Michael O’Neill had no other word for it after three late goals from Holland turned what would have been a famous night in Rotterdam into a heartbreaking defeat for Northern Ireland: devastated.
In the space of 15 minutes Northern Ireland saw dreams of a historic victory, given to them by Josh Magennis’ 75th-minute header, become hopes of a vital point and then turn to dust in a 3-1 loss.
A win would have had O’Neill’s men on course for Euro 2020; a draw would have left them with a strong chance; defeat leaves those hopes hanging by a thread.
Memphis Depay did the damage as he inspired a dramatic turnaround, equalising with 10 minutes to go before getting the second of two stoppage-time goals.
“We’re devastated by the result,” O’Neill said. “It was very hard on us to lose two goals so late in the game, having defended for so long and gone ahead in the game.
“It was a combination of fatigue on our part and the quality of the opposition.
“They were able to make substitutions that strengthened them and that ultimately proved to be the difference.”
For 90 minutes Northern Ireland had executed O’Neill’s game plan perfectly. He had told them to get at Holland, to create doubt in the minds of a young team feeling the pressure as they sought to avoid missing out on a third major tournament in succession.
Pressing high, Northern Ireland forced mistakes and kept Holland off their stride as they struggled to create chances.
Magennis’ goal came from two such mistakes, the first a horrible slice from Juventus’ defender Matthijs de Ligt before the experienced Daley Blind failed to deal with the consequences.
Holland coach Ronald Koeman called Magennis’ goal an “axe in the neck” but his side stumbled back to their feet.
Within five minutes Memphis poked home an equaliser and Holland continued to pour forward as Luuk de Jong put them in front before Memphis scored his sixth goal of the qualifying campaign.
De Jong had come off the bench, as did highly-rated youngsters Donyell Malen and Donny Van de Beek, while O’Neill brought on Magennis, Jordan Thompson and Tom Flanagan.
“They bring on players like Malen and De Jong and Van de Beek who has been courted by clubs all over Europe, and we brought on two lads who play in League One,” O’Neill said.
“Hopefully people recognise that. It was a fantastic performance but ultimately one that was disappointing in the end.
“We don’t want to be a team that pats ourself on the back and say we came here and did well but we lost. We want to be a team that’s better than that.”
Defeat all but ends Northern Ireland’s hopes of reaching next summer’s finals. Though they are level on points with both Holland and Germany in Group C, they have played a game more and must face both sides again next month.
“They are devastated in the dressing room,” O’Neill added.
“We knew the significance of a point here, we knew the significance of three points but to come away with nothing, we have to look to the final two games.
“You don’t need to be a mathematician to see we need six points and it’s going to be very difficult.”