Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Pride amid the pain after Northern Ireland's spirited display in Basel falls just short


By Julian Taylor

Treat it like it's the last day of our lives - that was the proclamation of one defiant Northern Ireland fan in Basel yesterday.

His country didn't let anyone down, only for international football's cruel, fine margins to work against his brave team.

But it's the Swiss who have squeezed into the World Cup. As Northern Ireland failed at the last, it's no consolation for a heartbroken squad who gave their all that they bossed a team, teetering on hubris, in their own backyard.

While the rain lashed down on the city, 2,000 of the Green and White Army believed - and the players certainly did. If only they had done so last Thursday, perhaps we wouldn't be feeling so consumed with regret.

Out came the pitchforks to arrest the sodden St Jakob-Park and early frenetic exchanges suited Michael O'Neill's.

Northern Ireland had a glaring need to do themselves justice here. And while every single player can look in the mirror, the sense of this being the end is coming into view.

It was impossible to overemphasise how important this game was for the team. Victory, for a seat on the Russian rollercoaster. Defeat, and a prolonged period of dejection. O'Neill, sadly, may be elsewhere by the time serious football comes around again.

His team, again, deserve immense credit; such dedicated aggression against a country who had lost just twice at home in 16 years. Everything rested in Basel. How Northern Ireland looked high on industry with Oliver Norwood, Jamie Ward and Steven Davis keeping the home crowd quiet.

This team answered all questions. Ultimately, a consequence of a disgraceful refereeing decision in Belfast, alongside a diffident first leg showing makes all the incredible efforts incredibly hard to accept.

Overshadowed by Norwood, Granit Xhaka, expensive Arsenal dabbler and another over-confident Swiss, was a surprised figure, struggling against the harassment. Lending weight too, substitute Jordan Jones - and what a future prospect. The rest all emptied the tank and, for a few, like Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes and Chris Brunt, this may be the end of the line.

A normally calm observer, it was particularly hard to witness an increasingly anxious O'Neill urging the final attacks. Living and breathing the drama, only for that precious, loose ball refusing to break. Desperate Ricardo Rodriguez's goal line clearance at the death from Jonny Evans summed up the anguish of a magnificent campaign.

As disconsolate supporters mull over the future, it does seem premature to wonder where the national team and, indeed, O'Neill himself, goes from here. These recollections of zest away from home against a quality side can only be encouraging, if only a footnote.

This was an unprecedented night which has, agonisingly, spiked a whole new world of pain for Northern Ireland. Outstanding, they made St Jakob-Park their own. Sometimes you can do it all and it's still never enough.

Belfast Telegraph


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