Football/Soccer

New NI boss Ian Baraclough may renew old Kenny rivalry

New Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough. Photo: Colm Lenaghan / Pacemaker Press

WITH the initials IRB and a 6-1 aggregate thrashing of Rangers on his CV, the new Northern Ireland manager might attract more cross-community support than most of his predecessors.

Yet Ian Robert Baraclough is more likely to be facing an all-Ireland battle for a place at the Euros, with the Republic of Ireland potential opponents in a play-off in November.

Such a pairing would pit him against new Republic boss Stephen Kenny, with whom he locked horns in the League of Ireland.

Baraclough came out on top initially, leading Sligo Rovers to the 2012 title while Kenny was sacked by Shamrock Rovers before the end of that campaign. However, Kenny then took on the Dundalk job and took the trophy in 2013, paving the way for the Lilywhites' current domination in the south.

Before any re-match against Kenny, though, Baraclough is set to have two Nations League matches in September – coronavirus permitting, first at home to Romania on Friday September 4, then away to Norway on Monday September 7.

Those will be vital in getting to know his senior squad before the Euro play-off semi-final away to Bosnia & Herzegovina, which has been re-scheduled for Thursday October 8. Win that and Northern Ireland will host the winners of the Slovakia v Republic of Ireland semi-final.

With more Nations League matches set to follow that crucial fixture in Bosnia – home to Austria on Sunday October 11 then away to Norway on Wednesday October 14 – Baraclough is hoping for understanding from clubs in that hectic time:

“You look to October and the play-off with Bosnia – these are unprecedented times but for international players to have three games is going to be real tough ask.

“We're going to need to make sure to get the right amount of work into the players, go into that with as much preparation as possible. Also carry on really good relationships with clubs to allow their players to go with freedom knowing that Northern Ireland players are looked after by the Association and the coaching staff and they can come back as fresh as they went.”

Baraclough will know many of the players well from his U21 days, men who will appreciate the part he played in their development:

“I can't speak highly enough of the application of those U21 boys. I tried to put across to them that ‘This is one step away from being in the senior team, the manager is looking all the time'; I know he was looking to freshen up the squad with younger players and would give the younger players a chance if they showed themselves to be good enough.

“It elevated them into the spotlight. I think 11 players from that group have gone on to make their debut in the senior squad.”

It's actually 10, and so far goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell and left-back Jamal Lewis are the only two who have established themselves in the senior side although Gavin Whyte and Paul Smyth have both scored international goals. Others who have stepped up onto the senior scene from Baraclough's U21s include Conor Hazard, Jordan Thompson, Alfie McCalmont, Ciaron Brown, and Ethan Galbraith.

Baraclough himself had been lined up for elevation too, having been around the senior set-up and due to go to Bosnia back in March before Covid-19 called a halt to sport.

Yet in order to succeed Michael O'Neill he still had to hold off the challenges from four NI men - IFA Elite Performance Director Jim Magilton, Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson, NI Women's boss Kenny Shiels, and former St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright, all of whom were also interviewed last Wednesday.

The Leicester native is the third English-born manager and only the second non-Northern Ireland international (after Lawrie McMenemy) as Lawrie Sanchez won three senior caps.

Baraclough was pleased to be chosen above the four other candidates, saying: “They're good people, first and foremost, and real football men, so to be chosen…is a great honour.

“I've been on a pathway of more than 10 years and you hope to get an opportunity, so I wasn't going to turn it down and I'm going to make a real good go of making it a success.”

He has enjoyed his previous involvement on the NI senior scene, commenting: “It has a real club feel to it and hopefully we can continue that and make sure we carry on that upward trend which Northern Ireland football has been on for six, seven years.”

The supporters should be well disposed towards the affable Baraclough, especially after his fine work with the U21s, and he is looking forward to the days (and nights) when they can be there to back him and the team:

“I've been fortunate enough to be at Windsor Park when it's been a packed house – big game under the lights, there's no better atmosphere. You'll hear many people around their countries saying that ‘Our supporters are the best' but the Northern Irish supporters are the best in my eyes, having seen them travel to the Euros, how they stayed behind in the stadium to keep singing – and that was in defeat.

“We want times like that again, we want to give the Green and White Army those days again. It won't be for the want of trying. I think they know they have a team, not only on the pitch but off the pitch as well that's trying to drive that forward.”

Baraclough thanked all those who have helped him along his coaching and managerial journey, which included keeping Rangers out of the Scottish top flight by winning a two-legged promotion/ relegation play-off as Motherwell boss in 2015.

“For everyone who's been involved in my career, whether that's family, from an early stage kicking a ball, my dad, brothers, all my family who've supported me down the years, people that I've worked with, coaching staff, managers that have influenced me, have played a big part in getting me to where I am and getting this opportunity,” Baraclough told www.irishfa.com.

“I've got to thank the Board for putting their faith in me, for being given the chance to take this on, and feeling that I'm the right person to carry on the good work that Michael's put in.”

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