Northern Ireland’s failure to reach their first World Cup in 32 years could signal the end of one of the country’s most successful periods.
A 1-0 aggregate loss to Switzerland in the play-offs meant Michael O’Neill’s side came up just short in their quest to reach back-to-back major tournaments for the first time.
With their manager in demand, and a number of veteran players contemplating retirement, the Northern Irish could look very different when they next meet up. Here we at those who may now be saying farewell.
Boss O’Neill has worked wonders in the near six years he has spent at the helm, guiding the country to Euro 2016, their first finals in three decades, and to the brink of their fourth ever World Cup. The 48-year-old would be the perfect fit for the position with Scotland, where he is based, and the United States, where O’Neill spent part of his playing career, have another post that would suit. Sunderland are thought to be keen, and Rangers remain without a boss, though O’Neill is mindful of the British club culture where managers are hired and fired with alarming frequency.
The West Brom defender turns 38 next month and had intimated that Sunday’s contest in Basel could be his last if O’Neill moves on. McAuley is a late bloomer who only moved into full-time football in England at 24 so he is determined to extend his career as long as possible. Remaining in the Premier League is also key, with McAuley noting he has to be playing frequently for his club if he is to represent his country. Ultimately McAuley’s future may hinge on what happens with O’Neill.
At 38, Hughes became the home nations’ most capped defender ever in Switzerland when he surpassed Bobby Moore with his 109th international cap. It was a typically solid performance from the Hearts defender, who completed 90 minutes despite not playing for six weeks due to a calf complaint. Hughes has already retired once before being tempted back by O’Neill yet the prospect of him staying on to try and reach Euro 2020, when he will be approaching 41, appears slim.
Brunt is six years younger than Hughes but could also be bound for international retirement. He missed out on Euro 2016 having ruptured his cruciate ligament four months before the tournament in France and last week referenced a scary moment where he fell down the stairs fearing he had damaged it again. Brunt had spoken of how reaching the World Cup would be “a nice way to finish your international career” though, with that possibility off the table for another four years, he will be thinking long and hard.
Nottingham Forest winger Ward is, at 31, younger still. Having been blighted by injuries throughout his career, time may be up for him in a Northern Ireland shirt too. O’Neill dearly missed Ward’s waspish style for the final five games of the group stage and Northern Ireland are a far better and more flexible side with him involved. As with the others, there is the potential for a domino effect. If O’Neill goes, others would likely follow.