Ten-player Northern Ireland returned to the all-too-familiar feeling of defeat as Adam Cerin’s early free-kick put Group H leaders Slovenia on the verge of qualifying for Euro 2024 with a scrappy 1-0 win at Windsor Park.
Saturday’s 3-0 victory over minnows San Marino ended Northern Ireland’s five-game losing streak but it proved only a temporary reprieve in an injury-ravaged qualifying campaign which has now seen Michael O’Neill’s side suffer five 1-0 defeats in eight games.
The defining moment of the match came early on. While there was no doubt about the quality of Adam Cerin’s fifth-minute free-kick, Northern Ireland were fuming at referee Istvan Kovacs’ decision to award it after Jamal Lewis barely clipped Benjamin Sesko on the edge of the box.
“I think there is always frustration when you lose the game – and a little bit of disappointment as well,” O’Neill said.
“I think the players deserved more out of it than what they got. We have had a frustrating campaign, a very challenging campaign and tonight’s game was probably a reflection of that once again.”
Shea Charles was booked for dissent and that proved costly just before the hour mark when the Southampton midfielder went in late on Andraz Sporar and was sent off, the first blemish on the 19-year-old’s impressive start in international football.
Charles has started every game of this campaign but will now miss November’s trip to Finland, another headache for O’Neill, who was forced into further changes here with Dan Ballard out with a thigh problem and Paddy McNair suspended following his late yellow card on Saturday.
The manager responded with bold choices, handing debuts to Bolton defender Eoin Toal and Kilmarnock midfielder Brad Lyons, the 30th and 31st players to be used in eight qualifiers so far, despite more experienced options on the bench.
The atmosphere inside a below-capacity Windsor Park was already flat at the start with but it fell silent after Cerin’s goal, the fans not even having the energy to resume the anti-Casement Park chanting heard before kick-off. As the night wore on, a sense of injustice would rouse the fans.
Northern Ireland responded quickly when Slovenia scored early in Ljubljana last month, a 4-2 defeat, but struggled to threaten here. Paul Smyth, the star of the show on Saturday, found little joy on the right. On the left Lewis had more joy in finding space but lacked the quality of cross required.
Although limited going forward, Northern Ireland were at least ensuring Slovenia’s powerful strike force had few sights of Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s goal.
After one rare attack, Slovenia appeared to have been gifted a second just after the half hour. Trai Hume’s poor headed clearance went straight to Jan Mlakar and Toal got it all wrong trying to cut out his low cross, allowing Sesko to thump home from close range.
However, the visitors’ celebrations were cut short after the referee checked the replay, deeming Sporar to be interfering from an offside position.
O’Neill sent on Washington for Josh Magennis at the break and was planning further changes a little over 10 minutes in before Charles saw red, forcing a rethink.
Conor McMenamin, amongst the goals on Saturday, had been due to come on but instead it was George Saville, Dion Charles and Isaac Price who entered the fray in a triple change.
The substitutes combined for Northern Ireland’s best move in the 69th minute as Price drove down the right, exchanged passes with Washington and then pulled the ball back for Saville but the midfielder, yet to score for Northern Ireland after 49 appearances, did not get enough power on his shot.
There was a let-off in the 72nd minute when Mlakar found space in front of goal but got the contact on his shot all wrong, while at the other end Dion Charles blazed harmlessly wide.
Northern Ireland still pushed forward but another flowing move ended with Saville shooting straight at Oblak and other attacks were thwarted by the over-officious Kovacs.
Captain Jonny Evans, who had treatment on an ankle injury in the first half, ended the game limping heavily after another strong impact when challenging for a corner.
O’Neill: Charles must learn from dismissal
Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill:
“This is a learning curve for young players,” he said. “(Slovenia) are a much more experienced international team than we are. You can see that in the way they managed the situation and played the referee a little bit.
“The emotion in the stadium obviously transferred to the players a little bit, everyone gets a bit frustrated with some of the decisions…If you’re booked for dissent, that’s poor. You put yourself under pressure so we have to learn from that.
“We’ve probably seen a little combination of inexperience in a number of players and also just the nature of the emotion in the game when you’re chasing the game against a team that are a little bit more experienced and that can spill over a little bit.
“But I think that on the night we were pretty disappointed with the performance of the referee.”
Captain Jonny Evans ended the night limping heavily after taking a late blow to his foot, having already been down in the first half to receive treatment.
“He’s obviously hobbling a little bit in there,” O’Neill said of the Manchester United defender. “I think the same foot was stamped on three times so he’s limping pretty badly but I think he’ll be fine.
“It will be one of those where when he wakes up in the morning he’ll be pretty sore but there’s no real damage as far as I know.”
Northern Ireland return to action in November with two Euro 2024 qualifiers as they go to Finland on November 17 followed by a home game against Denmark on November 20.