Michael O’Neill was looking for the moment that would ignite Northern Ireland’s campaign, much like the famous win in Budapest nine years ago that was the launchpad for the Euro success to come.
He didn’t quite get that, but we did see another side to this Northern Ireland team in what was a chaotic and entertaining display, but ultimately a disappointing result.
Usually so steady at the back, Northern Ireland were all at sea and shipped four goals to Slovenia with the defence chopping and changing as the injury woes piled up.
But fans did see a more attacking display from a team which so often struggles for goals. Here they created chance after chance, with Conor McMenamin and Shea Charles at the heart of everything positive.
It was refreshing to see, and there were some standout performances, but Northern Ireland’s slim hopes of reaching Euro 2024 are now virtually extinguished.
Northern Ireland have five remaining Group H fixtures, the first of which is in Kazakhstan on Sunday.
“We’ve just got to finish as high as possible,” O’Neill said.
“Qualification now… I think if we won all five games it wouldn’t be enough. I’m not going to sit here and say ‘While it’s mathematically possible…’ and things like that.
“We’re trying to develop a team here. It’s a young team, a team that’s ravaged by injuries.
“Our chance in this group probably was to get momentum in the early part and we didn’t do that unfortunately.
“Now we’ve got to make sure we finish the group strong and so we can carry that forward for the preparations for the next tournament.”
With 10 senior players missing for the September double header, Dan Ballard was deemed unfit and missed out, and O’Neill then lost Ciaron Brown and Craig Cathcart during the match, which meant Trai Hume had to move from right to left-back and midfielder Charles finished the game as a centre-back.
The enforced rejigging no doubt added to the chaos, but the defensive collapse was uncharacteristic for a side who had only conceded three goals in their opening four matches.
“Normally we have a good defensive record,” added Jonny Evans, who scored at both ends of the pitch in Ljubljana.
“There was real attacking intent and that is something we have tried to add to our game.
“I thought they were quite good tonight. They played two strikers [the outstanding Benjamin Sesko and Andraz Soprar], who are big, strong and quick.
“For us, the performance is more important at the minute.”
‘Players will be better for the experience’
O’Neill praised the performances of McMenamin, Hume, Charles and Isaac Price, who scored NI’s opening goal with his first international strike.
At the halfway point of Group H, Northern Ireland have won just once – away in San Marino – and will need to reset ahead of a big set of games at Windsor Park in the autumn.
With qualification now off the table, O’Neill has the challenge of lifting his players for Sunday’s game in Astana.
“We will look at the game and [try to change] some of things we did that were poor, but we’ll focus as well on a lot of things we did well. We’ll be ready to give it a go again on Sunday night,” O’Neill added.
“I think the bigger concern is into the games feeling you’re inferior to the opposition. We don’t feel that in this group.
“The results have been disappointing for us obviously. It’s been well documented about the players that are unavailable to us. I think this group of players will be clearly a lot better for the experience of what they’re dealing with at the minute.
“For the younger ones in particular playing two games in the space of three days, both away from home, for many of them it’s their first experience of that. That’s the nature of international football and trying to qualify.
“We feel we are due more points than we have, but we have to accept where we are and make sure we finish as strongly as we can.”