Belfast Telegraph

Friendly will set U21s up for Spanish test, insists Baraclough

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland Under-21 manager Ian Baraclough feels tonight's friendly in Luxembourg will be a major learning exercise for his youngsters ahead of next week's Euro qualifier with Spain.

Absentees due to injury, suspension and Oxford United winger Gavin Whyte being called into the senior international squad mean that Baraclough has chosen his youngest squad since coming into the role in May last year.

In that time, Baraclough has performed admirably, leading the side to several victories which have given the Northern Ireland players a chance to qualify for the 2019 European Championship finals.

They are currently third in Group Two with three games left, knowing they must finish runners-up to have an opportunity of reaching the play-offs.

The qualifier in Spain next Tuesday promises to be the toughest test under Baraclough given they have six wins out of six with 19 goals scored and are coasting to top spot in the group, which provides automatic qualification to the finals.

Even for experienced players facing the Spanish on their home turf would be quite a difficult proposition, but Baraclough has five new players in his Under-21 squad who may all play this evening in Luxembourg to give them a taste of international football at this level.

The quintet are Glentoran full-back Nathan Kerr, Derry City striker Alistair Roy, Doncaster defender Danny Amos, Arsenal's Daniel Ballard and Notts County ace Pierce Bird.

"We have had players drop out with injuries and Gavin was a late call-up for the senior squad, so we have had to contend with that," said Baraclough.

"We have 10 players out of our squad of 20 who are eligible to play in the next qualifying campaign.

"It's a young group. It's actually the youngest group that I have had.

"It's massively important going into the Spain game to give the young boys some international experience and that's why we have the Luxembourg friendly before the Euro qualifier.

"We appreciate moving on to play Spain is going to be a big challenge for them and these lads are getting exposure to the Under-21s probably before time but it's about bringing them through and hopefully they will progress."

Coleraine hero Jamie McGonigle joined up with the squad after his double strike helped defeat Crusaders 3-0 in the Irish League on Monday, taking the Bannsiders to the top of the table on goal difference above Linfield.

Even far away in Luxembourg, Baraclough was keeping a close eye on the Showgrounds star.

"The match was on Sky Sports and we watched it," added the Northern Ireland Under-21 boss.

"The staff and some of the players gathered around and Jamie McGonigle did superbly well, scoring two fine goals.

"In the end I was glad Jamie was a late call-up because it enabled him to play that game for Coleraine and he was brilliant.

"He has come into the squad and is full of life, which is great to see."

Coleraine, now on top of the Danske Bank Premiership, knocked back a substantial bid from Crusaders to hold onto their star striker. Tonight's friendly kicks off at 7.30pm.

Belfast Telegraph

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