Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans has criticised the refereeing in Friday’s 1-0 loss to Austria and believes the team have an undeserved reputation for physical play.
Marko Arnautovic’s 71st-minute goal was enough to settle the match in Vienna and leave Northern Ireland facing a relegation battle in the Nations League.
But Evans was left unhappy with a number of decisions from the officials, having been involved in a tough scrap with Arnautovic from the very first minute.
“I thought the officials were really, really poor and a lot of decisions went their way,” Evans said. “It’s not often I say that. In the past refereeing has been very good throughout Europe.”
Austria said before and after the match they would need to counter physical play from Northern Ireland, something Evans said he does not understand.
“I think it is a bit of a myth,” he said. “I think it all comes from the fact we play British football, but look at our disciplinary record over the last number of years. It’s one of things we’ve made huge improvements on.
“If you look at the physicality of Austria and the way they were in the game, I thought the referee was really poor in how he managed the game.
“A lot of time we were going for challenges and they weren’t looking at the ball and making obvious fouls which could be dangerous, especially if you are in mid-air.”
Northern Ireland do not have much time to lick their wounds as they head straight to Sarajevo to play Bosnia and Herzegovina, needing a win to keep their relegation fate in their own hands.
Evans is expecting another physical battle – and perhaps another night of frustration with the referee.
“I think one thing people underestimate is the physicality in Europe,” he said. “They are a lot more clever than us in terms of buying fouls and a lot more streetwise in how to control the referee. I think that’s a culture thing.”
Manager Michael O’Neill said results had been harsh on his team to leave them pointless after the first two matches, but he said he was “not going to have sleepless nights” over the prospect of relegation as he focuses on developing the team ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifiers next year.
Monday’s match promises to be an even tougher test, with Northern Ireland playing back-to-back competitive games away from home, while Bosnia warmed up with a friendly against Turkey on Thursday, drawing 0-0.
“Bosnia are in a very strong position,” O’Neill said. “They’ve played a friendly game and that means they’ve got 24 hours more recovery.
“They’ve not played a competitive game, so they’ll be sitting waiting in Sarajevo knowing if they beat us it’s going to be very difficult for them not to win this group.
“That’s a nice position for them to be in. It’s going to be a tough challenge for us and we’ve got to try and inject a little bit of freshness into the team.
“I have to try and develop the team, introduce new players into the team. The only way to do that is to test them against this quality of opposition.”