Belfast Telegraph

Tears and heartache ... but pride too, as Northern Ireland's dreams of World Cup glory come to an end

By Adrian Rutherford

And so the dream is over - Northern Ireland will not be going to the World Cup next year.

For the 2,000-plus fans in Basel hoping the team could defy the odds one last time, this really did feel like the end of the world.

On a night when only a win would do, a 0-0 draw against the Swiss - a 1-0 loss on aggregate - meant heartbreak for the Green and White Army.

So too for the players, who slumped to the ground as the final whistle sounded, some in tears, visibly distraught.

They came so close, only to fall short right at the end.

It was particularly cruel that the decisive moment in this play-off tie was the penalty in Belfast that should never have been.

David Smyth, who had travelled from Belfast, admitted the wounds won't heal easily.

"I'm gutted - there is no other word for it," he said.

"It came down to one penalty over 180 minutes of football - and it shouldn't have even been a penalty.

"I'm hurting - it's going to take a long time to get over this."

Henry Hughes from Glengormley felt the loss in Belfast had wrecked Northern Ireland's hopes.

"We played very well, but the damage was done in the first game with that penalty," he said.

"It was a great performance tonight against good opposition, but our chance was gone in the first match unfortunately."

Speaking after the game, manager Michael O'Neill admitted the players were devastated.

"They are emotional, they are upset. There were players in tears," he said.

He added: "The emotions are very high, there is huge, huge disappointment. For some of these players it is unlikely the World Cup will come around again."

O'Neill concluded his press conference by offering his best wishes to Switzerland for next summer's World Cup. Despite the disappointment, life goes on and the tournament will go ahead without Northern Ireland - but it will be poorer for it. So too our magnificent fans, who again represented their country superbly.

They had travelled here in large numbers - well above the 1,800 tickets officially issued for away supporters. Basel isn't the most accessible destination, and for some the trek had involved multiple flights and train journeys.

Yet by yesterday afternoon they had arrived in force in this quaint city, on the banks of the Rhine bordering France and Germany.

The St Pickwick Pub in the centre of town quickly became a rallying point for the travelling army. By early afternoon hundreds of supporters had gathered, spilling out on to the street and rendering it impassable.

Not even a freak deluge could spoil the party for the hundreds dressed in Northern Ireland jerseys and carrying flags. Banners from places such as Lurgan, Groomsport and Carrickfergus attached to the walls marked out their territory.

As the game kicked off, the scenario was simple. It really was win or bust.

Early shots from Chris Brunt and Stuart Dallas roused the travelling support and left everyone believing a comeback was possible.

And while Northern Ireland more than rode their luck in a goalless first half, they held firm.

It meant that, after a 15-month qualifying campaign, one final 45 minutes of football would decide our World Cup fate.

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be, with Jonny Evans' header at the death the closest they came.

Today everyone is beginning the long journey home, the dream over, the road to Russia finally at an end.

Belfast Telegraph


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