Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill says his players need to learn after being “caught up in the emotion” in Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat by Slovenia in Euro 2024 qualifying.
Adam Cerin’s free-kick was decisive and Shea Charles was sent off for NI.
Both Northern Ireland’s players and support showed their frustration at referee Istvan Kovacs.
“The emotion in the game cost us a little bit,” O’Neill said, adding he was “disappointed” in Kovacs’ showing.
Cerin’s well-struck free-kick came in the fifth minute and was the first flash point where frustration towards the officials boiled over at Windsor Park, as Northern Ireland fell to their fifth 1-0 defeat in Euro 2024 qualifying.
Romanian referee Kovacs paused for a number of seconds before awarding the foul from Jamal Lewis on Benjamin Sesko, which led to protests and a yellow card for Charles. Cerin’s superb strike did the rest as he curled home off the post.
Teenage midfielder Charles was later dismissed with for a second yellow card in the 58th minute, which came after another long pause from Kovacs following a robust challenge on Andraz Sporar, as Northern Ireland ended the game with five yellow cards and 10 men.
“A lot that went against us in the game,” O’Neill added.
“We have to learn from these types of games. I thought we got on the wrong side of the officials because of that.
“Ultimately, we get very little from the officials in the game. That’s a learning experience.
“We have a lot of players without a huge amount of international experience and I think that showed at times, in terms of the bookings we picked up at key moments in the game.”
‘It doesn’t always work in your favour’
O’Neill added he would not criticise his players for their approach to the game because he understood how they felt. However, the 56-year-old again warned that his young squad, which has been decimated with injuries and suspensions throughout a disappointing campaign, had to learn.
“I was disappointed in the performance of the referee, first of all,” he said. “But you have to learn. The bookings, they hurt you down the line.
“For us, with the player pool that we have, we need player availability and suspensions and that kind of thing hurts us.
“Young players get caught up in the emotion. The crowd were brilliant with the team tonight, but they were very vociferous against the referee and sometimes that doesn’t always work in your favour.”
Despite the result, Northern Ireland’s sixth defeat in eight matches, O’Neill said he was keeping positive and looking to the future with his young squad, whose average age is just 25 and 13 of the 23 players had 10 caps or less.
“We have had seven, maybe eight Under-21s in the group tonight,” O’Neill added.
“That’s not because we are discarding other players but we have a lot of unavailability and we lost [Daniel] Ballard and Paddy [McNair] from the team on Saturday – both experienced players for us.
“We’re having to dip into these younger players and hopefully we will get the benefit of that down the line in terms of when we do build a team. Hopefully being involved at international level helps their club careers. Hopefully it raises their club game to a level where they can compete at this level.
“I think there are a lot of positive signs. The results don’t necessarily show that at the minute, I understand that, but in every game I can’t remember us being totally out played or totally out of our depth, or anything like that. We have to look at the positives in the situation we are in.”