End of the world for O’neill’s men
Irish manager’s future in doubt as Swiss shatter Russia 2018 dream
It will be a while before Northern Ireland’s players, management and supporters get the image of Ricardo Rodriguez dramatically clearing Jonny Evans’s header off the goalline in stoppage time out of their minds.
Evans, like the magnificent 1,900 Northern Irish fans camped inside one corner of St Jakob-park, must have thought he had dragged this spellbinding match into extra time and kept alive his team’s World Cup hopes, but it was not to be. A frenetic goalless draw was enough to book Switzerland’s place in Russia next summer after Thursday’s controversial 1-0 first-leg victory in Belfast, and a crestfallen Michael O’neill and his valiant players were left to reflect with a sense of desolation and anger on a very costly error by referee Ovidiu Hategan.
And that is the shame of it. That a fiercely fought play-off should ultimately have been decided by the award of a penalty for handball by Corry Evans that was not, and while Switzerland will argue they blew enough chances to have won with greater ease over 180 minutes, the point is they did not and were indebted to Hategan as much as Rodriguez. “Shafted is the only word for it,” said midfielder Oliver Norwood. “I will think about the penalty decision for years to come. It’s cost us a place in the World Cup.”
It was the AC Milan left-back who emerged as Switzerland’s saviour in both games, converting that decisive penalty at Windsor Park and then making the heroic, last-gasp intervention to deny Evans and Northern Irish dreams of a first World Cup appearance for 32 years.
O’neill’s players were out on their feet. Some were in tears, others could barely stand, overcome with tiredness and emotion. They gave it everything, a performance of character, resilience and boundless energy and enthusiasm, but it was not quite enough. The immediate after- math of such an emotional occasion is no time or place to make rational decisions but it remains to be seen if O’neill can pick himself up and go again, or whether he feels he has taken this side as far as he can. No one looked more crushed than him by the end. “The first emotion is almost devastation,” he said.
Clubs are sure to be circling for the man who has transformed Northern Ireland’s fortunes over the past 5½ years and he is under consideration by the Scottish Football Association to replace Gordon Strachan, although Norwood willed the manager to stay on. “The message is loud and clear from the players and fans that we would like Michael to stay,” he said.
O’neill is not the only one with a decision to make over his future. Aaron Hughes is 38, Gareth Mcauley and Chris Brunt will be 38 and 33 respectively next month. Jamie Ward is 31 and captain Steven Davis turns 33 on New Year’s Day. Is this a natural moment to call time on their international careers? If it is, it will probably mark the end of an era for this side, although a new hero in the making emerged last night in the form of George Saville, the Millwall midfielder, and the likes of Stuart Dallas and Jonny Evans, both outstanding here, will continue to lead the fight.
The stakes were huge, and the challenging conditions only heightened the drama. It had barely stopped raining for 24 hours in Basel and the pitch cut up terribly. Saville described it as “disgraceful” and “unacceptable”, although, to the credit of both teams, it did not detract from an absorbing game.
Northern Ireland were indebted to Michael Mcgovern for making two excellent saves to deny Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber in the space of three first-half minutes and Haris Seferovic glanced a header from an inviting position wide, but O’neill’s side were well on top after the restart.
O’neill had made four changes from the first leg and they had a transformative effect. Saville, in for the suspended Corry Evans, was making only his fourth international appearance, but you would not have known. Up against Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Denis Zakaria, of Borussia Monchengladbach, he was the best midfielder on show, upstaging even Davis with his calmness and precision on the ball.
Ward and Conor Washington brought more pace and mobility to the attack and Dallas, who had been on crutches after an awful challenge from Fabian Schar in the first leg, was outstanding down the left. In defence, Evans and Mcauley were colossal.
Brunt brought a couple of good saves from Yann Sommer early on but Northern Ireland’s best spell came midway through the second period. In the 55th minute, Saville sprayed a raking pass out to Ward, who whipped over a lovely cross that Washington met with a good header that sailed agonisingly wide of the far post. Soon after, opportunity knocked for Saville.
Washington pulled the ball back but the midfielder got the ball caught under his feet and his resulting shot lacked power as Sommer smothered.
Seferovic missed a glorious chance late on to put the game beyond Northern Ireland and then came the dramatic finale. After Brunt’s corner was partially cleared, Mcauley played the ball back to his West Bromwich Albion team-mate. Sommer came for the cross but missed the ball and Jonny Evans ignored the flying boots to power a header towards goal.
It was a brave header that typified his performance but to his anguish there was Rodriguez to clear on the line, and extinguish Northern Ireland’s World Cup dream.
Chris Brunt is comforted after the final whistle
Off the line: Jonny Evans heads at goal, only for Ricardo Rodriguez (13) to clear