It's been a week since the first phase of Northern Ireland’s Nations League campaign concluded and I still feel frustrated and deflated.
The Nations League was our best chance of qualifying for the 2024 European Championships and we blew it.
It could have given us a clear path to the Finals in Germany, but instead we are fighting relegation along with Cyprus in the third tier of the competition.
Manager Ian Baraclough has come in for flak over the performances, set-up and results but should he shoulder all the responsibility?
The reason I say this follows media interviews Ian gave during and after the Nations League games.
Ian stated that he and his team shouldn’t be judged until after the Euro qualifiers.
“I’m confident that we can go through and build from this Nations League and put together a really good series of games in the Euros — that’s the end goal we’re looking at, to qualify for the Euros,” said Ian.
“It’s not where we are now, let’s look at where we are at the end of the Euros.”
Was a decision taken by the Association that these Nations League games were all about integrating the young players into the squad and that the performances and results didn’t really matter?
Going by his comments, he feels he or his team will not be judged on the Nations League games.
If that’s the case, a lot of the blame should be absolved from Ian.
I just don’t get it… why prioritise the Euro qualifiers, which will ultimately be more difficult, than playing in tier three of the Nations League?
It doesn’t make sense.
I’m all for bringing the young players through and exposing them to international football, but at the appropriate times.
In the last few weeks I’ve stated how I believe Shea Charles is a real talent and he deserves his opportunity, however was he put in the best Northern Ireland teams possible?
In my mind, the Nations League should have been the priority.
Just look at how Scotland benefited from having a good Nations League campaign in tier three — they took full advantage and qualified for the Euro Finals.
In Euro qualifying we’ll have two top teams in our group and the third-place finish which would have given us a Play-Off in previous campaigns has been taken away and given to the Nations League.
Plus, don’t forget, our crucial senior players will all be a year older.
Northern Ireland should have been going all out in this Nations League — with Ian having the strongest squad available to him.
The opposition weren’t that great. Greece have walked away with the group already and I felt they offered very little.
That’s what is so disappointing. These teams Northern Ireland played against (Greece, Kosovo and Cyprus) didn’t perform above themselves. They are tier three teams for a reason and they acted like it.
We only started to give Northern Ireland-type performances in the last 20 minutes of games and that is a concern. One of the biggest things in football is hope, but that has been taken away and it’s so disheartening.
Four games in June is cruel on a player and I’m certainly glad I’m retired and didn’t have to go through it. I would have hated it.
But the Nations League was set up for teams like Northern Ireland, to give us a better chance of qualifying for a Finals, and not as a warm-up act for the Euro qualifiers.
The back door to the Euro Finals has now been closed on us and the final two Nations League games in September will all be about making sure we don’t finish bottom which would place us in a relegation Play-Off. Playing in tier four is unthinkable.
An opportunity missed but maybe all the blame shouldn’t be placed at the door of the manager…
Young Patrick Kelly is in good hands at West Ham.
My old mate from my West Brom days, Kevin Kean will be his youth team coach and he’ll help develop the former Coleraine midfielder, who we must remember is only 17.
I had Patrick with me at Northern Ireland under-age level and I’m pleased he has been given an opportunity across the water, but the hard work starts now.
He may have played ‘men’s football’ in the Irish Premiership but moving to West Ham he’ll need to move up the levels and quickly. Every kid who comes over will have bad habits and those will need to be ironed out by Kevin and his team.
Patrick’s first target should be the Hammers’ under-18 team and getting used to the professional set-up, both on and off the pitch. It will be a complete culture shock to him and he’ll need strong support and make sure he keeps his focus on his football.
He’s fortunate to have Callum Marshall and Michael Forbes, two Northern Ireland players, alongside him at West Ham, so they should help him settle in.
He’s also been brought in early enough to have a good pre-season with West Ham which will be an eye opener but set him up for the season ahead.
I’m thankful Patrick has been given an opportunity because he nearly slipped through the net.
He may have played under-16 representative football but he seemed to fall out of the system. His name wasn’t mentioned for the under-17s or under 19s.
It was only when he started to play games for Coleraine that he came back onto the radar.
Now he is part of the set-up again but he should have been on much earlier and that’s why I’m a firm believer in profiling our young players so that we don’t miss out of anybody.
We were fortunate on this occasion, but how may kids are slipping by?
Plus, Patrick is a player who would have benefitted greatly from a Northern Ireland under-18 team.
With the move to West Ham, Patrick has been given an incredible opportunity, he’ll be given excellent support and now it’s up to him to make sure he develops and makes the most of it.