World Cup qualifying: Michael O'Neill hails Northern Ireland's draw in Israel
Michael O'Neill was relieved after Northern Ireland ended their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 1-1 draw in Israel.
Last Updated: 15/10/13 10:59pm
Coming off the back of successive defeats in Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, the release of tension when Steven Davis found the back of the net in the 72nd minute at the Ramat Gan Stadium was palpable.
O'Neill's men had slipped behind thanks to Eden Ben Basat's sixth goal of the campaign - a neat header after he slipped between Rory McArdle and Craig Cathcart - and were on course for a fourth straight loss.
But they were worth their draw on the night and might even have won it when Martin Paterson got on the end of Chris Brunt's chipped pass only to see Dudu Aouate make the save.
"It was a good result, let's be honest," said O'Neill.
"I said to the players before the game that whatever happened, they could not let anyone question their character at the end - and I think they did that.
"This a difficult place to come and that's proved by the fact that only Russia have won here in the group.
"But I felt the players did extremely well in the second half.
"I think a draw was the least we deserved given the way we played.
"Israel came and stole a win in Belfast so it would have been nice to steal one back here.
"It was a positive at the end of a few negatives but we have to look back on the group as a whole and know we could have done better than we have."
The former Shamrock Rovers boss will now have another decent result to his name when contract talks resume later this month, though he is happy for that process to take its own time.
"We'll deal with all that when it comes along," he added. "The bottom line is this group of players are developing.
"Probably 60 per cent of the squad are in their first real campaign, having their first real experiences of playing in these kind of venues and playing for what is at stake here.
"We can only be better as a group for that."
In many ways, this result was just as impressive as the same scoreline in Portugal a year ago, achieved as it was at the end of a gruelling double header of away trips and without senior men such as suspended duo Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley.
Bradford's McArdle and Blackpool's Cathcart were nominated to stand in for them at the heart of defence and were among those who earned special mentions from their manager.
"We're here without the likes of (Aaron) Hughes, Evans, McAuley and (Oliver) Norwood but the players who came in were excellent," O'Neill said.
"McArdle did a great job and Craig has been excellent for me whenever I've needed him in the campaign.
"Chris Baird and Sammy Clingan were excellent in the middle of the park as well.
"After 75 minutes of every game in this group, the result has been in the balance and too often we've come out on the wrong side of the result.
"Sometimes that has been our own fault and sometimes there's been elements of misfortune but I thought we managed this match well."
There was also a well-earned pat on the back for Davis, who has gone through the all-too rare highs and the dispiriting lows with O'Neill as captain.
"It was a good piece of play and a good goal. I'm delighted for Steven because it was a great finish," he added.
"It's difficult as a manager when you're not winning games but it's not easy being captain either and he's handled himself very well."