Football management can be a thankless task at times, especially when results aren’t going well and fan frustration is palpable. That is exactly the position Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough finds himself in now and the only way to silence the criticism is by winning matches of football, starting with the clash against Kosovo.
veryone understood that after the departure of Michael O’Neill, there was going to be a transition period within the squad and fresh blood in need of introducing.
During that process, it was anticipated that results would suffer, and they have. Through time we hoped we’d see some positive progress and shoots of optimism, but in all honesty I’m not sure we have seen enough.
Firstly, I speak as a Northern Ireland supporter, so I don’t take any satisfaction in seeing the team struggling – but it would be remiss of me not to call it as I see it.
There is no doubt over the past eight years or so that expectations surrounding the team have grown after a last-16 run in Euro 2016 and the subsequent two Play-Offs for the 2018 World Cup and delayed Euro 2020.
Supporters became accustomed to arriving at the National Stadium and believing they could beat anyone or at least compete and put on a show. O’Neill and the players gave the fans that belief.
The onus now is on Baraclough and the current crop to reignite these emotions. It does seem a long way away considering the team have won just one home game under him, which as expected has led to the faithful understandably venting their anger and annoyance.
When we look back in years to come, that was a golden era. We can’t get away from that. However, the challenge was always going to be managing expectation when that period came to an end, and we are bang in the middle of it just presently.
The group – and I include the manager in that – have to play their way out of the trouble they are in. No team is going to roll over and allow Northern Ireland to win a game, that’s not how it works. Everything you get in football you have to earn, and that’s always been the case with any successful national team of any era.
Irrespective of who we have played or the circumstances Baraclough inherited, six wins out of 26 isn’t anywhere near good enough and the manager will acknowledge the need for obvious improvement.
All the wins bar Bosnia away have came against lower-ranked countries we should expect to beat, so with that being the case it naturally brings scrutiny from all angles. It’s part of the job.
The reality is we haven’t beaten teams we should be beating, and so the manager’s position is up for debate.
Kosovo is another on that list and undoubtedly anything other than a win tonight will be met with unrest.
Northern Ireland over the years has thrived on upsetting the odds, taking a big scalp and surprising the bigger nations.
Tenacity, passion, resilience and togetherness were the main traits of the performances right back to the lofty days of the late great Billy Bingham, the Lawrie Sanchez spell as well as when O’Neill was in charge – and that’s what this squad have to get back to.
The Green and White Army aren’t hard to please. They like to see commitment in performances and the players and manager doing their best to win.
Regarding the line-up for the game, it will be interesting to see how the team looks formation-wise.
Ahead of the four games in June, it was widely believed a back-three and two centre-forwards was the system set in stone. Yet after a disappointing hour against Greece in the opening game, a switch was made to a 4-3-3 that allowed the wingers to be more expansive and bring more attacking intent to the side.
Baraclough stuck with this for the remainder of the fixtures and although it didn’t herald a win, the players looked more comfortable in that shape.
With this the penultimate game before the start of Euro 2024 qualifying, let’s hope more questions are answered than still left open when the referee blows the final whistle.