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World of pain: 'Cruel' World Cup exit leaves Northern Ireland in tears after penalty heartache

O'Neill: we are devastated by play-off heartache and it is all down to that cruel penalty

By Paul Ferguson

A proud and emotional Michael O'Neill admitted his Northern Ireland team were devastated to have their World Cup dream shattered because of the 'cruelty' of the decisive penalty decision in the first leg last Thursday.

O'Neill was rightly proud of the performance after his brave and battling men drew 0-0 with Switzerland in Basel last night which allowed the Swiss to reach next summer's finals in Russia, having won the play-off 1-0 on aggregate.

But O'Neill, his players and their Green and White Army of fans have been left feeling the pain of that Windsor Park penalty award by Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan that proved decisive in this tie, when clearly the handball given against Corry Evans was non-existant.

"We're devastated because of the way we lost and the goal that decided the tie," stated a clearly upset O'Neill.

"The cruelty is in the poorness of the decision," he said. "We're missing out on the chance to go to the World Cup. We should still be playing now, still be playing extra-time now. Yes, Switzerland were the better team in the first leg but they didn't score. We were the better team in Basel. So over two legs, for us to miss out, from the nature of decision and how it was given, is extremely cruel."

Asked about his future, O'Neill said no-one should be making any rash decisions at this time.

Northern Ireland were hoping to qualify for their first World Cup finals since 1986 and yesterday was the 32nd anniversary of Billy Bingham's boys securing their place in Mexico with a scoreless draw against England at Wembley.

But instead of the players making history, many were left in tears as the pain of failing to reach their first ever World Cup finals was too much to bear.

"Of course they're emotional, they're upset, there were players in tears," O'Neill said.

"It is a huge disappointment, for these players it is unlikely a World Cup is going to come round again. What we got out of them is more than I could ever have asked for, to be honest."

The performance was a huge contract to the disappointing display last Thursday in Belfast.

"The performance of players was phenomenal," added O'Neill.

"We continued to push and dream. That's what we asked. They gave us that and more. As a manager you can't ask for more then what we got.

"We've gone toe to toe with a very good side. It was decided by a real poor decision and a penalty that should never have been."

With Chris Brunt, Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley likely to give serious thought to international retirement with the next competitive game not until next September, this could now be a crossroads for this Northern Ireland team after five years of progress under O'Neill's management.

It is understood Scotland and Sunderland are interested in having O'Neill as their new manager.

But when asked about his future, he said that no one should be rushing into any decisions.

"As I said to the players themselves, there is no need to make any rash decisions on anything they want to do," he said.

"I know it's a difficult time, to make decisions about going forward. These players have had long established Northern Ireland careers. For me they've got time to make that decision. There is a lot of time for consideration on that."

Belfast Telegraph

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