Kosovo 3 Northern Ireland 2
The Northern Ireland performances and results under Ian Baraclough go from bad to worse to woeful. This was pathetic in Pristina. As embarrassing as it was humiliating.
The 2022 Nations League campaign started with a damaging defeat at home to Greece and a dismal draw away to minnows Cyprus and then came this new low in being outclassed 3-2 by Kosovo.
Don’t let the scoreline or a flurry at the finish — when Daniel Ballard added to Shayne Lavery’s first half goal — fool you. Kosovo were far better, scoring twice through Vedat Muriqi and Zymer Bytyqi.
They are ranked 107th on the football planet yet were allowed to look like world beaters for long periods last night.
It was a horror show. Totally and utterly unacceptable and Baraclough has to carry the can for that.
On the eve of this League C Group 2 clash, Baraclough insisted he was still the man to take the nation forward. Not on this evidence. Northern Ireland are going backwards fast.
There were 500 Northern Ireland supporters inside the Fadil Vorkrri stadium in Pristina and they gave their verdict on the manager in no uncertain terms at the final whistle, waving goodbye to him as he left the pitch and then singing ‘Cheerio, Cheerio, Cheerio’.
There had been boos after the Greece and Cyprus calamities but this was a clear indication that they had lost complete faith in the boss.
They turned on the manager in Kosovo and the message was clear to the Irish FA: “We want Baraclough out”.
Whether the IFA will bow to those demands, time will tell but should Northern Ireland fail to beat Cyprus at Windsor Park on Sunday in the final match in this international window, there could be a toxic atmosphere in the national stadium and the powers that be will have a huge decision to make ahead of the next Nations League games in September with the Euro 2024 qualifiers starting in March of next year .
With Greece beating Cyprus to move to nine points from nine, Northern Ireland are now eight points behind them halfway through the series. Bear in mind Baraclough’s side are top seeds in this group.
Prior to the quadruple header, the manager commented that the Nations League encounters were vital as they gave the team a chance to top the table and land a play-off place for the Euro 2024 finals.
Maybe he knew what was coming in Pristina because in his pre-match press conference he was saying the time to judge him was after the Euro 2024 qualifiers, which is when the extended contract the Irish FA gave him last year runs out.
With how the team is performing right now, he doesn’t deserve the chance to see it through.
It should be pointed out Baraclough, as he has often said himself over the past week, has been missing key players like Stuart Dallas, Craig Cathcart, Corry Evans, Josh Magennis and a few others but he has still had enough quality, in a squad mixed with youth and experience, to deliver much better results.
The manager had made four changes to his starting line up from Greece to Cyprus, and from Cyprus to Kosovo it was five with Glentoran’s Conor McMenamin and Huddersfield’s Brodie Spencer earning first starts after lively cameos from the bench in Larnaca. Daniel Ballard returned in defence alongside Jonny Evans, Ciaron Brown and Spencer in a four- man backline.
Captain Steven Davis, earning his 137th cap and playing in his 99th competitive international, anchored the midfield with George Saville with Ali McCann ahead of them. In attack, Shayne Lavery and McMenamin flanked Kyle Lafferty. Piano playing Bailey Peacock-Farrell was in goal, while Paddy McNair was out of the squad altogether due to injury.
Both sets of fans were creating a raucous atmosphere up until the ninth minute when the visiting supporters fell silent as the home side took the lead from the spot through Mallorca’s Muriqi.
It was Davis who conceded the penalty with the Rangers midfielder taking down Norwich’s Milot Rashica just inside the box. There were no complaints as Muriqi stepped up to net with aplomb.
Not the start Baraclough wanted although he will have been heartened by the response that saw his team drive forward with a fine move which ended with Saville’s shot deflecting over.
The big problem for those in white shirts was that every time Kosovo attacked they looked a threat and, on 19 minutes, they doubled their lead when Bytyqi edged in front of Spencer and brilliantly volleyed the outstanding Rashica’s cross into the net.
The stadium was rocking. Baraclough’s team were shocking. They were being carved open at will. But for Peacock-Farrell, Kosovo could have been out of sight by the break.
The Northern Ireland players were failing to close down the opposition time after time. The Kosovo footballers are heroes in their homeland but they didn’t expect to be given the freedom of Pristina last night.
There were few positives for Baraclough, though one came in the shape of McMenamin who had the beating of his marker on the left flank but without the delivery to cause problems in the box.
From the other wing, Spencer produced a cr oss that did just that, offering Lavery the chance to show his desire to head in at the back post on 45 minutes.
The Blackpool striker had given his team and manager a lifeline seconds before the break.
After three matches of going back to the days of Northern Ireland nil, a goal had been scored. Now what was required was a comeback.
Instead, Kosovo moved up the gears to restore their two goal advantage on 52 minutes, ripping the visitors to shreds before Muriqi grabbed his second.
With 67 gone, on came Gavin Whyte, Dion Charles and Shea Charles. Jordan Thompson made his entrance shortly after and started to make the team tick.
From his wonderfully flighted free-kick on 84 minutes, Ballard powered in a header to set up a rousing finish.
Suddenly Northern Ireland were powering forward. McMenamin was crowded out by a defender, Ballard header wide and then McMenamin looped over from close range only to be waved offside.
Conor Bradley was also used in the dying stages from the bench as Baraclough’s side pushed on. It had that too little, too late feel about it with Kosovo deservedly running out winners in the end.
For the record, it’s now played 13 for Northern Ireland in the Nations League, won NONE, lost TEN and drawn three.
Michael O’Neill was in charge for four of the above but the rest are on his successor and right now the supporters want him out.