Sykes and rest of U21 stars can kick on towards Northern Ireland senior squad, vows Baraclough
Northern Ireland under-21 manager Ian Baraclough has challenged his heroic youngsters to keep their standards up and become fixtures in Michael O'Neill's senior team.
Baraclough's boys did not make the play-offs for the 2019 European Championships but ended their exciting qualifying campaign on a high last night with a 1-0 victory against Slovakia at Windsor Park.
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Mark Sykes netted a second half winner to move Northern Ireland into second place in their group but with results going against them in other groups they didn't achieve the required target of being one of the top four runners-up in the nine groups to earn a play-off spot.
Baraclough was still proud of his squad having performed superbly, collecting six wins out of 10 in the campaign. He was delighted they ended with a successful evening at Windsor Park.
"The boys handled the pressure at Windsor Park which was fantastic to see," said Baraclough, who is in talks with the IFA about a new contract.
"There was a group of players in the squad who have been with the under-21s for a couple of campaigns and I thought they deserved to play at Windsor after the campaign they have had.
"It was fitting that they got a win in their last game under the lights at Windsor and now I have challenged them to come back to the stadium with the seniors.
"Michael O'Neill has shown that he will give young players a chance and it is up to them to keep their standards up and shine if an opportunity comes their way."
Baraclough added that he feels Glenavon midfielder and goalscoring hero Sykes has the capabilities of playing full-time football.
"Mark has a great habit of going into the box at the right time. He is the next one playing in the Irish League that people are looking at," said the former Motherwell boss.
Glenavon FC star and Northern Ireland U21 hero Mark Sykes reflects on his goal-scoring display against Slovakia and playing in front of a friendly crowd at Linfield's Windsor Park for a change... 💚⚪️Posted by Belfast Telegraph Sport on Tuesday, October 16, 2018
"Mark has to go back to his club now and keep his standards high. I know there are one or two clubs that have been watching him and I've been getting phone calls about him. But he's not the only one."
On finishing second in their group behind Spain but not making the play-offs, Baraclough said: "While it is disappointing we didn't get into the play-offs, finishing second in a difficult group was a great achievement for the lads.
"The fans at Windsor Park for the game will go away thinking the country has a good crop of youngsters coming through.
"When I took the job and got the interview the first question to me was 'why do you want this job because we don't win games of football at this level?' For me it was a challenge and I knew there was good quality lads at under-21 level.
"I never shirk a challenge."