The Ian Baraclough era has begun after the New Northern Ireland manager selected his first International squad on Monday for the upcoming UEFA Nations League fixtures against Romania and Norway.
If I were to describe the squad in one word, it would be experienced, with only two players not already holding a full international cap with Northern Ireland.
The big news going into the announcement was Mark Sykes asking not to be selected for the Northern Ireland squad, instead opting to wait on a call from the Republic of Ireland. This was a late call and he did not make Stephen Kenny’s first Republic of Ireland squad.
Called up to the Northern Ireland side for the first time is Joel Copper, who recently moved across the water to Oxford United from Linfield. He is the player that is most likely to have been brought into the squad after the late Sykes drop-out with the ex-Glenavon player apparently given a place in the squad. This could be Barraclough getting one back on Sykes by calling up his teammate, but Copper has impressed in the Irish League and in pre-season so far in an Oxford shirt. Baraclough has also said that Cooper was under consideration for the original play-off fixture back in March, and at the time was a Linfield player, which shows how highly he is rated within the Northern Ireland camp.
Goalkeepers: Michael McGovern, Bailey Peacock-Farrell & Trevor Carson
Baraclough has called up three goalkeepers who would all be able to take the no.1 jersey and make it their own. Since the start of the last Nations’ League campaign, it has been Bailey Peacock-Farrell who has been between the sticks, with McGovern getting limited minutes in a friendly match against Luxembourg last September.
I expect Peacock-Farrell to continue as the number one, but Carson may just leap-frog McGovern for the second choice shirt, given he is getting regular competitive minutes for Motherwell in the Scottish Premiership.
Defenders: Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, Stuart Dallas, Shane Ferguson, Conor McLaughlin, Jamal Lewis, Michael Smith & Tom Flanagan
There is no shortage of defenders in the Northern Ireland squad, with three spots in the back-line usually taken up by Cathcart, Evans, and Lewis. I do not expect to see a change here, but the right-back spot is one that may prove a little more difficult, that is if Baraclough opts to go for a four-at-the-back formation. I don’t expect anything other than this especially with only Flanagan as the only traditional centre-back back-up. He could play Smith or McLaughlin there, but I wouldn’t expect this.
I think the right-back spot will go to either Stuart Dallas or Michael Smith. Dallas is now a Premier League player, and to have a back-line that have all been a part of a Premier League squad either this season or last season will be a huge confidence boost for the Green and White Army.
Midfielders: Steven Davis, Niall McGinn, Corry Evans, Paddy McNair, George Saville, Gavin Whyte, Jordan Jones, Jordan Thompson, Matthew Kennedy & Joel Cooper
Northern Ireland have been lucky with the amount of midfield talent currently in the squad and coming up through the ranks. Davis will captain the side and I would expect him to play every minute of the upcoming fixtures, with any two of McNair, Evans, and Saville playing alongside him. Jordan Thompson is a very good player but should expect to get game time off the bench as he can play a variety of different roles in the midfield.
In my last article, I said that Ali McCann was likely to get a call-up and I am very surprised that he didn’t. Alife McCalmont has also come out to dispel any rumours that he almost declared for the Republic of Ireland this week after Sykes. He is a player for the future and I would expect to see him in the Northern Ireland squad for any friendly matches and when the likes of Davis and Evans eventually retire.
Whyte, Jones, McGinn, Kennedy, and Copper will provide attacking threat from the wings, with none of these players guaranteed a spot in the starting XI. Usually, I would say the pace of Jones and Whyte would scare defences, but McGinn and Kennedy have been playing competitive football so might just get the nod. Kennedy is yet to play for Northern Ireland, like Copper, but the Aberdeen star should expect to get his first cap at some stage over the international break, with Copper in the squad for experience at the moment. Dallas is listed as a defender, but can also play further forward so that gives Baraclough an extra option.
Forwards: Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis, Conor Washington, Liam Boyce, Shane Lavery
I don’t think anyone can complain about a lack of attacking threat in this Northern Ireland side, with six traditional strikers getting the call-up.
Lafferty has been the regular frontman for many years now, but Boyce and Washington have often been challengers from that spot in the starting XI. Magennis has very rarely been given a start through the middle, with the Hull City player often been put out on the right wing. When he has come off the bench, he has always made an impact and often scores the goal that gives Northern Ireland the win. Lavery is in the squad again for the experience, but also provides a lot of hard work and pace which may prove vital at the closing stages of the fixtures. I expect either Lafferty or Washington to start, but for all the forwards to get some minutes on the pitch at some stage overall.