By Ian Parker, PA
Ian Baraclough insisted it is “not beyond” his Northern Ireland side to pull off upset victories in their World Cup qualifying campaign and get back on track after Wednesday’s damaging goalless draw with Bulgaria.
The manager and his players had embraced talk of Wednesday’s match being a ‘must-win’ fixture in the build-up and although they failed to do so, Baraclough was not ready to write off hopes of reaching Qatar 2022.
Coming on the back of last week’s loss to Italy in Parma, Wednesday’s draw leaves Northern Ireland already playing catch-up in Group C, almost certainly needing to take points off the Italians and Switzerland, who have both taken maximum points from their opening fixtures.
“We know what we have to go and do, we have to beat one of the bigger teams,” said Baraclough. “It’s not beyond us, it’s not beyond the players and the group as a whole.
“Hopefully in September, October, November, we have the fans back in the stadium. That’s a massive part of what we’re about as a nation.
“If (Windsor Park) had been full and bouncing, I think we win that game. They suck the ball into the net. Let’s not forget about that. That’s the type of game where the fans get us over the line, but they also help us when the bigger nations come here as well.
“The players have performed in these bigger games when it’s been a full house.”
Northern Ireland’s lack of cutting edge proved costly on Wednesday night as they dominated the match but failed to convert any of the chances which they were able to carve out – a familiar story in recent outings.
There was at least the first clean sheet for Baraclough after 11 games in charge, thanks in large part to a great last-minute save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell, though it was only a slight comfort on the night.
“A clean sheet is pleasing but I’d much prefer to be talking about a 2-1 win,” he said. “But we’ll take every positive we can get. It’s good for Bailey and his confidence. Dan Ballard I thought was exceptional as well, we’re trying to build on his experience.”
Northern Ireland must now wait until September’s trip to Lithuania to try to put things right in qualifying, but before then they will play friendlies against Turkey and Ukraine in June.
Baraclough, who has already brought a number of players through that he worked with at under-21s level, said he would use the trip to introduce some more fresh faces.
“We get together at the end of May and go to Turkey and then move on to Ukraine,” he said. “They are two teams who are putting together their final preparations for the Euros. I will have to speak to the players in the next couple of weeks about their availability.
“It has been a long hard season for them during the Covid season and there is no onus on them to join up – that will be something for me as a manager asking them to come and be part of the group to help us going forward.
“But we’ll also integrate some of the younger players in a more relaxed fashion.”