North boss in no rush to decide on his future after 'cruel' exit
Switzerland 0 N Ireland 0 (Switzerland win 1-0 on agg)
A "devastated" Michael O'Neill insisted after Northern Ireland's heroic World Cup exit in Basel last night that he would be in no rush to make a decision over his future.
The North manager was still raging over the "cruelty" of a controversial first-leg penalty that ultimately ended his country's Russia 2018 dream.
O'Neill also urged his veteran players Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes, Chris Brunt and Jamie Ward not to make any "rash decisions" over their own international futures amid fears this could be the end of an era for the North.
Ricardo Rodriguez's second-half penalty at Windsor Park on Thursday was enough to secure Switzerland's passage to Russia after referee Ovidiu Hategan had incorrectly punished Corry Evans for handball - and Rodriguez broke North hearts again last night, brilliantly clearing Jonny Evans' header off the line late on.
O'Neill struggled to contain his emotions as he batted away questions about his future.
"No, I haven't even considered that," he said. "I am under contract until 2020 so tonight is about being with my players and spending time with them and making sure they are OK.
"I said to the players there is no need to make any rash decisions on anything they want to do. They have given everything. It's a difficult time and they will make decisions going forward, certainly the likes of Aaron and Gareth at 38 and 37 (respectively) and Chris Brunt.
"These players have had long and established Northern Ireland careers, but they have time to make that decision. We don't have a qualifier until next March. I myself am not thinking any further ahead than just being with the players."
O'Neill cut a crestfallen figure as he reflected on the cruelty of Northern Ireland's exit.
"The first emotion is almost devastation," he said. "It would be disappointment if we'd just lost but it's devastation because of the way we lost and the goal that decided the tie.
"The cruelty is in the poorness of the decision. We're missing out on a chance to go to the World Cup when we should still be playing right now.
"Yes, the Swiss were the better team in the first leg but they hadn't scored. We were the better team tonight.
"The nature of the way we've gone out is extremely poor. We've gone toe to toe with a very good side. The performance was phenomenal. We continued to push and dream. After five and a half years in charge, this is a devastating moment but in terms of character from your team it's also a high point. The players are emotional and upset. There were some in tears, everyone was struggling to hold back their emotions.
"You can't compare the two legs and performance. The first leg it was tense and tactical. We didn't deal with that as well as we could have done but what we got was a reaction. The game was less tactical, more emotional, it was about character and being brave.
"For some of these players it's unlikely the World Cup will come round again."
It will be a while before the North's players, management and supporters get the image of Rodriguez dramatically clearing Evans' header off the line in stoppage-time out of their minds.
The excellent Evans, like the magnificent 1,900 North fans camped inside one corner, must have thought he had dragged this spell-binding match into extra-time and kept alive his country's World Cup hopes.
The shame of it is that a fiercely fought play-off should ultimately have been decided by the award of a penalty for a handball that wasn't, and while Switzerland will argue that they blew enough chances to have won with greater ease over 180 minutes, the point is they did not and were indebted to Hategan as much as Rodriguez.
"Shafted is the only word for it," said midfielder Oliver Norwood. "I will think about the penalty decision for years to come. It's cost us a place in the World Cup."
At the end, O'Neill's players were dead on their feet. They gave it everything, a performance of character, resilience and boundless energy and enthusiasm, but it was not quite enough.
Clubs are sure to be circling for the man who has transformed Northern Ireland's fortunes, and he is one name under consideration by the Scottish FA to replace Gordon Strachan.
The stakes were huge, and the challenging conditions only heightened the drama. It had barely stopped raining for 24 hours in Basel and the pitch cut up terribly.
Millwall's George Saville, a heroic presence in midfield, described it as "disgraceful", but it did not distract from an absorbing game.
Northern Ireland were indebted to Michael McGovern for making two excellent saves to deny Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber in the space of three first-half minutes and Haris Seferovic glanced a header from an inviting possession wide but O'Neill's side were well on top after the restart.
They had chances to level the tie, but it was not to be.
© Daily Telegraph, London