Northern Ireland Under 21s won't shut up shop against Spain's La Liga stars, vows boss
Northern Ireland's young guns will host one of the best Under-21 sides on the planet on Thursday night but manager Ian Baraclough has assured the fans he will not park the bus against a Spanish side boasting numerous La Liga stars.
Baraclough has proved an excellent appointment since taking over last year, leading Northern Ireland to three wins and a draw in their opening five European Championship qualifiers.
That set of results has placed them just two points behind Group Two leaders Spain, who should have gifted kids from Real Madrid, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao in their ranks at Shamrock Park this week.
If Northern Ireland win, they will top the group with four games left.
Stay there and they would make history and qualify for next year's finals in Italy.
The four runners-up with the best records from the nine groups enter play-offs so the upcoming double header against Spain and Iceland on Monday in Coleraine offers Baraclough's side - who dined with their senior counterparts at the Culloden Hotel last night - an opportunity to put themselves in a strong position.
Ahead of the biggest Under-21 game for Northern Ireland in years, Baraclough set the scene, saying: "Spain are top seeds in the group, they have played four and won four and were runners-up in last year's finals, narrowly beaten by Germany.
"We are sitting second in the group and go into the game with a positivity that we can get a result.
"You want to pit your wits against the best and there's no doubt Spain are one of the best teams in this competition.
"Most of their players are playing in La Liga. My players are from the Championship at the highest and down to League One, League Two and the Irish League. This game is great for them. We are trying to instil into our players to have no fear.
"We are at home and I have players who want to go forward and want to attack. I'm an attack-minded coach and I can tell you now we won't put 11 men behind the ball and camp 20 yards from our goal.
"For me, if you go down, you go down fighting. The players want to play with an attacking style and want to get on the ball. We have some quick players who can hurt teams and we want to give the Spanish back four a test."
Asked what an unlikely qualification would mean to Northern Ireland, Baraclough said: "That would be utopia for us. It's a long way off.
"We've already surpassed what expectations there are but I don't want the players to rest on their laurels. They have to keep setting the bar higher and we want to create history."
One Northern Ireland Under-21 player has already been in the spotlight this month with QPR's Paul Smyth unwittingly mentioned during frank exchanges between Northern Ireland and Republic senior bosses Michael and Martin O'Neill.
The ex-Linfield winger is said to be on the FAI's radar though the elder O'Neill says he would only speak to the talented 20-year-old if he declared an interest in switching allegiance, which, as a northern-born footballer, he is allowed to do under Fifa rules.
On that issue, Baraclough said: "Paul Smyth is a Northern Ireland player. He is an integral part of the Under-21s and Michael (O'Neill) likes him a lot. Paul feels very much at home here and he is fully committed.
"Paul is a shining light for everyone who is playing over here. He was in the Linfield team and was one of the mainstays of last season's success for them and he got his move.
"He has put his head down and worked really, really hard at QPR and I know the manager and coaching staff there and they tell me how much he is valued."
U21 squad: Conor Mitchell (Burnley), Bailey Peacock-Farrell (Leeds), Cameron Dummigan (Oldham), Conor McDermott (Derry City), Josh Doherty (Crawley), Bobby Burns (Glenavon), Liam Donnelly (Hartlepool), Ryan Johnson (Nuneaton Town, on loan from Stevenage), Ben Hall (Notts County), Chris Paul (QPR), Mark McKee (Stevenage), Dale Gorman (Stevenage), Jordan Thompson (Livingston, on loan from Rangers), Kyle McClean (St Johnstone), Mark Sykes (Glenavon), Ciaron Harkin (Coleraine), Jamie McDonagh (Derry City), Gavin Whyte (Crusaders), Paul Smyth (QPR), Jamie McGonigle (Coleraine), Shayne Lavery (Everton), Ben Kennedy (Stevenage)