O’Neill coy asWorldCup dream dies

It’s such a cruel way to miss out says man­ager

Evening Times - - SPORT - By LIAM BLACK­BURN

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

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