Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough always knew the brutal Nations League programme in June was going to shine an unforgiving light on his squad depth but now he’s so close to the hectic summer schedule, he’s lashed out at the physical demands on players.
Managers including Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp and Manchester City chief Pep Guardiola have sounded alarm bells around player burnout, with their concerns focused on fatigue and an increased risk of injury.
After another long, hard season, some players would be grateful for a rest in June but Baraclough’s squad are facing four matches in 11 days.
The international triple-headers were tough, but this is a more daunting prospect, particularly for a Northern Ireland manager who has needed to cast the net far and wide in a bid to expand his player pool.
There will be opportunities for young players to make the step up but Baraclough also needs his experienced players to guide them and he’s without Stuart Dallas through injury.
The demanding programme begins with a home game against Greece on Thursday night before facing Cyprus away three days later.
Baraclough’s side then face another away fixture, against Kosovo, on Thursday, June 9 before their fourth fixture, at home to Cyprus three days later.
Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive Maheta Molango has warned football is “sleep-walking into a crisis” due to the demands put on players by an unrelenting schedule.
Liverpool forwards Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are each set to play in their 70th match of the season in tonight’s Champions League final.
Some of Baraclough’s key men, such as Steven Davis and Jonny Evans, haven’t featured as much as they would have liked this season but the former Motherwell boss still believes the Nations League programme does nothing to allay the fears that players’ physical and mental health will take a battering.
And as he announced his squad for the quadruple showdown yesterday, Baraclough claimed it was “the biggest test of my tenure so far”.
“We’ve spoken about the number of games and it’s a concern,” he argued. “The chief executive of the PFA said that 88% of their members had expressed concerns about long-term harm through injury or fatigue.
“I didn’t play international football and it’s a massive ask for players on top of club commitments.
“Something has to give whether it’s player rest or their bodies. Players need a break.
“The pandemic impacted on the game, at international level we’ve had triple-headers and they are now asking us to play four games in 11 days after two seasons which were pretty much back-to-back as there was little rest between them.
“Sometimes we have to listen to the managers’ concerns and be strong about it.”
Baraclough is encouraged by the commitment shown from the players who wanted to be involved in these summer tests but he was always facing an uphill fight in terms of availability.
“I’ve got to say that the demands on the players are, as Jurgen Klopp said a few weeks ago, ridiculous,” he continued.
“They are asked at the end of a long season to go into a Nations League programme and play four games. Only Uefa and Fifa can answer those questions and for the smaller nations, yes, it’s a stretch. You are asking players to go to the well again and you are seeing more injuries through fatigue which is a shame. It will dilute the quality of these competitions.
“I see Jordan Henderson has taken a rest with England but they can cope with a player like him taking a rest while nations like ourselves can’t.
“So the impact on us is greater. These players want to experience international football and it’s great for the younger players. They will want to be part of a Euros campaign and if they can have a few caps under their belt it will put us in a better situation because you do get injuries and players who won’t be here all the time.
“We have nine or 10 potential players who could be in the squad that are out so others have opportunities.
“It’s a massive test, I’m referring to it as the biggest test of my tenure so far in how to manage game time and bring young players through.”
The new call-ups are Glentoran winger Conor McMenamin, Huddersfield Town defender Brodie Spencer, Manchester City midfielder Shea Charles and Rangers midfielder Charlie McCann.
Striker Kyle Lafferty returns after impressing for Kilmarnock but Hearts pair Liam Boyce and Michael Smith have once again made themselves unavailable for selection.
Glenavon’s Josh Clarke is among the goalkeepers and while captain Davis and experienced defender Evans are included, Craig Cathcart and Corry Evans are out of what is a youthful 28-man panel.
“Let’s not discredit the opposition, Greece will be a massive test at Windsor Park and then we must face Cyprus and Kosovo in the heat,” added Baraclough.
“We will need the experienced players to help get us through it but this number of games in a short period is a different challenge. The older guys will guide the younger ones through and we want good results and strong performances.
“We’ve been working towards expanding the player pool. I’ve been in charge for nearly two years and many players have made their debuts and been called up for the first time.
“We have 13 players who have five caps or less and they could go on to have longer international careers.
“Nine players who could potentially be playing for the Under-21s are in this squad and we have six who haven’t been capped at all.
“It’s a real mix of youth and experience.”