What was already a tetchy Sunday service at Windsor Park drew a collective chorus of gloom the moment Andronikos Kakoulli headed Cyprus into the lead.
Paddy McNair and Jonny Evans may have teased out a 2-2 draw as a reward for late sweat – but this was an desperate affair, when the Northern Ireland faithful were looking down the barrel of another embarrassment. A last chance to carve out some hope from a miserable Nations League campaign under Ian Baraclough, a decent man, trying to resist surging criticism.
Kakoulli’s second goal was another chunk of misery for a nation which lived in genuine optimism only a couple of weeks ago. A point salvaged yesterday means little overall.
Rumbling undercurrents are obvious when it comes to Baraclough, but for now a draw amid a frantic rally is probably enough to keep him in place at Windsor Park.
Beyond the bold, unedifying statistic of two defeats and a draw in League C Group 2, before yesterday’s intermittent snooze, there have been slivers of encouragement. A spirited late rally away to Kosovo, culminating by Daniel Ballard’s headed goal from a set piece, was an aspect to cling on to, for both Baraclough and the supporters who hope become the template for scoring in the years to come.
Baraclough noted in the match programme – with impressive understatement it has to be said – that our campaign in the competition has ‘not gone according to plan’. The visit of modest Cyprus was the final opportunity, arguably in more ways than one, in view of the fresh debate on Baraclough’s tenure, during this cluster of games, to prove a reconstructed squad have potential to move on. Perhaps they will, who knows?
In the immediate moments prior to kick-off there was, understandably, a muted atmosphere in the south Belfast air. However, in a poignant slice of welcome serendipity, the sun rose just as the PA tribute was being read out to mark the sad passing of Billy Bingham.
As the big screen montage displayed legendary snapshots of Northern Ireland’s most successful manager, World Cup specialist and orchestrator of his country’s success in the final British Home Championship of 1984, it was voiced that ‘Billy was adored, loved and will never be forgotten’. And a minutes’ applause for the man who made so many dreams possible for players and fans alike was a heartfelt moment.
Kyle Lafferty, foraging solo up front yesterday, and searching for a first international goal in six years, claimed that the national side have ‘amazing’ young prospects. Shayne Lavery is presumably one of those, but it looked odd to see the sprightly Blackpool striker playing in a deeper, right sided role. Lavery, unfortunately, was one of many who failed to launch. Northern Ireland’s possession was, mostly, respectably dull, whilst remaining - and failing to be - vigilant to Cypriot counter-attacks. The perennial issue of scoring remained elusive until McNair bundled home in the 71st minute to mitigate the damage.
The action, especially in the first half, drifted, events as casual as Cyprus manager Nikolaos Kostenoglou’s optimistic Northern Irish summer wardrobe. Lafferty, Davis and greenhorns Conor McMenamin tested visiting goalkeeper Andreas Christodoulou as the men in green attempted a recovery. All the ongoing symptoms under Baraclough: an inability to shoot accurately, to pass and move quickly, to cross the ball with precision continue under the shadow of a trudging Nations League hex.
In these strained circumstances for Northern Ireland - and Baraclough especially - one couldn’t help but be reminded of Bingham, an expert of creating a unit so much more effective and cohesive than the sum of its parts in halcyon days. The contrast at present could scarcely be more pronounced. Freshness, ingenuity and potency were needed on what was unquestionably Baraclough’s most important interval team talk of his reign.
The second half began, the rain lashed down. Brodie Spencer’s abdication of defensive duty which directly contributed to Kakoulli doubling the lead was an unmistakeable metaphor for this malaise under Baraclough. New recruit Spencer will learn. At this level, though, it was such a gift for the Cypriots, who were comfortable with what little a frankly boring and predictable Northern Ireland could throw at them.
Baraclough has made it clear on numerous occasions about this being a transitional phase. However, the struggles against an opponent ranked 105 by Fifa weighs heavily on the mind with a sense of bewilderment at what is occurring under Baraclough lately, contagious.
Then it came, on the hour mark. ‘We want Bara out’. A watershed. Fortunately, the fans found solace in the latter stages via McNair and Evans, but the jeers were also audible at the climax.
This from a support noted for its patience and reasonable expectations for Northern Ireland. You can argue Baraclough deserves a break, but when you have gone four successive games in the Nations League without a win, when the manager had targeted a dozen points at the outset then an unconvincing pattern cannot be ignored.
Only the IFA can decide if there are to be consequences. Evans at least spared a complete humiliation. Nevertheless, with just three competitive wins in twenty games it is fast becoming difficult to retain faith in the Baraclough ‘project’.