As Northern Ireland’s World Cup dream came to an end Sunday night, manager Michael O’Neill has said he could not be any more prouder of his team’s effort, despite the devastation of their loss.
Northern Ireland went down fighting to score the goal needed against Switzerland at St Jakob-Park, Basel with energy, commitment and heart – all characteristics of O’Neill’s near six-year tenure. For that they won plenty of acclaim.
Their 1-0 loss to Switzerland on aggregate came after Thursday’s first leg ended following a contentious penalty decision at Windsor park, that left O’Neill and his players dumbfounded.
It was Ricardo Rodriguez’s spot kick in Belfast that was enough to see Switzerland qualify and after the final whistle had been blown and 34,000 Swiss fans waved their flags, O’Neill embraced his skipper before he went round and hugged every single player and member of his staff.
“They couldn’t have given any more. What they give for me, what they give for each other, what they gave for their country was phenomenal,” he said.
“That performance was magnificent. Ultimately we have gone out to a really poor decision in the first leg – our reaction to what happened on Thursday night was fabulous.
“We were the better team I felt. Yes we had to ride our luck at times, but we were pushing until the end with the dream still alive to go to the World Cup.
“There’s a devastated bunch of players in there, but I couldn’t be any prouder of their efforts.”
NI have not qualified for the World Cup since the 1986 edition in Mexico, but for Switzerland it is their fourth successive finals and the first time they’ve featured in four straight tournaments since between 1934 and 1954.
O’Neill who is contracted to NI until 2020 said he has yet to think of where his future will go after this failure, as comforting his team took precedence of the evening.