Belfast Telegraph

Baraclough's Under-21s are showing long-term future is bright despite earlier doubts

 

By Steven Beacom

It was back in March this year that Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill admitted the one element of his job that gave him sleepless nights was the 'search for younger players'.

Making the valid point that the current crop of heroic senior internationals could not go on forever, O'Neill said: "We do not have enough young players playing first-team football higher than League One level. That's a huge jump to ask those players to come from that level of football to play at international level.

"We can't expect our current players to go on forever and we will lose a few after this campaign. There will be a transition after that, but you can only pick what you have and we have worked very hard at under-age levels to find players."

It was O'Neill's way of telling expectant supporters that the glory days they are enjoying now won't last forever, and there will come a time when patience is required while Northern Ireland build another side capable of competing for a place in major tournaments.

Wise words from a man who takes a greater interest in what is going on at under-age level than any previous boss.

Perhaps, though, O'Neill can sleep a little easier now because the Northern Ireland U21 side are suddenly showing form, promise and making progress.

There's still a long way to go for Ian Baraclough's youngsters to graduate to the senior ranks, but results of late have outlined that the new manager has injected some tenacity to go with the talent at that level.

On Tuesday, Northern Ireland's U21 side jumped to the top of the 2019 European Championship qualifying table with a 4-2 victory over Estonia at Mourneview Park.

It was a highly impressive performance from the Northern Ireland kids. They showed character to come from behind and class with superbly taken goals from Dale Gorman and Mark Sykes.

It was their third win in four group games. Good going considering before Baraclough arrived the team struggled to record any positive results.

Spain are expected to qualify as top dogs from the group, but if Northern Ireland emerge as one of the four best runners-up from the nine sections they will be in the play-offs.

What a boost that would be for this group of young guns.

Goalkeeper Conor Mitchell is a fine shot-stopper, and with more experience will hopefully learn to command his box, while at the back Liam Donnelly and Ryan Johnson provide leadership. Further forward, Ben Kennedy and Jordan Thompson have something about them.

There was a decent crowd in Lurgan cheering the lads on, though the dream ticket is for these players to be performing in front of packed houses at Windsor.

Few play for big clubs, and some like Sykes are in the Irish League, but that can change if they continue to put in the type of displays evident on Tuesday evening.

Baraclough has stated that his Under-21 players are being inspired by O'Neill's heroes, but he will be aware that they have to deliver for themselves and develop quickly; knowing full well his job is to prepare the young guns for a shot at the big time.

Don't go booking for the 2026 World Cup just yet, but be aware the long-term future looked a little brighter at Mourneview Park.

The Lurgan-born right-back was at Cliftonville and Burnley as a teenager and is now making inroads at Oldham. He has enough in his game to play at a higher level.

The midfielder spent four years in the Manchester United Academy. Now with his boyhood club Rangers, Thompson feels he can kick on and become a key player for the Ibrox outfit in the future.

The gifted winger joined QPR in the summer from Linfield and is determined to make a big impression at Loftus Road. If he can make the grade at QPR his confidence will soar.

Three young guns to watch

Cameron Dummigan

The Lurgan-born right-back was at Cliftonville and Burnley as a teenager and is now making inroads at Oldham. He has enough in his game to play at a higher level.

Jordan Thompson

The midfielder spent four years in the Manchester United Academy. Now with his boyhood club Rangers, Thompson feels he can kick on and become a key player for the Ibrox outfit in the future.

Paul Smyth

The gifted winger joined QPR in the summer from Linfield and is determined to make a big impression at Loftus Road. If he can make the grade at QPR his confidence will soar.

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