After two qualifying defeats in a week, Northern Ireland’s players accept their Euro 2012 dreams are over, but have defended under-pressure manager Nigel Worthington.
A morale-sapping 4-1 loss in Estonia last night followed a 1-0 reverse against Serbia at Windsor Park, leaving Worthington’s side fifth in Group C and at their lowest ebb of the campaign.
While not mathematically out of the race for second, with only two games to go - and one of those away to group winners Italy – the qualifying round is heading for a disappointing conclusion.
Although the last two results have been down almost entirely to rank individual errors – Steven Davis guilty against Serbia, while Lee Camp and Gareth McAuley both had nightmares in Tallinn – Worthington is sure to feel the heat in the coming weeks.
He was heckled by a section of the 1,200 strong Northern Ireland support at the Le Coq Arena and, with his contract up at the end of the campaign, he cannot afford displays like the one he witnessed yesterday.
Yet although his squad are frustrated by recent events, they are not eager to join former boss Lawrie Sanchez, who today turned on Worthington and said he would like to return to the post.
Captain Aaron Hughes said: “It’s a massive disappointment.
“At the start of the week we were looking forward to two massive games with a chance of qualifying. Unfortunately it hasn’t panned out that way.
“Personally, I think the criticism (of Worthington) can be unfair – we don’t set out to be negative.
“At times I actually thought we were the better team, but mistakes cost us and we all have to take responsibility for that.”
Davis, meanwhile, echoed the notion of shared responsibility.
He put in a hugely committed performance in an attempt to make up for his poor back-pass against Serbia at Windsor Park, only to see other players commit errors that carried an even greater cost.
“Nigel is just as deflated as the rest of us,” he said. “It’s disappointing for all of us. Over the last couple of games individual errors have cost us and realistically we had to come here and win. It’s over.
“But of course we’re professionals and we’ll have to pick ourselves back up but it’s demoralising and right now that’s just the way we feel.”
Striker David Healy, who went third on his country’s all-time caps list with an 89th appearance yesterday, added: “Ultimately what goes on with the manager is not my decision. I just try and concentrate on my own game. The manager picks the team – it’s the players who have to go onto the pitch and perform.”
Sanchez, who led Northern Ireland to famous wins over England and Spain and took them to the cusp of qualification for the 2008 European Championship before jumping ship to Fulham, had his say earlier today.
While not considered a likely replacement should Worthington be cut loose by the IFA, Sanchez’s words carry plenty of weight with the Northern Ireland fans and could destabilise his successor’s position.
“Nigel has had enough cracks at it. Everybody sees the writing is on the wall,” Sanchez told BBC Radio Ulster.
“He is not doing an exceptional job. It has got worse rather than better. Everybody realises it is time for a change.
“I have always said I would like to finish what I started.
“I would like the opportunity. I would like to return to Northern Ireland in the future.”