A furious Ian Baraclough was left “appalled” by a red card shown to Jamal Lewis which he felt proved decisive as Northern Ireland’s World Cup hopes were to all intents ended by a 2-0 defeat in Geneva.
Lewis was shown a second yellow in the 37th minute of the match with Switzerland when the referee, Slavko Vincic, decided the 17 seconds he took over a throw-in was too long.
The Slovenian official seemed to have forgotten he had already booked Lewis for a tug on Breel Embolo but after a pause he produced the red card to change the nature of the game, which was ultimately settled as Steven Zuber and Christian Fassnacht scored in stoppage time of either half.
“I can’t say what I want to say without getting into trouble,” Baraclough said. “I’m annoyed, appalled … It’s a diabolical decision. The referee has not realised he booked him earlier on and, whether he thinks it is time-wasting or not, you normally go up to a player and tell him to hurry up or you’ll do something about it. But he didn’t get any warning at all.
“Whether he has been swayed by Swiss players or the crowd, I think the occasion got to him. It’s changed the entire complexion of the game.”
Asked if he had been able to speak to the officials during or after the match, Baraclough added: “No, none of the officials wanted to give any explanation. And that’s not lost in translation, they can speak English.
“It’s something we have to take on the chin, but you expect officials at this level to get decisions right more often than not. I think we were on the end of a poor one.”
Defeat leaves Northern Ireland six points behind the Swiss in the fight for second place in Group C. With three games left their chances of a play-off place are all but over.
And for controversy to come in a qualifier against Switzerland – just as it did four years ago when Ricardo Rodriguez’s penalty for a disputed handball settled their play-off – was a painful irony.
“Is that something that happens with a so-called minnow against a bigger side? Coincidence or not, it’s hard to take at this moment,” Baraclough added. “The Swiss are a good side, so you need decisions to go your way.”
Northern Ireland were not the only ones surprised by Lewis’ red card. Both benches had jumped up when Vincic blew his whistle and Switzerland’s coach, Murat Yakin, admitted he feared one of his own staff members was in trouble.
“I actually didn’t realise the situation,” said Yakin, whose side had an early Denis Zakaria strike ruled out for offside. “I was surprised. “But overall I don’t think it was decisive. With our performance we controlled the match already before. We were very focused. We didn’t stop.”