Nigel Worthington insists it was an 'absolute pleasure' to coach Northern Ireland and has called for patience with the next generation of players.
Northern Ireland ended their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign with a 3-0 defeat away to Italy, with Worthington forced to send out an inexperienced team after losing 10 of his original 23-man squad.
Worthington, who is now stepping down as coach, used the likes of Ryan McGivern, Jonny Gorman, Oliver Norwood, Andrew Little and Conor McLaughlin against the Azzurri.
He believes they are promising players for his eventual successor but cautioned against over-burdening them with expectation as Northern Ireland continue the quest to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1986.
"The fact we had six or seven senior players out, that hit was a massive loss," he said after his side were downed by two fine finishes from Antonio Cassano and a Gareth McAuley own goal.
"We had many youngsters out there, against a quality side like Italy and I'm really proud of them. Every one of them put a shift in.
"But at the age they are, they're a long way from maturing into international footballers. Patience has to be the name of the game."
Worthington stressed that some older heads would be needed to nurse those promising players through the next campaign and he made a plea to the likes of Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt and Lafferty - all missing in Pescara - to continue giving their all for the cause.
"I'll reiterate something big Maik Taylor said the other day: it's important for the people who represent Northern Ireland to turn up on a regular basis," he said.
"I've been very fortunate in qualifying games where players have, nine times out of 10, turned up and we've finished up getting good results.
"I hope that continues for Northern Ireland."
Former Norwich boss Worthington now hopes for a swift return to club management, but remains proud to have led his country for four-and-a-half years.
"It has been an absolute pleasure," he said. "I've worked with good people and the players and staff are fantastic.
"We've been one unit all the way through. For the team to grow together has been important for me and I hope that continues for Northern Ireland."