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Northern Ireland were typically valiant as dream of Euro revival slipped from their grasp

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Kenny Shiels' side were unable to upset the odds

Kenny Shiels' side were unable to upset the odds

PA

Kenny Shiels' side were unable to upset the odds

In the pain-filled moments after the final whistle, Northern Ireland’s players put their heartache to one side, regrouped and walked slowly over to their cheering fans.

Amid the acclaim, some posed for photos, others took selfies with the crowd, a few signed shirts and flags.

The dream may have ended but the support and admiration for this history-making team remained as strong as ever.

Finally they broke away, before regrouping in a huddle once again, arm in arm, the whole squad together as Kenny Shiels delivered some final words.

As Shiels spoke, in the distance Austrian players were celebrating wildly in front of a loud and lively section of fans — including Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl, watching from high in the stand.

A stereo system appeared from somewhere and Jasmin Eder led the players on a conga up and down a section of the pitch.

Later it continued into the post-match press conference, where a group headed by Arsenal goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger burst in, high-fiving the press officer, coach Irene Fuhrmann and player of the match Barbara Dunst.

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The stark contrast in emotions told the story of this match as victory for Austria revived their Euros hopes, while ending Northern Ireland’s.

Shiels’ side were never going to travel far in this tournament, they were always unlikely to make it past the group stage, but they would have loved to have taken things to the final game against England.

Instead, Friday night’s match back here at a sold-out St Mary’s will be for pride and little else.

Shiels felt the performance was good in spells, reflecting on the “ferocious” heat which he felt affected his players more than their opponents.

As a heatwave hit the south coast, the temperature was approaching 30C in the hours before kick-off, sapping the energy and forcing cooling breaks in both halves.

Even in the stifling warmth, some fans had been persuaded to part with their cash for half-and-half scarves — the GAWA loyalty really knows no limits.

Clappers had been given out, while one Northern Ireland fan had acquired a drum, ensuring a thumping atmosphere that felt louder than the 9,268 crowd.

After being blown away in the first 30 minutes against Norway on Thursday night, Shiels’ side were more competitive in the first half here, even if it was tough going against a talented Austrian side.

Katharina Schiechtl was on target with the first goal after 19 minutes, guiding home Sarah Puntigam’s free-kick, with Northern Ireland struggling for creativity.

Facing a make-or-break 45 minutes, the players gathered in a lengthy huddle as they came out for the second half.

As the clock ticked down, the fans tried to lift their team even as hopes faded fast. Two minutes from the end, it was all over, Katharina Naschenweng breaking away and driving in.


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