Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill not deflated after Windsor Park loss

Northern Ireland's Will Grigg celebrates his goal
Northern Ireland's Will Grigg celebrates his goal

Once Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill had shaken off the bitter feeling of defeat he was able to take plenty of encouragement from Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Northern Ireland were undone by two sloppy goals which both came against the run of play at Windsor Park - the second a horrible mix-up between Craig Cathcart and goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

Northern Ireland enjoyed 67 per cent possession and registered 26 total attempts on goal, but did not make one count until substitute Will Grigg - making his first appearance since November 2016 - struck in stoppage time.

Cathcart called it one of the most complete performances of his 37-cap Northern Ireland career, and O’Neill agreed there was plenty to be positive about ahead of Tuesday’s friendly against Israel.

“To play with that intensity and dominance, with close to 70 per cent possession in the game, 25 attempts on goal, 18 corners - it tells the story of the game,” O’Neill said.

“Where we have to be better is the final ball and maybe a little bit better with movement in the box and composure as well.

“Maybe it’s anxiety as well, but those are things we can work on.

“We’ll take a lot out of our performance and we’ll look to react on Tuesday night when we play Israel here.

“At the end of the day we’re a team still progressing and still going in the right direction.

“We’ve played a lot worse and won,” O’Neill said. “To have the level of domination we had in the game, the level of possession, it’s a sore one.

“It’s a good lesson as well because I think it shows the nature of international football, you do get punished.

“The second goal and the nature of it was a little bit of a hammer blow,” O’Neill said.

“But to be fair they reacted well again, even between going 2-0 down and getting to the 96th minute we probably should have got a 2-2 out of the game at the very worst.

“I’m disappointed with the result but in terms of how we played, the positivity of the team, how we pressed, it was exactly what we were was looking for.”

O’Neill will freshen up his side tomorrow but confirmed Gareth McAuley will not feature and instead begin training with Rangers after signing for the Glasgow club at the start of the week.

“Israel are a team very much like ourselves,” O’Neill said.

“They will harbour ambitions to go to a major championship.

“They probably think they’ve underachieved in recent times a little bit.

“Like all these games, there is always a significance to it. We will field a strong team and give game time to players who didn’t get the chance to start on Saturday.”

With tomorrow’s match a friendly, Northern Ireland do not get another chance to put a point on the board in the new UEFA Nations League until October, when they face back-to-back away games against Austria and Bosnia & Herzegovina - a tough assignment after Saturday’s opening setback.

“It will be different,” O’Neill said.

“We’ll not have that level of possession and we’ll maybe have to think about where we are pressing games, maybe not as high as we did when we’re the home team.

“But we’re more than capable of holding our own at this level and I think we are doing that.

“I still believe we are punching above our weight but that’s credit to the players and the work they have put in.”

The game however could have had a very different complexion had Northern Ireland been awarded a first minute penalty when George Saville went down under a challenge from Ervin Zukanovic.

And Middlesbrough midfielder Saville was adamant he was fouled but suggested the referee did not want to award a penalty so early in the match.

“One hundred per cent,” he said when asked if it would be awarded later in the game.

“It was pretty much the first thing that had happened in the game and looking at it back, it’s an easy decision.

“I asked the question but didn’t get a response (from the referee). Of course, you’re not going to get a response.

“He was under pressure obviously, and for me he’s made the wrong decision.”

O’Neill had selected Peacock-Farrell ahead of the more experienced Michael McGovern and Trevor Carson, giving the 21-year-old Leeds goalkeeper his first competitive start, and did not feel he was to blame for the second goal.

O’Neill said: “It’s bad mistake, a poor goal for us to lose.

“Typically we don’t lose goals of that nature and Craig knows the decision to head it where he headed it was not the right place.

“Young Bailey was exposed, he had to come and try and do something. We will not dwell on it too much.”

It proved a decisive moment though, leaving Northern Ireland chasing a game in which they were on top - a fact not lost on Bosnia’s star midfielder Miralem Pjanic.

“We were a little bit lucky; they played a very good game,” the Juventus man said.

“I think maybe they were also the better team today but we were more concrete, we scored two times.”

Bosnia will now host Austria tomorrow already in a strong position in the group, while Northern Ireland lick their wounds.

But though the conversation around Northern Ireland this week has been about maintaining and building momentum, O’Neill refused to get too downbeat after the defeat.

“It’s not a major setback,” he said.

“If this was a Euro 2020 qualification game it would be a different situation because you’ve lost a game at home and home points are vital.

“I said to them, in the past, Northern Ireland teams may have gone under in that situation, but not this group of players.

“They showed their capability to go right to the whistle and they should be commended for that.”

Goal scorer Grigg’s continued absence from the squad has brought questions about his commitment, but he said he had always wanted to resume his Northern Ireland career.

“It has been frustrating but people forget I was out for six or seven months and it took me a while to get back,” he said.

“I got myself fit and there have been a few occasions when I’ve been left out and a few occasions when I’ve had to stay at Wigan because we have had so many important games.

“Michael (O’Neill) has been asked the same question and there has never been a case of me not wanting to come.

“It was great to score and hopefully I get more opportunities soon.”