Ian Baraclough refused to call Northern Ireland’s defeat to Slovakia a wasted opportunity as his side’s dreams of reaching Euro 2020 crumbled at Windsor Park.
A 2-1 defeat in their play-off final saw Northern Ireland fall short at the final hurdle of a qualifying campaign that began more than 18 months ago.
Michal Duris struck in the 110th minute of the game after an 88th minute own goal from Milan Skriniar cancelled out Juraj Kucka’s 17th minute goal to give Northern Ireland hope.
Both Slovakia goals had an element of fortune to them – Kucka capitalising on a mix-up between George Saville and Jonny Evans to run free while a hopeful throughball bounced off the helpless Evans and fell kindly for Duris.
It was a bitter pill for Northern Ireland to take on a night when they started out as favourites, in search of qualification to a second consecutive European Championship.
At the final whistle, players collapsed to the Windsor Park turf in frustration and disappointment.
While he shared those emotions, Baraclough said their achievement in coming so close should be recognised.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a wasted opportunity,” he said. “It’s an opportunity we haven’t been able to take. I wouldn’t use the word wasted. It was one of those where it was so close it could have gone either way.
“We were comfortable in the game, we felt we were the ones with the intensity. Our shape at the back was difficult for them to break through.
“The disappointing thing is the amount of times the ball has gone in the box and we’ve not been able to make them count.
“It’s not a wasted opportunity, though. We’ll look back and rue certain things I’m sure, but I think it’s a credit that we’re going toe-to-toe with someone like Slovakia.”
Moments after Skriniar’s own goal, substitute Kyle Lafferty struck the post for Northern Ireland – a chance to win the game in normal time which will be at the forefront of those moments Baraclough and his players will surely look back on.
Lafferty had warmed up wearing a t-shirt in memory of his sister Sonia, who died only a week previously.
The veteran striker looked in determined mood as soon as he came on, adding an extra dimension to attack alongside Liam Boyce.
“It just shows the magnitude of the guy that wants to do so well for his country,” Baraclough said.
“It’s so tough for someone like that to play for his country so soon after such a sad loss. George Saville has had to deal with issues leading into the camp as well.”
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