But the manager had praise too for a spirited showing by his players in the second half, during which a wonderful Billy Dennehy free-kick cheered the crowd and restored some pride.
“I thought we started the game reasonably well, but they came into the game and were fantastic on the counter-attack,” O’Neill said.
“At 3-0 down we gave ourselves a mountain to climb.
“The players showed great courage to get a goal back and force the game but on the night we have to accept we were second best.”
If it was any consolation for the Rovers boss, his counterpart Laszlo Boloni described PAOK’s first half showing as the best he’s seen since he’s been at the club.
For PAOK, next up is an away trip to London to face Spurs and, finally, a home game against Rubin Kazan. Rovers face the same opposition in reverse, heading first to Russia before finishing up at home to Spurs as they continue their attempt to get at least one point on the board in Group A.
Asked if he felt these matches were ones Rovers could now do without at the end of what has already been a long and successful season for the club, Michael O’Neill demurred.
“These are still big games to be involved in and we will be trying to do our best,” he said.
Last night in Tallaght, an early drive from outside the box by Chris Turner, although comfortably held by Kostas Chalkias, suggested that Rovers were determined to get off on the front foot after being pegged back for long periods over the course of their three previous Europa League group outings.
But it wasn’t to be. Having already seen his side denied by the woodwork, striker Dimitris Salpingidis gave PAOK the lead in the seventh minute, slipping the ball coolly past Ryan Thompson with just enough pace on it to prevent Craig Sives clearing it off the line. It was by no means the first early goal Rovers had conceded in Europe and it meant an abrupt end to Michael O’Neill’s hopes of keeping things level for as long as possible.
On a heavy pitch, there was a lack of precision in Rovers’ passing as well as a few communication breakdowns, epitomised by Conor McCormack remonstrating with Stephen O’Donnell when they both went for the same ball. PAOK, by contrast, were patient and unflustered in possession but, as Ryan Thompson discovered when he had to come quickly off his line to deny the rampaging Lino, a real threat when they upped the tempo and penetrated into the box.
The wheels really came off for Rovers in a three-minute spell before half-time when, first, Conor McCormack’s poor pass allowed Salpingidis to feed Giorgos Fotakis who made it 2-0, before the impressive Giorgos Georgiadis crossed from the right for Salpingidis to grab his second and PAOK’s third with a well-taken side-footed volley at the far post.
O’Neill sought to lift the flat atmosphere after the break, sending on Ciaran Kilduff and taking a chance too on Gary Twigg who’d been confined to the bench at the start following his recent hamstring problems.
And just five minutes after the restart, the stadium was back on its feet as, from just outside the box, Billy Dennehy bent a superb low free kick in off the far post.
Minutes later, Karl Sheppard wasted a great free header as Rovers continued to apply pressure but only a combination of Thompson’s finger-tips and the woodwork prevented a long-range Vieirinha rocket from restoring PAOK’s three-goal advantage.
The Hoops continued to put in the sort of energetic performance that was in stark contrast to the sluggishness of their first period.
Sadly, their efforts couldn’t produce the second goal that would have made for a grandstand finish, though there was a big claim by Rovers players and supporters that a Ciaran Kilduff’s header had crossed the line before it was cleared in time added on.
But, denied even that consolation, the faithful in a crowd of 6,100 resorted to amusing themselves with a new twist on an old chant: “The Hoops are having a party and the Greeks are going bust”.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Thompson, Sives, Murray, Stevens, McCormack (Rice 70), Turner (Kilduff 45), O’ Donnell, Dennehy, Sheppard, McCabe (Twigg 45)
PAOK FC: Chalkias, Sznaucher, Cirillo, Malezas, Lino, Lazar, Arias, Georgiadis (Apostolopoulos 85), Fotakis (Balafas 64), Vieirinha, Salpingidis Papazoglou 87)
Referee: Alexey Kulbakov (Belarus)