With a chill in the south Belfast air, it still only feels like spring seeping into summer, as Neil Diamond once famously suggested. However, for Northern Ireland, the visit of Greece chorused only disappointment; a bitter dawn where anticipated fervour, and a desired victory, failed to blossom.
‘Forward with Bara’ was the mantra as the Ulstermen embarked upon the first of four compressed Nations League fixtures. Consequently, the disappointment of this 1-0 defeat can barely be exaggerated. Scoring opportunities, far less goals, were woefully absent.
There comes a point when victories have to be achieved, especially against the Greeks, who are theoretically the toughest opponents in Group 2 of League C. However, with a sweep of Greece captain Anastasios Bakasetas’ right boot, Northern Ireland are unfortunately left hoarding questions.
The idea of reaching Euro 2024 via a play-off through finishing first in the group also containing Cyprus and Kosovo is a justifiable objective. The policy worked for Scotland last time around, so why not Northern Ireland? So much work now to do.
That Kosovo had recorded an impressive 2-0 win over Cyprus earlier only served to concentrate Windsor Park minds. Those of Greece, where it mattered, mainly.
The buoyant pre-match anthems from Ulster’s finest, from Van Morrison to the Undertones — ever the essential aural mix of match night at home — blared out from the speakers, with Green and White Army cadres, Canadian exiles and even the tiny wedge of Greek fans joining in.
In reality, life in League C of the Nations League might feel like the outer edge of the international scene — yet unfortunately Northern Ireland are in the melting pot with the modest Cypriots, Kosovans and Greeks for a reason. Last night did nothing to discourage the impression of a fatigued team struggling for solutions in front of goal. This competition has, despite the genuine progress made in a number of areas by the manager, slung a hex over the national side.
Baraclough spoke of a certain, yet not necessarily negative, ‘desperation’ of his young colts to make an impact with the seniors in the match programme. As such, it was another curtain call for the likes of Paddy Lane, Conor Bradley — wing backs and would-be precocious ringleaders of the future — and Shayne Lavery back up front in view of ‘house full’ signs.
The kind of loyalty which needs repaying against opposition of this calibre. In a sense, we’re still waiting.
With the attempted cosiness engendered by Uefa in their marketing of the tournament, ‘Peace’ signs ringed around the perimeter boards of Windsor as the national anthems took place.
This kind of self-promotion is relatively new, but the first home fan anthem of the night certainly wasn’t. Even in June, and nearly seven years following that halcyon night against Greece which sealed Euro 2016 qualification under buzzing Belfast lights, Steven Davis was lauded. Cap number 135 and counting for the Norn Iron captain. The Rangers midfielder was tasked, among other things, to stop the supply line to Celtic rival Giorgos Giakoumakis. The Greek striker is still making his way at international level, but his 16 goals after January were a major factor in Celts’ Premiership triumph. How Northern Ireland could use those sharp statistics.
Manager Gus Poyet, meanwhile, placed his trust in others, such as fresh Liverpool cult hero Kostas Tsimikas, to try and press the hosts. However Northern Ireland’s perennial issue — scoring — persisted in a dreary first half, save for a raking Gavin Whyte shot saved by keeper Odisseas Vlachodimos.
And amid Baraclough’s wider squad integration, these games hold so much possibility for the Cardiff City player whose effervesence is central to Northern Ireland’s hopes. It does require pointed end product.
In this sequence, the turnaround to Larnaca on Sunday is quick for the players who leave for Cyprus at lunchtime today and Baraclough needs plenty at maximum energy. Imagination and ingenuity would help, too.
Against the disciplined Greeks, there were unacceptable long stretches of lumpen predictability. And then, the insidious emergence of a gift.
The 39th minute counter-attack which saw Bakasetas drill accurately past Bailey-Peacock Farrell was a searing reminder that precision over listless jumble is the only currency.
Northern Ireland started the second half urgently enough, if sporadic in rhythm and genuine threat. The calls for Kyle Lafferty — a one-time Greek nemesis — were answered when the recalled veteran striker replaced ineffective Lavery. Could Northern Ireland’s scoring headaches be soothed by a player firing international blanks for the last six years?
Roaring with renewed, admirable, hope, the home crowd saw another substitute, Niall McGinn, denied by Vlachodimos, possibly the calmest man on the pitch.
Too many lacked the nous and craft to genuinely suppress Greece, exponents of nibbly dark arts of frustration. Additionally, Konstantinos Mavropanos was a bulwark for Poyet against speculative Lane crosses and attempts to level the game.
There is some sympathy for Baraclough, whose raft of subs, including a debut for Manchester City’s Shea Charles, in normal circumstances, appears logical. In the circumstances of an unconvincing performance, chasing a game against a limited Greece, it can look like desperation. And not of the controlled kind. Northern Ireland must now win in Cyprus.