End of the world for O’neill’s men

Ir­ish man­ager’s fu­ture in doubt as Swiss shat­ter Rus­sia 2018 dream

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By James Ducker

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

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