Despondent Steven Davis says Northern Ireland's automatic Euro 2020 qualifying dreams have been dashed by a "freak goal".
Michael O'Neill's men were just seconds away from a magnificent 1-1 draw with the mighty Netherlands in Rotterdam on Thursday night.
That result, on 90 minutes, would have set up Davis and his team-mates for a chance to seal a second successive Euro finals place in the return with the Dutch at Windsor Park next month.
But instead, they were plunged to a 3-1 injury time defeat.
It was a heartbreaking way to lose and Davis lamented sub Luke de Jong's crucial second for the Dutch. "It was a bit of a freak goal and, unfortunately, for all the work we've put in we haven't come away with anything," said Rangers ace Davis.
He spoke as Dutch boss Ronald Koeman delivered a stinging verdict on Northern Ireland's style of play.
O'Neill's band of mostly lower league players battled courageously against the star-studded Dutch, constantly frustrating them.
But former Southampton and Everton manager Koeman was not impressed.
"It is outrageous, the football they play, but it is allowed and they get the most out of their qualities," said Koeman. "I respect that, but it is terrible to watch."
Davis, who was winning his 114th cap in Rotterdam, added: “In terms of the game-plan it was going very well, until that point.
“We scored with the one chance we got.
“We had to try to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them, we worked hard and although they had a lot of possession, I felt relatively comfortable up until they scored.
“We’re disappointed with the goals we conceded to them.
“It’s a sore defeat to take.
“It feels like something of a missed opportunity from the position we got ourselves in late on in the game.”
Northern Ireland defended resolutely for most of the game, soaking up pressure, frustrating the Dutch and keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell only had one tame save to make in the first half while he produced a fine close-range stop from Steven Bergwijn in the second half but it was only after Josh Magennis’ opening goal that Ronald Koeman’s men performed with greater intensity.
Fatigue ultimately kicked in, unsurprising considering the Northern Ireland players, including full-backs Michael Smith and Shane Ferguson, had been forced to raise their game considerably to stay in contention with the galaxy of superstars in the Dutch team.
Davis admitted: “We were under no illusions about how difficult it was going to be.
“We almost needed a perfect night to come to a place like here and get a result.
“It looked like it was almost destined to be whenever we went one up.
“Of course whenever you concede goals there are always things you can do better.
“Maybe after they got their first we started dropping off a bit deeper, stopped getting up to the ball so much but we put so much into the game.
“There were a lot of good things but ultimately, once again, we haven’t come away with the result we wanted.
“We’ve got two hugely difficult games to come but we just have to go and give it our all and see where that takes us.”
The Netherlands now top Group C on goal difference as the Dutch, Germany and Northern Ireland have all accumulated 12 points.
They travel to Belfast on Saturday, November 16, for the return clash but by that stage the Oranje will likely be three points ahead of O’Neill’s charges as they face Belarus in Borisov tomorrow night.
With the European giants of the group unlikely to drop any points against Estonia and Belarus, Northern Ireland will need to beat the Netherlands and Germany in their last two games to give themselves a slim hope of automatic qualification.
Even then the men in green would probably have to beat the Germans by three clear goals as it would go to a head-to-head if teams if finish on the same number of points and Joachim Low’s men have already won 2-0 in Belfast.
There is the lifeline of a Euro play-off, with games taking place next March, and currently Northern Ireland occupy one of those spots. “The quality of the opposition in those matches (Netherlands and Germany) makes it really tough but we have to give our all. Beyond that, we’ll see what happens in terms of play-offs and things like that,” added Davis.
After spending a day of recovery in Rotterdam, Northern Ireland fly today to Prague for Monday’s friendly with the Czech Republic.
After the Dutch heartache, boss O’Neill will likely use this game to give his squad players a further taste of international football.
“I’m sure Michael will rotate it a little bit, freshen things up,” conceded Davis.
“It’s important to give other members of the squad some experience of international football as well to try and build for the future.”
O’Neill, meanwhile, will try to use the pain of Thursday night’s late collapse against Holland to inspire his side in a last-ditch bid to save their Euro 2020 qualifying hopes next month.
“When the draw was made in Dublin we knew we were in the toughest group,” O’Neill said.
“We knew Germany were the pot two team everyone was trying to avoid but we were allocated that group and we had to meet that challenge head on.
“What we have to do is try to win the game in Belfast and then go into the game in Frankfurt with something to play for.
“We can only do that if we beat Holland.
“Given the nature of how we lost it would be nice to beat Holland in Belfast if we can.
“Maybe we’re not a team that can compete technically but we can compete in terms of structure, spirit and heart and that’s what we did.
“But ultimately I don’t tend to look back on games that we’ve lost with any great pride and this game will be no different.”
O’Neill will shuffle his pack for the Czech Republic friendly.
“We have to give opportunities to some of the players,” he said. “Obviously a friendly off the back of a game like this is not that significant but equally we have to get game time into the young players.”