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Mark Sykes: Ian Baraclough can succeed in top Northern Ireland job and I'm determined to get that first cap

 

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Mark Sykes could link up with Ian Baraclough once again at senior Northern Ireland level.

Mark Sykes could link up with Ian Baraclough once again at senior Northern Ireland level.

PMAKER

Mark Sykes endured a strange start to the season.

Mark Sykes endured a strange start to the season.

Getty Images

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Mark Sykes could link up with Ian Baraclough once again at senior Northern Ireland level.

Confidence is not in short supply in Mark Sykes' locker.

Not to be confused with cockiness, the Oxford United midfielder rather possesses a grounded belief in ability.

That's true for both his own and his former manager's potential to move up the ladder.

Sykes was the headline call-up in Michael O'Neill's panel for the Euro 2020 play-offs, handed the opportunity to earn a senior debut with the highest of stakes.

By the time the postponed games actually roll round, perhaps as late as March 2021, it's likely to be under a new boss.

Current Under 21 chief Ian Baraclough is understood to be favourite to step into the role, and Sykes, who was a stalwart in his underage side that came within a whisker of qualification for the European finals, has no doubts over the Englishman's capability to take the top job.

"He'd be more than good enough," the 22-year-old said.

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"I really enjoyed playing under him. The one thing I always noticed was his professionalism. It spread throughout the team and gave us belief.

"Even after we won in Spain, which was such a big result, we were allowed just one drink. At the time we were looking forward to celebrating but looking back now, it's obvious it wouldn't have done us any good."

Baraclough's insistence on team etiquette is summed up by a simple, if frank, sign he is known to put up in the dressing room: 'No d**kheads'.

"I got done for that at one point," laughs Sykes. "I wrote one of the kitmen's names underneath it as a joke but Ian got us in a circle at training. I had to own up and got my punishment.

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Sykes trained with the Northern Ireland squad last year.

Sykes trained with the Northern Ireland squad last year.

PMAKER

Sykes trained with the Northern Ireland squad last year.

 

"He's absolutely right. The best teams have the best changing rooms and you can't have any bad eggs in there at all.

"That's exactly the way it should be and when you have that, everybody thrives."

That one can be chalked down to a learning experience - one of many in any professional's career.

Another, perhaps more significant, explains the rather confusing story of Sykes' start to the 19/20 campaign.

He had moved to League One side Oxford from Glenavon in Januay last year and didn't take long to earn a starting spot before the end of the season.

Fast forward to the start of the new term and after 12 league outings, he was yet to play a single minute. Just what had gone wrong?

"The manager had told me before pre-season that I was one of the players that he was most excited about," begins Sykes, who has stayed in England to see out the coronavirus lockdown and keep pregnant girlfriend Courtney at minimum risk of infection.

"We played Rangers in the first game of pre-season and I came on at half-time. I must have been on about a minute, went into a tackle and hit my toe. It ended up being bruising on the bone but I didn't tell the boss (Karl Robinson) about it and played on. Looking back now, I know I didn't do myself any favours. I was holding back on everything.

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Mark Sykes endured a strange start to the season.

Mark Sykes endured a strange start to the season.

Getty Images

Mark Sykes endured a strange start to the season.

 

"The manager asked me to go on loan but I knew I was good enough.

"It was only then that I told him about the injury. I just didn't want to be making excuses or blaming something else for poor form.

"Once my foot recovered, my performances were getting better, I got the chance and I took it. I'm glad I was able to prove myself right.

"I know now, if I was ever to pick up a knock, I'll not be just trying to play on through it."

Since then, Sykes' career has been firmly back on track.

The turning point came in late September, introduced as an early substitute before setting up two goals in a stunning 4-0 win over a West Ham side featuring the likes of Jack Wilshere and Pablo Zabaleta.

"The manager turned round and I thought he was going to ask (Liverpool loanee) Ben Woodburn to come on," he says.

"It took me by surprise but I knew that was my chance to prove everyone wrong. I didn't have any fear, just played my game and made those assists."

More big cup draws have allowed Sykes a substitute appearance against Manchester City and two starts against Newcastle, including the extra-time replay defeat that had social media drooling over his quick turn to bamboozle an entire Premier League midfield.

"That came up all over social media but it was just on instinct," he says. "There was no pass on so I had to do something. It was off the cuff.

 

"Everyone was saying I had played well but when I watched it back, I was quite critical of myself. I'll take the plaudits when they come.

"It's mad how much things have changed since the start of the season.

"It's all flipped on his head and I'm thankful for that. Dear knows where I'd be now if things hadn't changed for me.

"I need to keep doing more though. This is my first full season and I know I need to improve."

There's plenty of time for club progress - the next goal is securing that first Northern Ireland cap, no matter who's in charge.

One thing's for certain, confidence won't be an issue.

"I've loved getting to train with the squad any time I've done it so far," he says with evident excitement. "If I was ever to get a chance, I know I could do well.

"It's what whoever's in charge believes that is the most important thing though. Northern Ireland have been doing so well but if they need something different, then I'll always be ready."


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