Michael O’Neill condemned the “cruelty” of Northern Ireland’s World Cup play-off defeat by Switzerland after they were ultimately denied a place in Russia by the controversial first-leg penalty. The Northern Ireland manager also insisted it was too soon to say whether elimination marked the end of an era for himself and several senior players.
Northern Ireland produced a vastly improved performance in Basel but a goalless draw sent Switzerland through to a fourth consecutive World Cup finals thanks to Ricardo Rodríguez’s penalty in Belfast. Rodríguez was also on hand to clear a Jonny Evans header off the line in stoppage time in the second leg, increasing Northern Ireland’s torment.
“I wasn’t aware it was Rodríguez but the cruelty is in the poorness of the decision that means we are missing out on the chance to go to a World Cup,” a distraught O’Neill said. “That is the cruelty. We should still be playing extra time now, that is the reality. Yes, Switzerland were the better team in the first leg but they didn’t score other than the penalty.
“We were the better team tonight. For us to miss out because of that mistake, at this level and with those group of players who’ve given everything, is extremely cruel. We should be out on the pitch now fighting for a place in Russia.”
O’Neill revealed several Northern Ireland players were in tears in the dressing room after the game and that, for the likes of 38-year-old Aaron Hughes and 37-year-old Gareth McAuley, their dreams of playing at a World Cup are, in effect, over.
The manager said: “My first emotion is absolute devastation. It would have been disappointing if we’d just lost but it is devastating because of the manner of how we lost and the goal that decided the tie. I couldn’t have asked for more from the players. Their level of performance was phenomenal and I told them afterwards it was a privilege to be their manager tonight.
“After five and a half years this is clearly a devastating moment but in terms of the character of a team it is also a high point. We went toe to toe with a team that reached the last 16 of the last Euros and the last World Cup and the tie has been decided by a penalty that should never have been. The players are emotional and upset. There were some players in tears afterwards. Everyone was struggling to hold back their emotions. For some of these players it’s unlikely the World Cup will come around again.”
Oliver Norwood, the Northern Ireland midfielder, put it succinctly. “Shafted is the only word for it,” he said. “It’s not just the penalty decision as the tackle Fabian Schär made on Stuart Dallas in Belfast was a red card. I will think about the penalty decision for years to come as it’s the only goal between the two sides and it’s knocked us out.”
O’Neill’s future with Northern Ireland is open to doubt given his outstanding achievements at international level. Scotland are believed to be keen to lure the Edinburgh-based manager to replace Gordon Strachan, but O’Neill insisted no one connected with Northern Ireland needs to decide their futures in the immediate aftermath of the play-off exit.
“I haven’t even considered that,” he said. “I am under contract until 2020 and tonight is about being with my players, spending time with them and making sure they are OK. I said to the players there is no need to make any rash decisions on anything they want to do. They have given everything.
“They will make decisions going forward. Certainly the likes of Aaron and Gareth at 38 and 37, and Chris Brunt, these players have had long and established Northern Ireland careers but, for me, they have time to make that decision.
“We don’t have a qualifier until next March so there is lot of time for that, and certainly at this moment in time it’s not a decision to be made. I am not thinking any further ahead than just being with the players.”