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Bosnia defeat would cost Northern Ireland more than just a place in the European Championships

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Jonny Evans

Jonny Evans

William Cherry/Presseye

Jonny Evans

It may seem an exaggeration to classify Northern Ireland's Euro Play-Off clash in Zenica next month as a battle for survival.

Yet should Ian Baraclough's men succumb to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the pitfalls are ominous.

The overall prize is great - a place at next summer's European Championship finals, Covid-19 restrictions permitting.

But a loss in either the Play-Off semi-final or final, which would take place at Windsor Park in November should Northern Ireland conquer Bosnia, could have far-reaching consequences, akin to a team being relegated.

Senior international players, especially those now considered squad members, would seriously question their future with the team and it has been mooted those experienced campaigners well into their 30s will bid farewell to the international arena.

Skipper Steven Davis, who turns 36 on New Year's Day, and inspirational defender Jonny Evans are unlikely to go straight away, but the doubts will set in when Northern Ireland are no longer serious contenders in a qualification process.

They've been there before under Nigel Worthington and during Michael O'Neill's first two years in charge and it's turgid.

Players will look to the bigger picture and view a bleak scene. At their age, maybe it's not worth it.

With the World Cup qualifiers proposed to start next March, the seeding for the group stages will rest on Northern Ireland's results in this autumn's Nations League, where two October fixtures will follow their Euro Play-Off match - a triple-header in the space of a week, with two games away from home.

It's almost impossible for a country with a small pool of players to choose from to remain competitive against Austria, who are considered the top team in the group, and the might of Norway - again - in Oslo.

Defeat in Zenica would reduce Northern Ireland's workload from triple to double in November, but the damage may already have been done.

In the World Cup qualifying draw, we could then expect two European heavyweights in our group and, after Germany and the Netherlands last time out, that is an experience we wouldn't want to repeat.

Player turnover is naturally part of any team sport and O'Neill's great skill was integrating new boys into the squad, but Northern Ireland have never really replaced players such as Chris Baird, Chris Brunt, Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Ollie Norwood.

Last Monday night's capitulation to Norway gave an insight into a severe lack of depth at Baraclough's disposal and it must be incredibly worrying for the new boss.

Players are coming through, but at a slow rate and there is no quick fix.

Daniel Ballard showed plenty of promise in both games at the back under a great deal of pressure, while Leeds United's Alfie McCalmont and Ethan Galbraith from Manchester United - promoted from the Under-21s in an act of desperation on Monday night after Evans, Jamal Lewis, Jordan Jones, Gavin Whyte and Matty Kennedy were all ruled out - may still be a few years away from being truly effective at this level.

The harsh reality is that defeat in Bosnia, and the subsequent fall-out, could lead to reduced attendances should fans return to the stands, a lack of sponsorship and money for development, and staff cuts.

The ramifications are serious and stark. It is therefore imperative that Baraclough is a leader of men in the coming weeks and days before the match in Zenica.

The consequences have never been so dire for a Northern Ireland manager in just their third game.

Lawrie Sanchez was on a Caribbean tour in his third match, while O'Neill started his first World Cup qualifying campaign away to Russia.

Baraclough's men are down, hurt and confused.

It was never going to be an easy transition from O'Neill to a new manager and, despite the Irish FA stressing continuity, Baraclough has naturally tried to impose his own methods, which haven't been universally accepted. New regime, that's to be expected.

Baraclough has been terribly unfortunate losing Evans in the manner in which he did, Lewis' transfer to Newcastle created a headache he could have done without and the system he and his coaches wanted to operate against Norway was one that the players struggled to put into practice or indeed felt they couldn't implement.

The draw in Romania, especially with 10 men, was a terrific result, but did it just paper over the cracks of a Northern Ireland team that was badly exposed by a rampant Norwegian side?

Honest conversations will need to take place, self-analysis will be crucial and, while many of the players are just starting league campaigns with their clubs, Baraclough must demand the same level of performance Northern Ireland produced in the closing stages of the Euro qualifiers last year against the Dutch and out in Prague when they defeated the Czech Republic in a friendly.

Northern Ireland have a habit of bouncing back after suffering adversity.

Baraclough was given the job because the Irish FA felt he was the best manager to give Northern Ireland a fighting chance in the Euro Play-Offs.

The countdown is on as he aims to prove them right... or Northern Ireland's fall from grace could be sudden and sharp.

Sunday Life