Northern Ireland look back in anger after World Cup dream slides away
Northern Ireland reached the top 20 of the world rankings and impressively secured a World Cup play-off place by finishing behind only reigning champions Germany in their group. But for all that went well in 2017, the enduring memory will be of how their fate was ultimately sealed. Kenny Archer writes...
BORN under a bad sign – if it wasn’t for bad luck, Northern Ireland wouldn’t have no luck at all.
Excuse the bad bluesy grammar and it’s hard to argue with the view that Michael O’Neill and his men enjoyed little fortune in their World Cup campaign, apart from Azerbaijan away, perhaps.
It was tough enough before it even began, being drawn in a group with Germany, which effectively ensured that the only hope of qualification was through the play-offs.
Having reached those, NI were then undone by the sort of refereeing error that may be talked about for at least another generation. Even Swiss supporters were apologetic about it.
Grown men and women cried, players among them; you could write a blues song about it.
Two flying kicks caused great pain against Switzerland; kicks to the guts, perhaps even lower.
One from Xherdan Shaqiri led to the ludicrous tie-deciding penalty, after his acrobatic shot struck the back/ shoulder of Corry Evans.
There were actually some half-hearted appeals from a couple of Swiss players, but modern footballers will appeal for a throw-in that they kicked out with no opponent within 10 yards of them, so that tells you nothing about the legitimacy of the claim.
So if you take out the three goals scored by Germany, and the ultimately meaningless own goal that gave victory to Norway, the only other goal that Northern Ireland conceded this year should not have come about.
The other flying kick came in Basel from Ricardo Rodriguez, who had converted that spot-kick in Belfast, clearing away a goal-bound last-gasp header from Jonny Evans in the second leg.
An equaliser on aggregate from that player would have been especially fitting. The elder Evans was the leader of a superb defensive unit, showing why England’s best side, Manchester City, wanted to sign him in the summer.
The effort and energy of his team-mates was extremely important too, but sadly Switzerland’s successful spot-kick in the play-off first leg proved to be the most meaningful moment of all.
This was a year which started much better than it finished. The tone was set with a second minute opener from Jamie Ward in the 2-0 win over Norway.
Out of nine games, the first five were all won, all with clean sheets. Four of those were qualifiers, and only in Azerbaijan was victory undeserved, courtesy of a last-gasp strike from Stuart Dallas.
It was the other way round in the World Cup play-off games, much better in Basel in Belfast, but the passionate performance in Switzerland still wasn’t quite enough to end the long wait for an appearance on soccer’s biggest stage.
There were 10 goals from the first six games.
But then no goals – and no wins – from the last three matches.
Yet out of the three losses, the only defeat that really mattered was controversial.
There was no shame in being beaten by brilliant Germany, no harm likewise about losing in Norway, with the play-off place already secured.
Then `No way!’ – that penalty against Switzerland?!
It might be hard to argue that defeat was undeserved, because the Swiss were much superior on the night at Windsor Park, but the fact remains that the decisive goal was the result of a terrible refereeing decision.
Sure, Northern Ireland struggled to create chances against the Swiss, but they didn’t allow their opponents too many clear-cut opportunities either.
Scoring at the end in Basel would have been extra special for the elder Evans. It was his younger brother Corry who was doubly punished by the penalty award in Belfast – being booked, perhaps for his understandable protests, a second caution of the campaign unfairly ruling him out of the second leg.
Extra time would have been what Northern Ireland deserved after their efforts in Basel, when they took the game to Switzerland.
Unfortunately they hadn’t done so in the home leg, having been highly impressive in the games at Windsor Park before that, comfortably disposing of Norway and the Czech Republic, both on 2-0 score-lines.
Those matches illustrated the transformation boss O’Neill has made on the team, giving them the ability and confidence to beat teams viewed as fellow contenders for second spot.
Early in the new soccer season, at the start of September, it seemed there might be a recurrence of a former failing, struggling against a weak team, with the game in San Marino still goalless as it entered its final quarter.
The men who made the difference that night were emblematic of O’Neill’s tenure: two quick-fire goals by Josh Magennis, a poster boy for industry and self-improvement, then a penalty converted by skipper Steven Davis.
Even when outclassed by Germany Magennis epitomised the NI spirit, responding to their third goal in Belfast with a stunning one of his own – well, one that left him looking stunned anyway.
