Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign going to the final minute of a play-off is “an amazing achievement”, says manager Michael O’Neill.
A 0-0 second-leg draw in Basel was not enough for O’Neill’s men as Switzerland progressed to the finals thanks to a controversial penalty in the first leg.
Northern Ireland had finished second in their qualifying group behind Germany.
“There’s a devastated group of players in there and I couldn’t be more proud of them,” said O’Neill.
“I could name them all – they were fabulous. We don’t always have top-level players but we have top-level characters.
“What these players have done to be at this stage – to take a team like Switzerland right to the last minute of the play-offs over two legs – is an amazing achievement.”
‘We deserved extra time’
It was a typically determined display in Basel from Northern Ireland, who rode their luck at times but gave it their all in pursuit of a first World Cup appearance since 1986.
Haris Seferovic missed numerous chances to end the tie in favour of an increasingly nervous home side and Jonny Evans came agonisingly close to taking the game to extra time when his injury-time header was cleared off the line by Ricardo Rodriguez.
It left Northern Ireland to reflect on what might have been and a first leg in Belfast that was decided by a controversial penalty, awarded when Corry Evans was judged to have blocked Xherdan Shaqiri’s shot with his hand in the box when it clearly hit his back.
They were also aggrieved by a late sliding tackle, early in the game, on Stuart Dallas by Fabian Schar, for which the defender was booked but could easily have been sent off.
“We’ve gone out to a really poor decision in the first leg,” said O’Neill on Sky Sports. “We were fighting for our life, fighting for a dream. We played with raw courage, covered huge distances.
“They’ll have regrets and ultimately if it wasn’t for the penalty we’d have drawn and it would have gone to extra time. We should be remembered for the performance tonight rather than anything else.
“It is too strong a word to say we have been cheated – but there is an injustice to going out of the tournament in this nature.
“The referee was very poor in the first leg – got the red card wrong and the penalty wrong. It’s a very sore way to lose. We deserved extra time.
“It hasn’t happened for us and we have to move on.”
O’Neill refuses to be drawn on future
O’Neill’s achievements during his six years as Northern Ireland boss, which includes leading them to their first European Championship in 2016, has led to him being linked with a number of club jobs in England and the vacant Scotland managerial post.
However, he refused to comment on his future after Sunday’s game.
“I’m contracted until 2020 and tonight is about me being there for my players. That’s it, I’m not looking any further than that,” he said.
The 48-year-old did have some advice for the experienced members of his squad, who may be considering their own international future after this defeat.
“I’ve told them not to rush in to any decisions,” he added. “They should discuss that with Aaron Hughes, who retired five years ago but was here tonight. This isn’t the time to think about that.”
Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis is hoping O’Neill remains as national team boss.
“He has been integral in terms of everything we have done right. Everybody loves working with him,” said the Southampton midfielder.
“It is only natural that there will be other parties interested in him because he has done so well, but from a selfish point of view we would love to continue this journey with him at the helm.”