Midfielder Oliver Norwood was in no doubt where to lay the blame after Northern Ireland’s hopes of reaching a first World Cup in 32 years extinguished tonight.
The Northern Irish valiantly fell short in their play-off with Switzerland, though ultimately not because of what happened in a 0-0 draw in Basel today, but due to a contentious penalty decision three days earlier that may haunt some of his team forever.
Referee Ovidiu Hategan dumbfounded them when he spotted a handball against Corry Evans and gave a penalty that Ricardo Rodriguez scored – the only goal across 180 minutes.
“Shafted is the only word to put it,” said Norwood.
“I will think about the penalty decision for years to come as it’s the only goal between the two sides and it’s knocked us out. It’s disappointing that these decisions cost us a place in the World Cup.
“We were angered, upset and disappointed with what happened in Belfast.”
Manager Michael O’Neill was unwilling to discuss the future for him and his veteran players after the final whistle.
It may have ended one of the most successful periods in Northern Ireland’s history, with players such as Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt now perhaps bound for international retirement, and O’Neill maybe considering alternative jobs too.
However, in the immediate aftermath he gave short shrift when asked if he had thought about his future amid suggestions Scotland and Sunderland see him as the man for them.
“No, I haven’t even considered that (the future),” he said.
“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.
“I know it’s a difficult time and it will come for them and they will make considerations going forward, certainly the likes of Aaron and Gareth at 38 and 37, and Chris Brunt…these players that are have had long and established Northern Ireland careers. But they have time to make that decision
“Certainly at this minute in time, it’s not a decision, and I am not thinking any further ahead than just being with the players.”
If it was the end of O’Neill’s near six-year tenure, this performance can be highlighted as one that epitomised his team – gutsy, resolute and energetic.
They were vastly improved from Thursday and nearly forced extra-time too, but Jonny Evans’ stoppage-time header was cleared off the line by none other than Rodriguez himself.
It was hard to escape the fact that it was Hategan’s call that meant O’Neill was conducting a post-match press conference instead of another 30 minutes.
“The cruelty is in the poorness of the decision,” he added.
“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.
“Over the two legs, for us to miss out off the nature of the decision and how it was given, is extremely cruel. At this level, for a group of players that deserve more…we should still be fighting for our place to go to Russia.
“The players are emotional and upset. There were some players in tears, everyone was struggling to hold back their emotions.
“Emotions are very high – there’s huge, huge disappointment.
“For some of these players it’s unlikely that the World Cup will ever come round again. What we got from every single one was more than I could ask for.”