Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill declared himself proud after his side’s dream of reaching a first World Cup since 1986 ran aground with a hugely courageous performance against Switzerland in Basel.
Defender Jonny Evans came within inches of earning a victory that would have levelled the tie, following a contentious Swiss win in Belfast last week, and taken the play-off to extra time.
But full-back Ricardo Rodriguez’s desperate goal-line clearance halted Evans’s stoppage-time header and effectively sealed Switzerland’s place at next summer’s World Cup finals in Russia.
“They couldn’t have given any more. What they gave for me, for each other, for the country is phenomenal. I thought the performance was magnificent,” said O’Neill.
“We were the better team, I felt. We had to ride our luck at times but equally right until the 94th minute we were pushing to try to take something, to keep the dream alive and go to the World Cup. There is a devastated bunch of players in there but I said to them that I couldn’t be any prouder of their efforts.”
O’Neill said the manner of the first-leg defeat, settled by a Rodriguez penalty following a controversial handball decision against defender Corry Evans, made elimination even harder to swallow.
“It’s a very, very sore way to lose,” he added. “We at least deserved to be in extra-time but it hasn’t happened for us and we just have to try and move on.”
Northern Ireland hurtled out of the traps in sodden conditions and left-back Chris Brunt fired a shot across the bows with a rasping drive that tested goalkeeper Yann Sommer in the third minute.
Switzerland should have ended the tie in the first half but striker Haris Seferovic twice fluffed headers, while visiting keeper Michael McGovern saved from Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber.
The underdogs responded after half-time and forward Conor Washington’s header sailed just wide of the top corner, while midfielder George Saville could only scuff at Sommer from Washington’s cut-back.
O’Neill threw 37-year-old centre-back Gareth McAuley up front for the last 10 minutes and the aerial approach almost paid off in injury-time when Evans met Brunt’s cross at the far post, only for Rodriguez to intervene on the line.
The Northern Ireland manager refused to discuss speculation over his future, having been linked with the Scotland vacancy as a result of his continued over-achievement with a team which he also guided to last year’s European Championship finals.
“I’ve not even given it any thought,” he said. “I don’t even think it’s a reasonable question at this time to ask me that, to be fair. My focus is with the boys in the dressing room.”