Dejection at draw with Dutch shows how far NI have come
Netherlands 0-0 N Ireland
Frustration filled the air around Windsor Park late on Saturday night. A 0-0 draw against the Netherlands and their galaxy of star names felt bizarrely disappointing and deflating for Northern Ireland.
It wasn't the fact that Northern Ireland's hopes of automatic qualification were over and that they would be destined for the play-offs next March.
Rather, it was simply another missed opportunity against a world superpower and yet again a lack of clinical finishing had cost them an historic win.
In cold reality, though, the fact that Northern Ireland are feeling downcast over a draw with the Dutch team who reached the final of the Nations League and destroyed Germany in their own backyard is quite astonishing. But that's the incredible standard Michael O'Neill and his men have now set themselves.
Even against the talent of Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong, Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk, Juventus ace Matthijs de Ligt and a host of Ajax stars, Northern Ireland, made up of players from the Premier League, Championship, League One and Scottish Premiership, are expected to gel together, be a determined force and get a positive result.
That's the faith the Northern Ireland fans have in O'Neill's preparations and game plan, while the players are confident of execution on the pitch.
A draw in Rotterdam last month would have been a sensational result, but the players felt empty leaving the Windsor Park pitch with a point.
The Dutch at times were quite content to slow the game down and play in second gear, knowing a draw confirmed their automatic qualifying place.
But in the first half, they were rocked. Corry Evans couldn't quite convert a back-pass error with keeper Jasper Cillessen looking far from assured, Josh Magennis saw a glancing header go narrowly wide and then skipper Steven Davis, when Northern Ireland were awarded a penalty kick following what appeared a harsh handball on Joel Veltman, uncharacteristically struck his effort well over the bar.
The Dutch, who had earlier hit the bar with their first attack through Steven Berghuis, were relieved. You could see it in the expressions of world-renowned defender Van Dijk.
Van Dijk said: "The penalty is a decision the ref made. It's unlucky for Steven that he misses but for us it was a good thing. It could have gone the other way with the penalty.
"The pitch doesn't help either. It's a big stage but he's experienced and it happens. Unlucky for him, good for us."
The Oranje were sparked into life, but for all their possession and Ryan Babel's movement and threat in the air, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, while kept busy, didn't have a great deal to do apart from the routine saves.
Northern Ireland's centre-back pairing of Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart were once again immense, Paddy McNair was constantly driving forward and his crosses were sublime while Leeds United's Stuart Dallas, asked to play four positions having started at right-back and finished at left-back, epitomised the spirit and tenacity in the Northern Ireland camp.
Under O'Neill, Northern Ireland have won 10 out of 17 Euro qualifying matches, losing only three. They've kept 15 clean sheets under him at Windsor.
It's all a far cry from the dark days of the first two years of his time in charge after he took over in December 2011. However, O'Neill's meticulous preparation and attention to details, in all aspects of the job, has given the players the belief to perform at the highest level on the international stage.
With O'Neill taking up the reins at Stoke City, his managerial skills will be badly missed.
But he leaves a side, despite certain troubles at club level, more than competitive against the top nations in Europe.
Cardiff winger Gavin Whyte, who O'Neill started on the right wing against the Dutch, said: "We are a wee bit disappointed to draw this game because we had chances and probably could have nicked one but that's football.
"It says a lot about how far we've come in the past couple of years that we are disappointed to draw with the Netherlands."
Fellow midfielder Corry Evans concurred, stating: "We are all frustrated but as a team I think we have shown how far we have come. We more than matched Germany and Holland in the three games and we will take that into Tuesday night's game."
O'Neill is immensely proud of his achievement during the last eight years with Northern Ireland and with Stoke's blessing, he hopes to add a new chapter to his gripping international thriller with success in next March's play-offs for the Euro 2020 finals.
However, he is also keen to keep a lid on expectations, quick to remind you that he is bringing on players from League One while the Dutch have a plethora of Champions League experience acting as substitutes.
O'Neill said: "For our lads to be playing at this level and competing at this level is testament to not only them but to the senior players in the squad.
"If you look at our team in terms of club football we only have three players who have played at that level on a consistent basis throughout their career. I think the players deserve enormous credit and these games will hopefully give them belief for the (play-off) games in March."
Northern Ireland, having flown into Germany last night, will finish their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in Frankfurt tomorrow evening.
This game could be considered a glorified friendly with nothing at stake, except the Germans, following a disappointing few years, can't afford any more slip-ups.
And as proved in Prague last month, when those players pull on the Northern Ireland shirt, are given direction by O'Neill and cheered on by the passionate Green and White Army, they are able to find an inner strength and play well above themselves.
Winning in Germany may have appeared an impossible mission and unthinkable a few years ago, but then the thought of being disappointed with a draw against the Netherlands would have been equally inconceivable.
These are remarkable times for Northern Ireland football.
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell, Dallas, Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Lewis (Thompson 81), Corry Evans (McGinn 71), Davis, Whyte, McNair, Saville (Smith 58),Magennis.
Subs Not Used: Lavery, Ferguson, Carson Donnelly, Flanagan, McGovern, McLaughlin, Boyce, Lafferty.
Booked: Davis, Dallas.
Netherlands: Cillessen, Veltman, de Ligt, van Dijk, Blind, de Roon (Propper 36), Frenkie de Jong, Berghuis (Luuk de Jong 65), van de Beek, Promes, Babel (Ake 90).
Subs Not Used: Dumfries, Bizot, Boadu, Stengs, Weghorst, Strootman, van Aanholt, Zoet, Wijnaldum.
Booked: de Roon,Veltman.
Referee: Szymon Marciniak.