Ian Baraclough admitted he could understand the frustrations of NorthernIreland fans who turned on him after a 3-2 defeat to Kosovo but insisted his side had taken a step forward with their performance in Pristina.
A large section of the 500-strong travelling Green and White Army chanted ‘Cheerio’ as Baraclough went over to acknowledge them at the end of a match in which Northern Ireland had trailed by two goals for much of the night.
Frustration has been growing among supporters as their side remain winless after 13 games in the Nations League, while Baraclough’s record in competitive fixtures shows three wins and 10 defeats from 19 outings as he approaches two years in charge.
“It’s understandable,” Baraclough said of the chants. “They’re here, they want to follow and watch their team playing, but what do we do about players who are being blooded and building for the future?
“We knew we had to go through a certain amount of pain on it as well and we are as it goes forward. You’ll see improvement and you’ve seen a difference between the first two games and this one tonight.”
Those first two games, a 1-0 home defeat to Greece and a drab goalless draw away to Cyprus, sucked the energy out of a Nations League campaign that began with optimism – Northern Ireland having entered Group Two as top seeds following their relegation to League C.
But they have now taken one point from back-to-back away games against sides ranked more than 50 places below them.
Baraclough perhaps created a rod for his own back by setting a target of 12 points from the four fixtures in June, with a return of one point from three so far woefully short of expectations.
Baraclough points to inexperience: ‘Count the caps’
He again pointed to the inexperience in his side with the likes of Stuart Dallas, Josh Magennis, Corry Evans and Craig Cathcart missing, having given Brodie Spencer and Conor McMenamin their full debuts in this match.
“Count the caps,” he said. “Take (Steven Davis), Jonny (Evans), Kyle Lafferty out of the side and see how inexperienced the group is. We lost Paddy McNair on the morning of the match. They have to learn and get that experience from somewhere.
“I thought the young lads showed great spirit, the lads coming off the bench as well. Shea Charles, Conor Bradley, they’re lads who weren’t around a few months ago, who might have expected to be playing for the under-21s or under-19s.
“Let’s not be all negative about the way they’ve gone and played. Yes, about the result. I understand that, and I understand the fans’ frustration but there are ways of losing a game of football and that’s it.”
Though Baraclough insisted this had been an improvement, it was only in the last 20 minutes or so of this match that they looked to be on terms with a bright Kosovo side, who had gone 2-0 up inside 20 minutes thanks to a Vedat Muriqi penalty and Zymer Bytyqi’s volley.
Shayne Lavery pulled a goal back on the stroke of half-time but after Muriqi scored again early in the second half, it appeared over until Dan Ballard’s 83rd-minute header set up a frantic finale.
‘Northern Ireland are in transition’
Former Northern Ireland international Jamie Ward on Sky Sports News:
“Kosovo were worthy winners. We can look at the defence but we had three young defenders in the back four. I’d be looking at the senior players to guide them through these games.
“Northern Irish football is in a transition period. You can see from the starting line-up, there’s a range of ages in there. It’s about trying to find the balance.
“I wouldn’t get too worried just yet. You need to let these young lads come through.”
‘I think the crowd will be behind the team’
Northern Ireland must capture the fighting display they showed at the end and carry it into Sunday’s match against Cyprus at Windsor Park, arguably now a must-win if this is not to be a full-blown crisis.
“Play like that, with that intensity and positivity, and create the chances we create and I’m sure we’ll win the game,” Baraclough said.
“If Windsor can get behind the young kids, behind the team in full, the onus is on us to do something, to start with intensity and take the game to the opposition.
“I think the crowd will be all in behind the team, not a problem.”