Belfast Telegraph

Referee call was disgraceful but Northern Ireland can go and upset odds, says McIlroy

 

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland legend Sammy McIlroy has blasted the penalty decision in Thursday night's play-off clash at Windsor Park as "absolutely disgraceful and scandalous" but he still believes Michael O'Neill's men can have the last laugh tomorrow night.

The road to the World Cup finals in Russia next summer has become a lot more treacherous after the 1-0 defeat to Switzerland.

While supporters accepted the visitors were the superior side on the night, it was the manner of the loss which left a bitter taste as the second-half spot-kick award provoked fierce protests from Northern Ireland supporters and players.

Referee Ovidiu Hategan thought midfielder Corry Evans handled Xherdan Shaqiri's powerful shot even though the Swiss players did not appeal and replays showed it hit the back of his shoulder.

It evoked painful Republic of Ireland memories of the missed Thierry Henry handball in a 2009 World Cup play-off with France and left the Green and White Army's World Cup dream dangling by a thread.

Former Manchester United favourite McIlroy shares the widespread bewilderment felt by supporters, some of whom will now travel to Basel for the rematch tomorrow knowing an uphill struggle lies ahead.

"Everyone is talking about the penalty and it looked an absolutely disgraceful decision, just scandalous," blasted McIlroy, who won 88 caps in a glittering career that spanned two World Cups.

"I don't think it's too much to ask to get the big decisions right in the big matches and I don't know how we could ever beat a team as strong as Switzerland with decisions like that going against you.

"They are a good side and they played well but the referee certainly didn't help our cause.

"You don't often get an opportunity to get to a World Cup and for something like this to happen is a cruel slice of luck.

"There was also a tackle from Fabian Schar on Stuart Dallas which looked bad and it could easily have been a red card. There's no doubt the majority of the decisions went Switzerland's way."

Calls are now growing for the immediate roll-out of video assistant referees and McIlroy feels technology can be used to help officials in the big games.

"I think it's got to happen and in the last few days we have been offered another reminder of why," said the former Northern Ireland boss.

"There's sometimes too much at stake. That was not a penalty kick and I don't know what the referee saw. Now Switzerland have got an away goal and the tie is very different.

"I felt the referee was very lenient on the Swiss but hopefully the officials will be kinder to us in Basel."

O'Neill's men are on the canvas but they will look to find the strength to get back on their feet and land a knockout blow.

The odds are stacked against them now but McIlroy feels the play-off is far from over and a fired-up Northern Ireland are capable of hitting back.

"Switzerland are comfortable in possession and they are a good side but the pressure is on them to finish the job," added McIlroy, whose magnificent international career came to a close in October 1986 against England.

"Northern Ireland are even bigger underdogs now but they will relish that. They can turn this tie around, they've got to believe they can.

"The Swiss only have a 1-0 lead and it could have been worse. I think the World Cup spot is still there for the taking and I'm sure the boys will have even more motivation after the events of the first leg.

"Our boys will give it 100% and with a little bit of luck and some good refereeing we can surprise them.

"We've got to be ruthless now and remember just one goal and we are right back in it.

"A goal would crank the pressure up on them in front of their fans. As difficult as it may be, the lads will need to forget about the first leg and focus on the game that was always going to decide this tie.

"Hopefully, the refereeing decisions will go our way in Sunday's game."

Belfast Telegraph

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