Stuart Dallas believed Northern Ireland were on course for one of the biggest results in their history before Holland came from behind to win 3-1 in Rotterdam with the help of two stoppage-time goals.
Northern Ireland’s hopes of reaching Euro 2020 now look bleak as they watched a possible dream win turn into a gut-wrenching defeat in the space of 15 frantic minutes at De Kuip.
For so long on Thursday night everything had been going Northern Ireland’s way.
They stuck to Michael O’Neill’s game plan to frustrate their hosts and then snatched a 75th-minute lead through Josh Magennis, but everything then unravelled as Memphis Depay scored either side of a Luuk De Jong goal.
“Emotions are raw, we were so close and had them rattled,” Dallas said. “I honestly believed it was going to be our night when we went 1-0 up.
“We defended so well. It was king of like an old-school Northern Ireland performance when we didn’t have much of the ball, but we dug in and we defended from the front and boys were throwing their bodies on the line at the back.”
The Dutch dominated possession but managed only one effort on target in the first half - a tame header from Georginio Wijnaldum comfortably gathered by Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Though Holland improved after the break, they still struggled to test the Burnley goalkeeper until the final stages.
“They didn’t really hurt us,” Dallas said. “We spoke at half-time and we knew we’d get a chance.
“Josh has come on and done well to get in between the two boys to put us 1-0 up.
“But we’re proud. We’re proud of the performance, the staff, everything. We gave it everything and we can take a lot of positives.”
The second goal was particularly tough to take as De Jong looked to have missed his chance, only for the ball to come back to him after Peacock-Farrell had already committed himself.
“I was speaking to (Shane Ferguson) and he said it took a flick off a head and spun, I really don’t know, I’ll have to watch it again,” Dallas said.
“You talk about bits of luck, on another day it spins another way.
“But that’s football and it just wasn’t to be.”
Defeat means Northern Ireland drop to third in Group C, level on points with the Dutch and Germany but having played a game more.
They face Holland in Belfast and Germany in Frankfurt in their final qualifiers next month, though securing a play-off place now looks like their best hope.
Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis called the result a “missed opportunity”.
“I thought it was probably a little bit harsh on us, we put so much into the game,” he said. “If we had come away with a win obviously it would have been a massive, massive result for us.
“We had to work hard in the game but, for all the possession they had, I felt relatively comfortable up until they scored.
“It’s a sore one to take. It feels like something of a missed opportunity from the position we got ourselves in late on in the game.”