As for Davis, he took his international caps tally to the century mark in the first leg of the play-off – half of them under O’Neill – and the captain truly is a player who leads by example. The midfielder hardly ever misses a match, never has a bad game (he’s generally either very good or excellent), and constantly inspires with his work-rate, skill, composure, and precise passing.
Those wins in September, over San Marino and the Czechs, lifted Northern Ireland into the top 20 of the Fifa World Rankings for the first time ever, that historic high a tribute to the meticulous management of O’Neill and his dedicated backroom team.
The disappointing end to the World Cup dream shouldn’t over-shadow the positives, which included taking the tally of clean sheets in qualifiers to seven, then pushing a highly-rated Swiss side right to the finish.
Finishing, off the pitch rather than on it, will be on many minds now, though.
The big question relates to inspirational manager Michael O’Neill: Should he stay or should he go?
The Scottish FA have made it obvious that they want him to succeed Gordon Strachan – but the Irish FA just as clearly want to keep him, offering him a significant contract improvement and extension.
The feeling was that he would be on his way, with some observers recalling the lingering looks he cast around Windsor Park before the Switzerland game.
Yet the sense now is that he would like to stay, try to repeat the feat of qualification for the Euros, have a 2020 vision, although that seems pretty far away given format changes.
It’s not just the future of O’Neill which is unclear, but that of several experienced players.
No one is sure what to make of the Uefa Nations League qualifiers, and Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes might make themselves available for those next spring.
However, both of them will be in their 40th year when the Euro 2020 qualifiers come around in March 2019. Chris Brunt will be 34 then, as will – gulp - skipper Steven Davis.
Still, even if some of those great servants depart the international stage, there were positives in the performances of some new, younger players, notably George Saville in central midfield, and also winger/attacker Jordan Jones.
There remains hope for the future, that O’Neill will stay and the team will continue to punch above its weight.
Yet the over-riding feeling from 2017 isn’t ‘What might be….’ but ‘What might have been…’
March 26, World Cup qualifier: NI 2-0 Norway
June 2, friendly: NI 1-0 New Zealand
June 10, World Cup qualifier: Azerbaijan 0-1 NI
September 1, World Cup qualifier: San Marino 0-3 NI
September 4, World Cup qualifier: NI 2-0 Czech Republic
October 5, World Cup qualifier: NI 1-3 Germany
October 8, World Cup qualifier: Norway 1-0 NI
November 9, World Cup play-off first leg: NI 0-1 Switzerland
November 12, World Cup play-off first leg: Switzerland 0-0 NI (Switzerland win 1-0 on aggregate)
P9, W5, D 1, L 3, F10 A5
Jamie Ward after scoring the opener in the 2-0 home win over Norway:
“We are not getting carried away, we have been in this position before with the Euros so we have the experience of dealing with these type of pressurised games.
“We are just extremely confident going into every game we play in and we are not worrying about what the other teams in the group do.
Norway boss Lars Lagerback:
“They are a very well organised team. They have experienced players, they are very calm in the way they play, they have lots of confidence and they were physically very strong.
“The way they worked, I was really impressed. They put pressure on the ball in the defensive part of the game. They have shown after some years that this is a team that is very difficult to beat.
“They have some good players but if you have a very well organised team it’s easier for every individual to play well.
Jonny Evans after the win in Azerbaijan:
“We’ve always had a great spirit with Northern Ireland – there’s always been a great bond between the players, even when results were going bad.
“But when things are going well it does give you that confidence. Our experience of being at the Euros brought everyone closer together, people know each other now and it’s really good to see the lads coming into the squad blend in and they’ve been impressing. Hopefully that can continue.
“Michael deserves all the credit with the amount of time and preparation he puts in. Just for this one game, we’ve been away for three weeks building up for one game and it shows how much the lads respect him to do that.”
Josh Magennis after his two goals away to San Marino:
“It’s always good to score and to win the game. Fixtures like this, especially for us in the past, were always going to be hard and Michael made it clear, just to make sure our attitude and application were spot on.”
Skipper Steven Davis was looking forward sealing second spot against the Czech Republic:
“It’s a massive game for us, all to play for. There’s a carrot there for us to go and get a good result.
“I’m sure Windsor will be bouncing, it’ll be an electric atmosphere so we have to go out and put in a good performance and get a good result again.”
Jonny Evans on summer transfer window interest in him from Manchester City and Arsenal:
“I don’t make the decisions, I’m just sort of someone in the middle with two clubs after me.
“You’ve just got to let those decisions be made by two different parties. You’ve got to then make your own decision and it never got to that stage.
