzukic.
It just didn’t happen, however, as the visitors took a deserved lead then dug in their heels.
Speaking afterwards, O’Neill said: ’I’m going back there [to Scotland] on a plane on Thursday because that’s where I live and that’s the only thing that I’m thinking about in regards to Scotland.
“There is no concern about that. It’s not even relevant to tonight’s situation at all.
“The main thing for me in this is to continue to try to improve things all the time, to improve football in Northern Ireland.’
Kick off was delayed by 15 minutes due to traffic congestion.
Northern Ireland’s Lee Hodson in action with Croatia’s Andrej Kramaric in their international friendlyb at Windsor Park, Belfast, Northern Ireland .