Extremely cruel to lose out like this – O’Neill
SWITZERLAND 0 NORTHERN IRELAND 0 WORLD CUP QUALIFIER 2ND LEG SWITZERLAND WIN 1- 0 ON AGGREGATE
MANAGER Michael O’Neill was unwilling to discuss either his future or that of his veteran Northern Ireland players having seen the country’s 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 this draw in Basel, 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 adjudged Corry Evans to have handled and gave a penalty that Ricardo Rodriguez scored – the only goal across the 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 immediate 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. “(Last night) 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 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 near six-year tenure, this performance can be highlighted as one that epitomised his team – gutsy, resolute and energetic.
They were vastly improved from Thursday and nearly forced extra-time too, but Jonny Evans’s stoppage-time header was cleared off the line by none other than Rodriguez.
It was hard to escape the fact that it was Hategan’s call that meant O’Neill was conducting a post-match press conference instead of his side playing out another 30 minutes.
“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 extratime 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. At this level, for a group of players that deserve more... we should still be fighting for our place to go to Russia. The players are emotional and upset.”
END OF A DREAM: Northern Ireland’s Jordan Jones, right, and his team-mates look dejected after a goalless draw with Switzerland in Basel saw them lose the World Cup play-off 1-0 on aggregate.