Nations League: 'Deflating end to a flat night as Northern Ireland open with defeat'

Northern Ireland players show their disappointment after the home defeat by Greece
Northern Ireland players show their disappointment after the home defeat by Greece

Ian Baraclough looked like he was deep in conversation with Jonny Evans as they trudged off the Windsor Park pitch and up the tunnel after the 1-0 loss to Greece.

The supporters had all-but-emptied the south Belfast stadium as the Northern Ireland manager and the last of his players finished showing their appreciation. A deflating scene at the end of a fairly flat night all round for the hosts.

Baraclough had said he wanted a big Windsor Park night in what was their Nations League opener, but what transpired was far from that. He now has just one win in Belfast in 11 matches as manager.

It was perhaps only natural that a lot of the build-up to Thursday night’s League C Group 2 encounter would focus on the last time the Greeks came to Belfast – in October 2015, when Northern Ireland secured qualification for Euro 2016 with a 3-0 victory on what was a truly joyous occasion for the country. The manager from that night, Michael O’Neill, was in the crowd too.

This never had the potential to get anywhere near that level of euphoria, given what was at stake, but the contrast in the scenes at the end of each match would not have helped lift the mood.

A young Northern Ireland side, with Paddy Lane making his competitive debut on one flank and 18-year-old Conor Bradley starting on the other, fell to a 39th-minute goal from Greece captain Tasos Bakasetas, who was allowed to run untracked from midfield before being given time and space on the edge of the box to pick his spot superbly.

While the front two of Shayne Lavery and Gavin Whyte looked industrious in the opening minutes with their pressing, the first hour of the match was strangely low-key from a team that was looking to end a 10-match winless run since the Nations League was created.

The ever-willing crowd did its best to lift the team, but it was not until the introduction just after the hour-mark of Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty, who both went close to equalising, that Northern Ireland’s tempo looked anything like that of a team that was determined to meet their manager’s demand for four wins from these four opening matches inside a 10-day period.

‘We are all frustrated as a squad’

Kyle Lafferty
Kyle Lafferty fired a late free-kick just over the crossbar for NI

“It’s a disappointing result,” admitted Baraclough, who rarely struggles to find a positive slant on a performance.

“We are all disappointed, I understand that. Fans come here, they want to see us win games of football. We are all frustrated as a squad and as a coaching staff and me.

“We have to go away, look at it and see how we can improve, show those players where they can improve. Whether it’s calmness at times or when to be on the front foot and go chasing it.

“It is difficult when you are trying to bring those players in and teach them at the very highest level. When they are playing at their clubs, Conor Bradley is playing [Under] 23s football, Shea Charles is playing [Under] 23s football, Paddy Lane is in League One but was Non-League a year ago.

“It is tough to go and put that into international football, but we have to try and get that experience into them.”

Baraclough spoke last week about his fears for the physical toll that it would take on his players in asking them to play four matches in such a short space of time a few weeks after most of their seasons had finished – and he hinted at that in explaining why their performance was not what it needed to be.

“I thought in the first half you could see a team of players that haven’t played for a little while,” he observed.

“Not everybody, but there was rustiness, we couldn’t get the first pass away, couldn’t find the through ball, the cohesion and the timing of runs. The intensity looked a little low.

“Some were holding back, not sure if they could make the 90 minutes. In the second half we had more intensity and that gets the crowd going a bit more and it takes us forward more.”

We were a bit timid and within ourselves in the first half – Baraclough

With the members of the squad that did not play out working on the Windsor Park pitch as Baraclough gave his post-match assessments, the manager was clear in what the squad have to do to bounce back with a win in Cyprus on Sunday.

“We learn from where we can get better. Talk about it as a group and get ready for what will happen in Cyprus.

“Deal with the travel, get the rest, the recovery. We are not going to have a lot of time on the training ground so there will be a lot of talking, whether it is with individuals, with units, and make sure we are right to go and beat a Cyprus team.”

And what about that conversation with Evans as they left the pitch? No big deal, according to the manager.

“We always discuss things, we are a tight-knit group.

“I encourage players to give their opinions, so why would I not? He has just played the game, he has just seen it, there are certain things you can see and you glean information from it. That’s what that was.”

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