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Jonathan Bradley of Belfast Telegraph (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Fans questioning Northern Ireland’s desire is an ominous predicament for Ian Baraclough

Jonathan Bradley


Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough attempts to get his point across in Pristina

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough attempts to get his point across in Pristina


Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough attempts to get his point across in Pristina

When Ian Baraclough was making his first steps as an assistant at Scunthorpe United more than 15 years ago, it’s unlikely that when he sat down to plot his coaching career he’d have envisaged that the Fadil Vorkrri stadium in Pristina would have represented such a significant staging post.

But as he took his Northern Ireland side in search of a first Nations League win at their 13th attempt last night, there was no denying the game had the feeling of a cross-roads.

Not one among the 500 or so travelling fans would have claimed they squeezed through the turnstiles in anticipation of one of the Green and White Army’s great nights but, after the recent run of poor results, and most crucially fan reaction to last week’s Windsor Park loss to Greece and the weekend’s draw in Cyprus, it was clear what another failure would represent.

Having bullishly targeted 12 points from these four June fixtures, the side’s play across the opening 180 minutes of this League C campaign was both disjointed and devoid of any discernible style. Lacking in both cutting edge and creative spark, the spurning of rare chances loomed all the larger.

Perhaps most damningly of all, their desire was being questioned, the idea emerging that, even in what is clearly a transitional phase for the side, they are now a group performing to a standard less than the sum of their parts.

If nerves were jangling ahead of kick-off, they will have been shredded after a mere seven minutes. So peerless has Steven Davis been in the green jersey over the course of his 137-cap, 17-year international career that having seen his skipper dive in to concede a stonewall penalty that was converted by Vedat Muriqi, Baraclough could have been forgiven for wondering if there was any new way left for things to go wrong.

After George Saville saw an effort deflected over the bar, another old stager Kyle Lafferty tried to furiously gee up his team-mates. It was only a mere 19 months ago that the Kilmarnock man was the width of a post away from seeing Baraclough join an exclusive three-member club of managers that have guided the Northern Ireland men’s team to a major finals. How long ago that must have felt as the boss stood on the touchline only able to watch as Zymer Bytyqi doubled the hosts’ lead.

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As if to emphasise both the fine margins at this level and the scarcity of goals in this side, despite the mounting pressure on the set-up, it was the first two-goal deficit Northern Ireland had faced since losing to a Switzerland team fresh off a quarter-final appearance at the Euros in October of last year.

Though the lack of recent positives acts as a considerable qualifier, this was actually a markedly improved performance with the potential to see a few building blocks among the rubble.

While Glentoran’s Conor McMenamin provided the most consistent attacking spark down the left side, the visitors’ goal just before half-time was the product of an incisive pass from 22-year-old Daniel Ballard, a teasing cross from 18-year-old Brodie Spencer and a brave finish at the back post from Shayne Lavery, the Blackpool man the veteran of the trio at only 23.

But any hope that the timely header could prove a turning point in the short-term was eradicated when, again only seven minutes into the half, Muriqi bagged his second to restore a supremely tidy Kosovo side’s cushion.

Ballard's powerful late header saw their hopes of a result raised from the dead and, ahead of Sunday’s return to Windsor Park and another opportunity to put lowly Cyprus to the sword, many will be wondering if the late flurry and improved performance can do the same for the Baraclough era.

Those in the corridors of power at the Irish FA have remained staunchly loyal to their managers down the years, the last sacking coming with the dismissal of Bryan Hamilton all the way back in 1998, even if there is a sense that some who departed since jumped before they were pushed.

Such backing was famously rewarded when Michael O’Neill survived the side’s worst ever result when losing to Luxembourg only to go on to etch his name in the country’s footballing history on the way to France 2016.

With the ink barely dry on the two-year extension Baraclough signed in December of last year, how the fans respond this weekend could speak volumes. Should they be given more reason to voice their displeasure and readily take the opportunity to do so, or worse still vote with their feet, the writing will be on the wall.

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