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Northern Ireland can have a memorable 2021, insists manager Ian Baraclough

We have the players and desire to enjoy success is Baraclough's message to fans


Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough

William Cherry/Presseye

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough has sent a pre-Christmas message to the Green and White Army insisting that 2021 could be a memorable year for the players and fans for all the right reasons.

Approaching the end of 2020, Northern Ireland supporters will reflect on this year as the one in which crowd favourite Michael O'Neill left the manager's position to focus on Stoke City, Baraclough took over and despite a historic penalty shoot-out win in Bosnia, the team lost the Euro play-off final at home to Slovakia. There was also a disappointing Nations League campaign, collecting just two points from six fixtures and finishing bottom of a group containing Austria, Norway and Romania.

That 2-1 defeat at Windsor last month to the Slovakians was the most crushing blow to Baraclough and all connected with the side but they will have the chance to put that behind them in March when the World Cup qualifiers begin with a trip to Italy and meeting in Belfast with Bulgaria.

The corresponding fixtures and clashes home and away against Lithuania and Switzerland in Group C will also take place in 2021 with the table toppers making it to the 2022 finals in Qatar and the runners-up earning a play-off.

Baraclough has endured a baptism of fire since replacing O'Neill with eight matches coming in three months but has been encouraged by signs of progress ahead of the World Cup games.

"The matches came thick and fast so there wasn't much time to breathe. I thought, bar the Norway game at home in the Nations League, we were very competitive and got better as we progressed through the fixtures," said the manager.

"Yes, we were very disappointed to lose to Slovakia but on the night I felt we were the better team. The Nations League games after that could have been very difficult but away to Austria and at home to Romania I thought we were excellent and that is encouraging going forward.

"Obviously we have tough fixtures coming up in 2021 but I believe we have the players and the desire to approach the new year in a positive manner and we have to believe that it could turn out to be a really memorable year for us.

"I know the players, staff and myself will give everything to make it a success."

Belfast Telegraph