2021 is an important year for Northern Ireland, from the centenary of the country to the World Cup Qualifiers for the men and the Euro’s play-off for the women.
Manager Ian Baraclough has already given his thoughts on the year ahead, with his hopes being high for the year ahead, “Our aim is to qualify and everybody involved in the set-up is focused on that. We haven’t been to a World Cup since 1986 and we would love to rectify that.”
Getting to a World Cup again would be some achievement for Northern Ireland, especially with the difficult qualifying group they face. They will take on the Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Lithuania, with only the group winners automatically going through to the finals.
The heartache of the last World Cup campaign and the recent Euro 2020 play-off final defeat will hopefully spur the players on and give the remaining players of the ‘Kings of Lyon’ squad one final major tournament to see out their careers.
Only 13 players of the ‘Kings of Lyon’ Euro 2016 squad are still in the national side on a regular occurrence, and only four of the side that faced Ukraine in that famous victory are regular staters for their country now.
Obviously, that was four and a half years ago and the squad has evolved and arguably has more depth than ever before, but results recently have been of the standard modern-day Northern Ireland are known for.
That being said, the results are what is truly expected for Northern Ireland, winning two big play-off matches was a tough ask, but they almost had enough. The Nations League games were used as a way to bleed some of the young players into the side, all laying down the foundations for Northern Ireland football in years to come.
2021 is the start of the end for many of the senior players in the squad. Steven Davis has committed to one more campaign and will hope to lead out his country in Qatar. When he does hang up his boots, Ali McCann is waiting in the wings ready to take his place.
Michael McGovern suffered a nasty hamstring injury that will keep him out for a while, but Conor Hazard has been getting game time at Celtic and he is ready to take up that number 2 role within the International squad.
There are a few defenders who may consider this to be their final campaign, Craig Cathcart and Michael Smith most likely with Jonny Evans not far behind. The emergence of Daniel Ballard will help ease the transition to a new-look defence, and if Ciaron Brown can prove his worth at Livingston for the rest of the season, things won’t be as bad at the back as feared. A back four of Dallas, Brown, Ballard and Lewis might just be the long-term look of Northern Ireland’s defence.
Ethan Galbraith, Alfie McCalmount, Joel Cooper, Paul O’Neill, Shane Lavery, Caolan Boyd-Munce, Liam Donnelly and Paul Smyth are players who I expect to see in and around the squad over the course of 2021.
My player to watch in 2021 is Jordan Thompson. The midfielder is currently applying his trade at Stoke City under the watch and guidance of Michael O’Neill. He struggled to cement down a starting spot but has done so in recent weeks. He is a very talented player and I expect big things from him over the next few years.