O’Neill coy asWorldCup dream dies
It’s such a cruel way to miss out says manager
MICHAEL O’Neill was unwilling to discuss the future for him and his veteran Northern Ireland players having seen their hopes of reaching a first World Cup in 32 years extinguished.
The Northern Irish valiantly fell short in their play-off with Switzerland, though ultimately not because of what happened in a 0-0 draw in Basel on Sunday, but due to a contentious penalty decision three days earlier that may haunt some of his team forever.
Referee Ovidiu Hategan dumbfounded them when he gave a handball against Corry Evans and gave a penalty that Ricardo Rodriguez scored – the only goal over two legs.
It may have ended one of the most successful periods in Northern Ireland’s history, with players such as Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt now perhaps bound for international retirement, and O’Neill maybe considering alternative jobs too.
However, in the aftermath he gave short shrift when asked if he had thought about his future amid suggestions Scotland and Sunderland see him as the man for them.
“No, I haven’t even considered that (the future),” he said. “Tonight is about being with my players, spending time with them and making sure they are okay.
“As I said to the players themselves, there is no need to make any rash decisions on anything they want to do. They have given everything.
“I know it’s a difficult time and it will come for them and they will make considerations going forward, certainly the likes of Aaron and Gareth at 38 and 37, and Chris Brunt... these players that are have had long and established Northern Ireland careers. But they have time to make that decision
“Certainly at this minute in time, it’s not a decision, and I am not thinking any further ahead than just being with the players.”
If it was the end of O’Neill’s tenure, this display was one that epitomised his team – gutsy and energetic.
They were vastly improved from Thursday and nearly forced extratime too, but Jonny Evans’ stoppage-time header was cleared off the line by none other than Rodriguez himself.
It was hard to escape the fact that it was Hategan’s call that meant O’Neill was involved in a post-match interview instead of extra-time.
“The cruelty is in the poorness of the decision,” he added. “We’re missing out on the chance to go to the World Cup. We should still be playing extra-time now, that’s the reality.
“Over the two legs, for us to miss out off the nature of the decision and how it was given, is extremely cruel. The players are emotional and upset. There were some players in tears, everyone was struggling to hold back their emotions.
“Emotions are very high – t here’s huge disappointment.”
Michael O’Neill cuts a dejected figure after his side lost their two-legged World Cup play-off against Switzerland