Belfast Telegraph

We're all desperate for Michael O'Neill to stay with Northern Ireland, says Evans

 

By Paul Ferguson

The savage reality hit home as the final whistle sounded at the St Jakob-Park Stadium in Basel on Sunday. A sucker punch in the solar plexus.

Northern Ireland's World Cup hopes and aspirations extinguished in the most cruel fashion, human error from a referee and an opportunity lost for yet another generation of Northern Ireland footballers.

The reaction of captain Steven Davis, who will be 35 the next time the qualifiers start for Qatar 2022, said as much as he dropped to the pitch with hands over his face as the tears flowed. It was understandable. A player of Davis' ability who has given so much deserved the reward of playing on the greatest stage of all.

The official qualifying process for Russia next summer may have started just over a year ago, but with Michael O'Neill at the Northern Ireland helm, this was five years in the planning.

Key players will now consider their futures, but the biggest concern for the Irish FA is making sure the man who has reinvigorated Northern Ireland football remains in charge.

O'Neill still has two years left of his Irish FA contract to run and, with a £500k salary coming into his bank account every year, he is financially content.

But does he feel he can continue to conjure up magic with the limited players at his disposal who will be in advancing years despite their current talent? Or will he opt for a new challenge with Scotland and Sunderland interested in securing him as their manager?

O'Neill's top-class defender Jonny Evans could understand if the former Newcastle United midfielder decided to take advantage of his stock being so high, but he hopes the 48-year-old will stay.

Evans, who played in every World Cup qualifier for Northern Ireland during the last 14 months, said: "As a manager he's unbelievable, we all love him and every single player plays for him.

"He's such a good manager and it would be a shame to lose him. But we know management is such a difficult job and if something came up, where it would be difficult to turn down, no one would ever begrudge him that."

Evans has played under arguably the greatest football manager in history, Sir Alex Ferguson, as well as David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and currently Tony Pulis. The 29-year-old has nothing but respect for O'Neill and believes he is up there with the very best.

"He's so inspirational, he's very tactical," said Evans. "Even the other night we had just got off the plane (Friday) and were on the bus. He had watched the first half of the game and he came down the bus and was like, 'We're calling a meeting and we're going to watch it because you didn't play badly (in the first leg), there are so many things you can improve on'.

"It gave everyone a lift. He's got such composure and his team talks, he says the right things to get the lads going. You can see everyone plays for him and we all really respect him.

"He's got a real good group of lads and he's created an atmosphere where all the players are thriving. Sometimes players get too much credit for that but it's him that has created that atmosphere and willingness to work for each other."

Evans is gutted that he and his team-mates will not be playing on the biggest stage in football next summer and would dearly have liked to have been part of the first Northern Ireland squad to reach back-to-back major finals. But he insists, after a disappointing showing at Windsor in the first leg, the real Northern Ireland team turned up in Basel.

The former Manchester United centre half added: "I don't think we ever lost any pride, but we took ourselves to another level in Basel and showed what we are about. I'm sure the fans are happy. Even neutrals watching could see we're a team that plays for each other and we played that game with a lot of pride for our country.

"We got into some really good positions. We really took the game to them. We played most of the game in their half. It's difficult to do that. We tried to take the positives out of the first leg being at home, but I think everyone would admit you always want to play at home second. If the second leg had been at Windsor Park it might have been different. But we did ourselves proud."

Pride, passion and perseverance was sadly not enough.

The World Cup dream has been crushed, and Northern Ireland can only hope it doesn't signal the end of O'Neill too.

Belfast Telegraph

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