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A Northern Ireland team effort can take us back the Euros again, says new boss Ian Baraclough

 

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Big day: a delighted Ian Baraclough yesterday

Big day: a delighted Ian Baraclough yesterday

Craig Cathcart with Bosnian star Edin Dzeko

Craig Cathcart with Bosnian star Edin Dzeko

Big day: a delighted Ian Baraclough yesterday

How do you replace a manager like Billy Bingham or Michael O'Neill?

With great difficulty. The unfortunate and inescapable reality for Ian Baraclough is that his results and achievements as Northern Ireland manager will be judged and assessed alongside O'Neill's heroics.

It's not easy following a class act.

The Stoke City boss brought Northern Ireland's respect and pride flooding back with a first major tournament in 30 years - a chapter in our history no-one dreamed of.

His eight-year reign also gave us a World Cup play-off against the odds, when a controversial refereeing decision burst the bubble in the most cruel fashion.

A global pandemic saw O'Neill pass the Euro 2021 play-off semi-final baton to Baraclough, and that showdown on October 8 away to Bosnia and Herzegovina is another chance for the players to deliver on the big stage.

There may be Nations League fixtures in September against Romania and Norway, but the preparation for the Bosnia test is well under way and it represents a significant test of the new manager's credentials.

The good news is he inherits a squad with confidence and belief they can progress to a major tournament, the bad news is the pressure is on to follow in O'Neill's footsteps and find a way to achieve that goal.

But the 49-year-old Englishman is stepping up from the Under-21s with a quiet confidence and hunger to build on O'Neill's legacy.

Beat Bosnia and a possible play-off final with the Republic of Ireland may happen at Windsor Park in November.

"I've been involved in pressure games before, like a two-legged play-off with Motherwell against Rangers at Ibrox which we won 3-1. With Sligo we also had Cup success including over Stephen Kenny's Dundalk. I'll take that in November!" said Baraclough, who won't be fulfilling a Director of Football role similar to O'Neill's remit.

"It's important the players stay composed and we don't over complicate things. The players want clarity.

"This group of players have the knowledge to deal with big game situations. Unfortunately against Switzerland (in the World Cup play-off) refereeing decisions didn't help us, but players and staff have been involved in big games at the Euros and it's important I glean information from them.

"Our players are ultimate professionals and the senior players are leaders so I don't have concerns regarding their age.

"You look at the team and assess what the senior players are like. We have Steven Davis as captain, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, I could go through many more. But the players have been in the set up for a while, led the group and been a good example in training and the games.

"There's an exciting group of young talent coming through, even those below the Under-21s, and I'm excited about that.

"It's a good blend and the players look after one another. They are disciplined and it's not a situation where I have to instill a certain amount of authority or discipline amongst the group."

Former Notts County and Queens Park Rangers player Baraclough started his managerial career at Scunthorpe where he finished his playing days.

Before leaving to take charge at Motherwell, he guided Sligo Rovers to the League of Ireland title in 2012 - their first championship in 35 years - the FAI Cup in 2013 and Setanta Cup in 2014. It's a similar pathway to international management experienced by O'Neill, who had title, European and Setanta Cup success with Shamrock Rovers.

Motherwell boss Stephen Robinson, former St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright, IFA elite performance director Jim Magilton and Northern Ireland women's boss Kenny Shiels were keen to land the job but the Irish FA board clearly believed Baraclough could earn the players' respect at a crucial time.

Even though he was up against three Northern Irishmen for the top job, the man from Leicester never considered himself an outsider.

"You are up against four candidates who are Northern Irish and four good football people too," he added.

"It wasn't going to be about whether you are Northern Irish or English. I've worked here for three years and I worked south of the border in Sligo. On the island of Ireland I've been working for around seven years and I love everything about the place.

"I love the people, the way they embrace you and they have made me feel like one of them.

"Once you are in the process, you hope you are judged on the way you manage, coach and treat people, the way you get your message across.

"I have to thank the players and staff of the Under-21s who have allowed me to get into this position. I feel Northern Irish so it wasn't an issue.

"The other candidates deserve respect for all that they have achieved in the game and I'm pleasantly surprised to be handed this opportunity.

"Robbo couldn't be happier for me. If he couldn't get the job he was delighted for me."

In 2018, Baraclough led the Under-21 squad to impressive victories away to Spain and Iceland. The team finished second in their qualifying group for the 2019 European Under-21 Championships, narrowly missing out on a play-off place.

Republic boss Stephen Kenny has also made the step up from the Under-21s and was quick to congratulate his old friend and rival.

"I received a text from Stephen Kenny and he has returned the courtesy of offering congratulations on being appointed a senior international manager," added Baraclough.

"There is the possibility we could lock horns in November and of course we have had good tussles as managers. I got the better of him on a few occasions, in a Cup final and when he was at Shamrock Rovers, but he managed to turn the tables just as I was leaving Sligo and he took Dundalk on to great things. It would be nice to meet up with him in November as that will mean we have beaten Bosnia.

"The three years with the Under-21s has been a learning curve for me and I've had to adapt as a manager and coach.

"England and the Republic have appointed an Under-21 coach and I know the Romanian manager (Mirel Radoi) has stepped up too. I was pleased the Irish FA stuck to that trend and it's prepared me for what is ahead. I got to know the characters and there is continuity for the young players hoping to step up to the seniors where they will see a friendly face."

What's next?

Friday, September 4: Nations League - Romania v Northern Ireland

Monday, September 7: Nations League - Northern Ireland v Norway

Thursday, October 8: Euro 2020 Qualifying Semi-Final - Bosnia and Herzegovina v Northern Ireland

Sunday, October 11: Nations League - Northern Ireland v Austria

Wednesday, October 14: Nations League - Norway v Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph