Michael O’Neill said Northern Ireland did not deserve to lose Monday’s Euro 2024 qualifier at home to Kazakhstan after being hit by a “sucker-punch” from substitute Abat Aimbetov in the 88th minute.
Northern Ireland had more of the ball and created more opportunities, but the lack of quality in the final third told once again as O’Neill’s injury-hit squad fell to a 1-0 defeat for a third consecutive Group H match.
They had been pushing for a winner without joy when Aimbetov broke away from his own half late on, riding a challenge from Craig Cathcart and then Paddy McNair before slotting past Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Qualification for next summer’s finals now looks a long shot as Northern Ireland have only three points, secured against minnows San Marino, from their opening four fixtures, but O’Neill’s bigger concern this week has been nurturing a young team with 10 senior players missing.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) June 19, 2023
“I don’t think it was merited,” O’Neill said in the wake of a result that was greeted with boos at the final whistle at Windsor Park. “We were very dominant in the first half, we found it quite difficult to play through a team that was set up to defend deep with 10 players behind the ball.
“We created one or two opportunities…and we gave up one chance which was poor defending on our part. In the second half I think the game looked like it was drifting a bit but I think the substitutes gave us a lift.
“We lost Jonny (Evans, who came off with a shoulder injury) at that point, we had to change the shape and we were a little bit patched up in the back four, and then we lose a goal right at the end, a real sucker-punch.
“I think Kazakhstan were more than happy to settle for a point and they came away with all three and it’s a very disappointing result.
“For us to lose the game in that way is extremely disappointing. We’ve lost three games 1-0, we’ve conceded goals that if you’re going to progress at this level you can’t concede and we’re learning the hard way at the moment that the mistakes we’re making are costing us.”
O’Neill has spent much of this international window and the one in March preaching caution given Northern Ireland’s injury predicament, talking about how much was being asked of young players, many of whom lack first-team experience at club level, let alone international.
Conor Bradley was missing through injury but there were still two teenagers in the starting line-up in Shea Charles and Isaac Price, with Dale Taylor among those coming off the bench.
Patience could be a key word, but after a second half in which the atmosphere at Windsor fell flat, some fans booed as the players walked off.
“Fans are entitled to boo,” O’Neill said. “We lost the game 1-0. I don’t read too much into that. Very rarely do you go to a match where the home team lose 1-0 and the fans cheer.
“They were probably frustrated to see us lose the game as we are as staff and players, but hopefully they see a young team which is going to have to take a bit of time to mould that team.
“We need a little more experience and some of our more experienced players back to help a lot of those younger players.”