After all the heartbreak, where do Northern Ireland go from here?

Northern Ireland

Many heartbroken fans still won’t have recovered from Sunday night’s disappointment, but the players can hold their heads high after a truly inspirational performance. In the end, it was of course the hugely controversial penalty decision that knocked Michael O’Neill’s men out of the competition, denying the Green and White Army a first World Cup appearance since 1986. But what next for this special group of players? And what next for the miraculous O’Neill?

There have been countless reports of the manager ending his time with the nation he has spent six years with, with rumours even before the playoff tie linking O’Neill to the vacant managerial positions at Rangers, Sunderland and Scotland. The Edinburgh-based O’Neill has simply worked wonders during his time with Northern Ireland, keeping the faith with experienced players while also giving youth its chance. Both the incredible fans and talented players undoubtedly want their main man to stay and provide more success in the near future, and while it would be a hugely painful blow to take should the manager move on, such is the nature of both the squad and the supporters that they would undeniably respect his decision and wish him well for whatever role he takes on next.

However, should O’Neill stay, the Northern Ireland national side could genuinely recreate similar success in upcoming international tournaments, and once again shock the footballing world on a global scale. With a contract running until 2020, and a squad willing to once more put their lives on the line, why can’t the former midfielder continue his remarkable efforts with a country that adores him beyond compare?

There is, however, the somewhat worrying element of retirements in this ageing squad, where defenders Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt may have perhaps played their last game in a Northern Ireland shirt, an unfortunate feat for three highly respected veterans of the side. With 109 appearances, the most capped defender among the home nations, Hughes once again showed his worth with a classy display in Switzerland, while McAuley and Brunt have been hugely reliable throughout the entire campaign. The unfortunate timing of their potential retirements comes on the back of a disappointing loss in such crucial circumstances, and it will be extremely difficult to replace three Northern Ireland legends, especially considering how effective the side’s defence was throughout qualifying.

With their possible retirement, however, comes opportunity, where the likes of George Saville and Jordan Jones impressed despite such little game time. The latter especially gave Switzerlanright-backck Stephan Lichtsteiner a torrid time in the final minutes of the second leg, who regretfully gets a mention in light of his simply sickening time-wasting and play-acting, and the so-called professional wasn’t the only culprit of such disappointing displays during the game. The less said about the Swiss the better.

There are of course other players who did their chances of future call-ups no harm, with every man giving their all not just in the playoff tie but the entire campaign, and so there is plenty to be hopeful of as the side get a well-deserved break from international football next summer. Conor Washington is certainly one who has a bright future with Northern Ireland, with Jamie Ward also in contention for a key role in the setup. Kyle Lafferty’s fine club form should be enough to keep in him in favour for some time as he looks to build on his impressive record for the national side, while let’s not forget that Liam Boyce is still to return from his unfortunate injury he picked up at the start of the season.

There has always and will always be hugely talented players coming up through the Northern Ireland ranks, and whether or not they get the chance they deserve is another issue, and while there is incomparable fight and spirit, there is always hope. If anything is to be taken from this incredible journey, it is that this determined nation should never be overlooked, ignored or quite simply disregarded as ‘just another country’.

The key is that these players continue their fine form in club football throughout the season, while those on the fringes continue to work hard and fight for a place in the side, such as fan-favourite Will Grigg, who has undeniable ability yet has somewhat failed to kick off on the international stage. Regulars like Jonny Evans, Niall McGinn, Josh Magennis and Stuart Dallas will once again prove their worth as indispensable, with such determination and passion that epitomises both themselves and the badge they represent, while Steven Davis and Oliver Norwood simply need no such introduction. It truly is a special group of players, a group that deserves such a special manager and set of fans.

The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, retaining the services of O’Neill, and only time will tell if he has a future at his beloved Northern Ireland, but it is of huge importance that this nation and their accomplishments to date should not be forgotten.