How often have we come away from watching Northern Ireland games feeling happy with a defeat? It is something that is starting to happen quite often during the Baraclough era and despite the calls for him to be replaced already, something is brewing within the camp.
There was no Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Jamal Lewis, Conor McLaughlin, Micheal Smith, Trevor Carson, or Michael McGovern. Instead, there was Liam Hughes, Conor Bradley, Sam McClelland, Ethan Galbraith, Alife McCalmont, and Paul Smyth.
It was really a mix of youth and experience, and those experience players still had youth on their side.
The opening game of the tour was meant to take place away to Turkey, but after the UEFA Champions League Final was moved from Istanbul during the health risks that have grown in the country, Northern Ireland decided they would take on Malta in Austria instead.
Baraclough opted for a 3-5-2 formation with the side being primarily made up of attacking players. Bailey Peacock-Farrell started between the sticks behind a back-three of Paddy McNair, Craig Cathcart and Ciaron Brown. Niall McGinn started as the left-wing-back, with Gavin Whyte operating on the opposite flank.
The Northern Irish midfield consisted of captain Stuart Dallas, Ali McCann, and Jordan Thompson, while Josh Magennis and Jordan Jones created a strike partnership upfront.
It only took Northern Ireland two minutes to go ahead after Jordan Jones picked up the ball just outside the box and fired it into the back of the net. A mistimed lobbed ball into the midfield could only get as far as the Rangers star who was on loan at Sunderland last season.
Josh Magennis had an opportunity to make it 2-0 from the spot but forced the Malta goalkeeper into a quality save to deny the Hull forward the opportunity to add to his international tally of eight goals.
After 53 minutes of play, Magennis’ team-mate last season Gavin Whyte then made it 2-0 after a ball into the box from Jones was cleared only as far as Dallas who played a simple pass to his right-hand side where Whyte then fired the ball past the keeper and into the back of the net.
After celebrating two cup title wins this season, Ali McCann’s rapid rise from outsider to NI regular was rewarded with a goal two minutes after Whyte’s strike. Whyte played a simple pass to Dallas who backheeled the ball into the path of McNair. He then made a brilliant run forward at the Malta backline and played the ball into the path of McCann, who then slotted the ball into the net.
This win would be the first within 90 minutes for Ian Barclough and the performance itself laid a marker down for how they can perform against teams much lower in the rankings.
Baraclough also used his bench to give Conor Bradley his International debut and Dion Charles a few more minutes in a Northern Ireland shirt. Alife McCalmont also made his second appearance for Northern Ireland after coming off the bench.
Shane Ferguson, Liam Boyce and George Saville all also got minutes on the pitch against Malta.
The second game of the tour was a rematch of the Euro 2016 ‘Kings of Lyon’ match against Ukraine. While the vast majority of the players involved in the match have no retired or were unavailable, Baraclough still played an excited youthful team that really pushed the Ukrainians in the second half especially.
Peacock-Farrell kept his place between the sticks, while Daniel Ballard came into the starting XI after helping Blackpool win promotion to the Championship in their play-off win against Lincoln City at Wembley. He partnered Ciaron Brown and Craig Cathcart, allowing Paddy McNair to be deployed in the midfield. He was joined by George Saville and Ali McCann, with Jordan Thompson dropping out and Dallas moving to right-wing-back. Shane Ferguson started at left-wing-back, meaning that McGinn could join Magennis upfront. Jones dropped out of the squad completely.
The game was fast-paced, high intensity…the opposite of an international friendly. This was one of Ukraine’s final warm-up matches before the start of the European Championships and they showed their class after only 11 minutes, a clear header goalward after a Ukrainian player was left unmarked in the box.
It took Northern Ireland a little while to settle into the game but when they did they looked comfortable on the ball and the absence of Davis and co was nothing more than a brief commentary mention.
The performance was good despite the defeat and the majority of the reaction was largely positive given the squad Northern Ireland opted to field.
The individual performances of all the young players were very encouraging and Ciaron Brown looks like he will give Ballard a run for his money for that third centre-back spot.
The future of Northern Irish football is looking very bright and the foundations that Michael O’Neill lay are starting to flourish. The under 21’s impressed in their win over Scotland, while the U17’s won against Wales. These games are the perfect opportunity to give the younger players experience of International football, and they are taking those opportunities and giving Baraclough a real headache the next time he has to select a squad. That will be for the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers against Lithuania and Switzerland… the 2018 FIFA World Cup Play-off rematch.