Conor Washington admitted the manner of Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 exit on Saturday was tougher to accept than any thrashing would have been.
Despite Michael O’Neill’s side producing arguably their best performance of the tournament, a below-par Wales won the battle of the home nations with an own goal from Gareth McAuley 15 minutes from time.
Northern Ireland boss O’Neill called their elimination “very cruel” and Washington was similarly downbeat, conceding that a heavy loss to France, whom they would have faced had the Republic of Ireland not scored a late winner against Italy, would have hurt less.
“It’s devastating when the final whistle goes and you realise you’re out,” said the QPR forward.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey and none of us wanted it to end. It’s such a harsh way to go out as well.
“We’re just devastated to go out at this point but we’ve given everything and I don’t think we can have any regrets looking back.
“They had one shot on target other than (the goal) which is an absolute killer really. It probably would have been better if we had met France and they had have outclassed us; it just makes it even more disappointing.
“We’ve got to pick ourselves up from this and take the experience we’ve had here into the next qualification campaign.”
The decisive blow was inadvertently delivered by one of their own as McAuley turned Gareth Bale’s fine cross beyond Michael McGovern before it could reach Hal Robson-Kanu.
Like all of his colleagues, Washington insisted McAuley was not culpable for the country’s exit having played a key role in helping them to qualify for their first ever European Championship finals in the first place.
“I don’t think you can lay any blame on him,” he stressed.
“As a centre-half he has to get something on that because Robson-Kanu is right behind him to tap it in anyway.
“Gareth’s been absolutely brilliant all tournament and been a real rock for us. It’s obviously disappointing for him for the tournament to end the way it has.”
There may have been a tinge of disappointment for Washington too as he lost his starting spot to Kyle Lafferty at the Parc des Princes before failing to make an impact off the bench.
However, when observing the bigger picture, the 24-year-old highlighted a journey that has taken him from working part-time as a postman at the last Euros to being mentioned by World Cup winner Mats Hummels four years on.
“The only word I can use is ‘surreal’ and that doesn’t really seem to cover it,” Washington said.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it other than the last couple of minutes of Saturday. I’m definitely going to take this experience into the rest of my career.”