Michael O’Neill cut an almost funereal figure despite a thumping and crucial win for Stoke City – as Joe Allen was consigned to months on the sidelines.
Stoke rose to 17th in the Championship – their highest position of the season so far – thanks to a 5-1 thrashing of Hull, with two goals apiece from Nick Powell and Sam Clucas plus a Tyrese Campbell penalty.
But Allen ruptured an Achilles on the stroke of half-time and will undergo surgery imminently. The 29-year-old will miss the rest of the season and Euro 2020 with Wales.
O’Neill said: “I think it was possibly how he got up. I saw him go down and thought he’d maybe got a knock on the top of his foot. It quickly became apparent it was more than that.
“It’s devastating for us and devastating for the boy. Not only will he miss the rest of the season but obviously Euro 2020 as well.
“He’s a great lad and when you’re a coach and a manager you want the good lads to get the rewards and do well in the game. Joe’s a low maintenance player but a high output player.
“I know what it means for him to play for Wales and obviously we played them in 2016 as well and he had a fantastic tournament then. I’m sure he would have been looking forward to the finals and a chance for him to show again that he’s a top, top international player, which he’s proven to be in the past. It’s taken a bit of the shine away for me.
“I kind of feel like I did when Chris Brunt got injured before Euro 2016 and missed it. These things don’t come around often in players’ careers so when it’s taken away from them cruelly with injury it’s not very nice.”
Hull had been 15 points clear of Stoke after the reverse fixture in early December but now Stoke are two points ahead – even if still only three points clear of the drop zone.
And O’Neill has been trying to keep players calm amid the importance and hype of their situation.
He said: “We’ve still got nine huge games to go as well. It’s the nature of the league at this minute in time and where we are so there was always a little bit of anxiety around it.
“But the players’ response to that was excellent. I told them to play the game, not the situation. That’s what they’ve done and that’s what they have to do going forward. Not get caught up everything and the reaction of everything and probably not read the media and listen to the media, concentrate on the opposition and the game and I think we’ve tried to do that.
“When we’ve won like this time it’s important we don’t go overboard and equally if we lose or we drop points a little bit cruelly like we did the previous week then it’s important our reaction is measured. That’s where we are trying to be.”
It is helped by the manager keeping a poker face on the sidelines.
“It’s not the case of not showing your emotion but you have to be balanced in the dug-out,” he said. “You try to help your players and you have to be analytical in the game. It’s a case of not getting too wrapped up in the whole situation.
“I think there have been times we’ve played well here and been unfortunate and not got what we’ve deserved. That’s certainly happened in the time I’ve been here.
“But this time our performance was good, we looked strong from the outset, played with a real purpose, created a lot of chances and it’s obviously nice to score five goals.”