Belfast Telegraph

Comment: It's a crying shame Northern Ireland's World Cup dream is crushed like this


By Steven Beacom

As the final whistle blew in Basel, some Northern Ireland players fell to the turf in despair, others stood silent in disappointment and a few shook their heads in disgust reflecting on the scandalous decision that stole their World Cup dream.

Manager Michael O'Neill walked around the mud-splattered pitch at St Jakob-Park to console his heroes who had done the country proud. As he hugged each and every member of his team and backroom staff, it was clear he was struggling to control his own emotions.

Once inside the away dressing room tears flowed from those in white shirts as they attempted to come to terms with their exit from the biggest football competition of them all.

What a crying shame for O'Neill and this Northern Ireland squad to go so close and to have a place in Russia ripped away from them by one of the most dubious calls in the history of international football.

Romanian official Ovidiu Hategan made a monumental mistake when he awarded a penalty to Switzerland in the first leg of the World Cup play-off at Windsor Park on Thursday, allowing them to take a 1-0 lead back home for last night's return fixture.

FIFA, too, share blame for not having a video assistant referee in place to make things right in Belfast. It's disgraceful that for a match of such magnitude the authorities did not have technology available for contentious moments. Adding insult to injustice.

In Basel last night, German official Felix Brych was excellent. If the officiating was vastly improved, so too was Northern Ireland's performance. From Michael McGovern in goal to Conor Washington up front, they put in a dynamic display that had the Swiss side and crowd living on their nerves the longer the compelling contest went on.

Misfiring Switzerland forward Haris Seferovic should have had a hat-trick but O'Neill's men created openings themselves with Jonny Evans going closest in injury time when his header was cleared off the line by Ricardo Rodriguez, who had scored THAT penalty in Belfast.

Following on from the magical experience of Euro 2016, O'Neill and his players were desperate to carry the feelgood factor all the way to Russia, but next year's World Cup simply wasn't to be after an exhilarating run to this stage. They deserved extra-time. Cruelly they didn't get it and went out in heartbreaking circumstances.

So, what now? Well, Northern Ireland aren't scheduled to play again until March next year in a friendly. The qualifying for Euro 2020 starts a year later because UEFA's new toy, the Nations League, kicks off in September 2018.

The big question is will O'Neill be in charge for any of the above? Another is which players will opt for international retirement?

Aaron Hughes, just turned 38, and Gareth McAuley, who hits the same age next month, were magnificent in Basel. If O'Neill sticks around, perhaps they could be persuaded to stay for his Euro 2020 vision, but that's far from certain. Inspirational captain Steven Davis still has much to offer yet fellow 32-year-old Chris Brunt may feel his race his run at international level. Roy Carroll, at 40, could be thinking the same.

O'Neill does not want them to make any rash decisions. He will face his own dilemma in the weeks to come with Scotland keen to snap him up and clubs like Sunderland interested. He has admirers on the Rangers board too.

Managing Northern Ireland through highs and lows has been more of a joy than a strain, but O'Neill will wonder if the time has come to move on.

Should he go, he will do so with the thanks of a nation for giving us so many wonderful memories.

Belfast Telegraph

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