“I’m not at all interested in that [acclaim], or what people think of me to be honest,” he claimed.
“The most important thing for me is I push myself hard every day. I’ve got a long drive into training so I think a lot about what I’m going to do that day, set it out and try to carry that out to the letter. Maybe it does raise your profile a bit but it’s not something that interests me.”
Jamie Ward on lack of recognition – for himself at Windsor Park:
“I’d a bit of a problem getting through security at the ground, which I’m sure if you ask the lads about it they’d tell you, because their coach came right past me at the time, so... Yeah, it was a bit frustrating.
“Didn’t know this, did they?”, he said, waving at his face; “… as soon as the bus came past where I was I just knew the lads were going to see. I tried hiding and everything but that didn’t work out, they’d already seen me.”
Michael McGovern on Germany’s strong start in Belfast:
“When we went 1-0 down and then 2-0 down, my main aim then is not to get tanked because goal difference is going to be massive.
“They beat Norway, who are a good side, 6-0, so that was important that we keep strong in the head and to not concede any more goals was important.”
George Saville after defeat in Norway:
“The boys are obviously a little bit disappointed at losing the game but everyone shouldn’t be, really, because of the work they’ve done to get where we are now – obviously we’ve qualified [for the play-offs], we’re now looking forward to the draw.”
“Obviously we’d like to be one of the seeded teams, but that’s out of our hands now, we can only wait and hope.
“If you get a bit of luck, a better draw, avoid someone stronger, you’d obviously take that, but we fear no one and we’re looking forward to the draw.”
Jonny Evans on reaching the play-offs:
“We’ve managed to do it over two, three years now, maybe even a bit longer, I’m not sure. We had hard times before that and Michael has managed to turn it around.
“We have to give ourselves a lot of credit, and I think a lot of other people have to give us a lot of credit.
“It’s an amazing achievement when you see where all of the lads are playing – some are playing League One, some are Championship, some Premier League. It’s a real mixture that has come together and managed to achieve something great.”
Michael O’Neill about that spot-kick against Switzerland:
“It’s staggering really to think the referee can award a penalty in that situation.
“He’s five or six yards from the incident, he has no one in his line of sight, Corry’s just gone to block it, his arm’s not in an unnatural position, the ball actually hits more on his back at the top of the shoulder than the arm, so it’s incredible.
“I thought he’d blown for a foul or an offside or something, it seemed incredible to give a penalty for that, no one had claimed for it, so it’s bewildering really in this day and age. It’s such a defining moment in the match, we feel very hard done by.”
And after the second leg:
“No, I haven’t even considered that [the future]. Tonight is about being with my players, spending time with them and making sure they are okay.
“As I said to the players themselves, there is no need to make any rash decisions on anything they want to do. They have given everything.
“The cruelty is in the poorness of the [first leg penalty] decision. We’re missing out on the chance to go to the World Cup. We should still be playing extra time now, that’s the reality.”
George Saville after the draw in Switzerland:
“Everyone in there is proud of everyone, we left it all out there. It just hurts because of the effort you put in – but we couldn’t have done any more.”
“You can talk about it as much as you want but you’re not going to change it, it’s gone. Obviously we’re not going to the World Cup. Disappointed, really.
“It’s hard to take, especially with the effort you put in. Over 180 minutes of football you’ve lost to a goal that was very debatable. That’s hard for players, a tough one to take.”
Chris Brunt gutted after missing out on a World Cup place:
“To lose over two legs to an horrendous decision sums it up really. We’re gutted and we didn’t leave anything out there.
“I think VAR [video assistant referees] will have to be brought in, there’s too much riding on stuff now.
“For a country like ours to miss out on the World Cup, based on a decision that could have been overturned in 10 seconds…it’s going to have to be looked at – just not in time for us.”
“A few of us are getting on so there will be a few decisions to make over the next few months, but I don’t think it’s time to say anything about that now. I think everyone is gutted and this is as gutted as I’ve ever been in my football career. “Not playing in France and being so close again…But, look, injuries are part and parcel of the game.
I was unlucky… You can’t look back on that. Hopefully I’ve still got a couple of years left in me yet.” “All good things have to come to an end at some stage.
It’s been very good the last four or five years under Michael. It’s been as enjoyable to be part of this group as any I’ve been involved in and I’ve been playing for the last 14 years.
“There have been a lot of dark times, but the last few years have been really good. It would have been nice to top it off with the World Cup, but it wasn’t to be”.