Ian Baraclough and Northern Ireland can’t say they weren’t warned about Todor Nedelev.
Just a few days ago, former Northern Ireland striker Warren Feeney, currently managing in Bulgaria’s top league with OFC Pirin Blagoevgrad, revealed the player who would be the greatest threat to Baraclough’s hopes of winning in Sofia.
“Their best player didn’t play in Belfast,” Feeney told Sunday Life Sport.
“Nedelev is a super midfielder, but he’s not going to run all over the pitch for you.
“He is a technically gifted player who can open teams and Northern Ireland will need to be careful.”
Those words from Feeney, a man currently immersed in Bulgarian football, proved to be so apt.
Northern Ireland failed to get tight to their man on two occasions and as a result, two strikes of his left foot and Nedelev had scored the goals to condemn Baraclough and co. to their third defeat of the group.
Last month, following victory over Lithuania and a home draw with Switzerland, there were genuine aspirations of finishing second and a play-off spot.
After tonight’s result in Sofia, a 2-1 defeat, Northern Ireland will be lucky to finish at their ranking, third in the group.
It didn’t need to be this way, they had the ascendancy from the first half, the goal up and they looked assured. In fact, only for poor finishing and the goalkeeping of Ivan Karadzhov, the men in white would have been three or four goals up.
This was far from the brilliant Bulgarian team of the past when Hristo Stoichkov, Trifon Ivanov, Iordan Letchkov and Emil Kostadinov were lighting up the world stage — indeed Yasen Petrov’s men were surprisingly beaten 3-1 by Lithuania on Saturday.
But Northern Ireland couldn’t handle the Bulgarian second-half onslaught.
After such an earnest and forthright first half from Northern Ireland, their response was to crawl into their shell.
It appeared manager Baraclough was caught out.
His opposite number Petrov made a change at the interval and reworked their style.
The senior Northern Ireland players on the pitch should have shown great leadership by making the necessary changes, but that didn’t happen.
Of course, it should be stated that this was a severely depleted Northern Ireland side.
Baraclough was already without Jonny and Corry Evans, Michael Smith, Ali McCann and Shayne Lavery, before Jamal Lewis was suspended and arguably Northern Ireland’s best player in the last 18 months, Stuart Dallas wasn’t fit enough to start the match while midfielder George Saville was ruled out altogether with a knee injury.
Throw in the fact there are players performing down the divisions, some aren’t getting game time and 18-year-old Conor Bradley was making his first ever international start
Northern Ireland though showed enough promise, endeavour and ingenuity in the first half to win the game.
Indeed, their only crime throughout the opening 45 minutes was not being clinical enough.
Paddy McNair, Conor Washington and Josh Magennis all missed glorious opportunities before VAR came to their aid with their goal.
At least, unlike in the last two matches against the Swiss, Northern Ireland were able to create genuine chances.
Jordan Thompson showed why Michael O’Neill was so keen to bring him to Stoke City, Paddy McNair was marauding forward with intent, Shane Ferguson’s crosses were threatening while Conor Washington and Josh Magennis were complimenting each other in attack and making life difficult for the Bulgarian defence.
This game should have been remembered as the night youngster Bradley, playing at right wing back, came of age in international football. His break out performance.
He showed plenty of energy, maturity and a willingness to get involved in everything that was good about Northern Ireland football in the first half.
The Liverpool teenager defended well, showed some nice touches, won his headers, made some good runs and wasn’t afraid to drop his shoulder and beat his man.
In the second-half, he struggled like the rest of his team-mates as the Bulgarians laid siege on the Northern Ireland defence.
Bulgaria were rattled at the end of the first, they felt an injustice over the whistle not being blown when they had a man down in the box and Northern Ireland ended up scoring.
However, rather than Northern Ireland twisting the knife, they were pinned back and Bulgaria fully deserved their two goals.
Baraclough’s men failed to keep their shape, composure and when they did manage to go over the half way line they either lost possession, wasted their efforts from set pieces or lacked penetration.
Bulgaria were using the ball well, winning their personal battles and creating space in the Northern Ireland backline. They were also first to the second balls.
Even bringing on Dallas failed to spark Northern Ireland into life.
Baraclough and his players failed to find the answers.
Ahead of this international window when there was so much optimism around Baraclough’s team, it was also most certain the Englishman would be offered a new contract to lead Northern Ireland into the next Nations League and Euro qualifiers when the Irish FA Board meet in the next few weeks.
Suddenly, a new deal may no longer be nailed on and there could be further conversations.
That’s the quick cycle of football, but in reality, Baraclough may still be their only decent option as it is certainly less attractive than when Michael O’Neill left.
However, Baraclough, after 18 matches, has still won more matches than O’Neill at the same stage — four compared to one. But we know Baraclough is not O’Neill and it’s a record he certainly shouldn’t shout about.
Baraclough’s remit was to bring the young players through with the team in transition, but also ensure there were enough victories in the process.
Lithuania and Italy are next for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park next month and even though there is now nothing really at stake apart from pride, Baraclough may possibly need these matches to fight for survival.