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Northern Ireland's confidence that we can play our way to Qatar hasn't wavered, insists Baraclough

International chief counting down to March's opening World Cup qualifiers

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Tough spell: Ian Baraclough has endured a tricky start as Northern Ireland manager

Tough spell: Ian Baraclough has endured a tricky start as Northern Ireland manager

PA

Tough spell: Ian Baraclough has endured a tricky start as Northern Ireland manager

Euro 2020 is done and dusted for Northern Ireland. So too this year's Nations League. For Ian Baraclough, it is all about World Cup 2022 now.

The qualifying draw for that is next month and the group games will begin in March as Baraclough's whirlwind start as boss continues with another triple header. No Northern Ireland manager has led the team through so many games in such a short space of time.

So far there has been one major high, beating Bosnia and Herzegovina in a penalty shoot-out in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final, but the lows have outnumbered that, with a hugely disappointing home defeat to Slovakia in the play-off decider and a poor Nations League campaign with two draws and four defeats and relegation from the second tier of the competition.

Quizzed on how he reflected on his first six months in charge, having taken over from Michael O'Neill in June in the middle of a global pandemic, Baraclough said: "I've enjoyed my time so far. I knew it was going to be a big ask.

"I knew the games would come thick and fast, the triple headers were going to stretch us as a squad of players, so we have to get the balance right going into March.

"The players know what to expect, and hopefully going into March we are in a better place as a society and as a world dealing with Covid.

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"It's been a big ask on players; what they'd normally do has not been the norm, and to come out of those three months with no cases of Covid, we've done the right things, and players would normally come back to Belfast and spend time with their families, spend time away from the hotel, have a walk into Belfast - they haven't done any of that, which is what they enjoy when they are over here.

"There could have been a real feeling of frustration but they haven't let it get to them, and that's all credit to them."

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Upcoming star: Ali McCann’s performances were a major positive of the international window

Upcoming star: Ali McCann’s performances were a major positive of the international window

William Cherry/Presseye

Upcoming star: Ali McCann’s performances were a major positive of the international window

 

In his short reign to date, Baraclough has shown he is not one to hit out at his team, despite individual errors that have cost them dear. Following Wednesday's 1-1 Nations League draw versus Romania, when another preventable late goal was conceded by the home side, he stated it was on him because of switches he made in the latter stages.

"I'll take responsibility for that. I wanted to change things around. We were very inexperienced towards the end. Five players 24 and under on the pitch, and for us as a group to go forward, that is important to give game time to those players and let them learn in tough situations," said Baraclough. "We are going to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. I think we have just been punished for it."

So, he has hope for the World Cup?

"Why wouldn't I?" was the reply, even though the team have lost four and drawn one of their last five matches.

"I'll take that on the chin. You can throw all the criticism you like at me but I'm blooding players, and I'm seeing things from Ali McCann, Daniel Ballard and giving Ethan Galbraith 15 to 20 minutes. These lads have got to learn in a tough environment.

"I'm very happy with what I've seen from a lot of players over the last couple of months."

"Michael (O'Neill) experimented in his time in the Nations League and we had to look at different things this time. I'm not saying older players are looking to be shipped out.

"We will go again in March and the players that we have know they have every chance of going again, but at some stage young players are going to have to come through and you have to give them game time, and I think the Nations League is probably a competition where you are best doing that," added Baraclough, who remains confident none of his senior players will retire from international duty.


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