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Baraclough throws down the gauntlet to his emerging talent

 

By Laure James

Ian Baraclough has told his charges they're just one step away from the chance of becoming Northern Ireland's next heroes. The Under-21 boss has given his side the ultimate pep talk ahead of their Euro qualification opener with Estonia in Tallinn (4pm).

"From day one I have said to them, 'You're one step away from being in the senior group'. They have got to realise that," he said.

"Michael (O'Neill) won't be watching the game live, but he'll certainly be watching the footage back and will be interested to see who the shining lights are here.

"He comes and watches U21 and club games, and has taken the likes of Matthew Lund and Shay McCartan with him now, while (Glenavon winger) Joel Cooper was training with them last week and he and (Linfield striker) Paul Smyth went to France.

"Liam Donnelly has gone through to make an appearance. It's not a big pool of players and Michael is going to need to bring one or two in if he has injuries, and I think he'd rather they were from the U21s, who have been playing international football."

Northern Ireland are seeded bottom of Group 3, and as well as Estonia will face Spain, Slovakia, Iceland and Albania.

The former Sligo Rovers coach is keen to use this opening match as a springboard, and has said Irish League talent should be given the same respect as those who have landed full-time contracts.

"I don't care about how people perceive the level they're playing at; they're playing first-team football and have been doing so from a young age," he added.

"It's tough when you're a teenager having to compete with men, but that's how you learn and, for me, players from the Irish League have acquitted themselves really well because they are playing senior football and have a hunger about them.

"That's nothing against the lads who are not in their first teams at English clubs, we have to try and help them along with that.

"It matters at this level. The Estonian team will be playing first-team club football so we have to be able to compete.

"The last U21 side in a European campaign took the lead on seven occasions but didn't win any of them, so we know they can get themselves into good positions and now we hopefully get the concentration level right to convert those into wins."

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