NI boss Baraclough set for "biggest test so far" of four June games in Nations League
"THE biggest test of my tenure so far" awaits Northern Ireland senior men's football boss Ian Baraclough in the four-match Nations League programme next month.
The NI manager has called up four new players to a 28-strong squad for the games against Greece, Cyprus (twice), and Kosovo with a number of experienced men absent due to club commitments, injury, and fatigue.
Glentoran attacker Conor McMenamin gets a first ever international inclusion at any level, at the age of 26, after impressing in a recent training camp.
Also included are teenagers Shea Charles and Brodie Spencer, of Manchester City and Huddersfield Town respectively, along with Rangers midfielder Charlie McCann, who only turned 20 last month.
Baraclough has also recalled 34-year-old striker Kyle Lafferty after his fine form for Kilmarnock, and is glad to have the experienced duo of Jonny Evans and captain Steven Davis in the panel too.
Their know-how will be needed as the squad is missing nine players, most of whom are regulars, namely goalkeeper Conor Hazard, defenders Craig Cathcart, Jamal Lewis, and Tom Flanagan, wing-back Shane Ferguson, defender/midfielder Stuart Dallas, midfielder Corry Evans, winger Matthew Kennedy, and striker Josh Magennis.
'Bara' said that Downpatrick man McMenamin had earned his inclusion with his displays in the training camp: "Conor, off the back of recognition of a really good season in the Irish League, has deserved a call-up. He's shown us something that maybe we haven't got within the squad.
"At 26 years of age he may have thought the chance of playing for his country had passed him by. But it's a message to everybody, whether they play in Northern Ireland, England or Scotland, that they've still got a chance.
"We haven't got a bigger enough pool of players to discount anybody and last week was a challenge for our younger players to show us what they can do. They all showed us something we hadn't seen before, and off the back of that some of them have been picked."
NI are top seeds in League C Group 1, but it's a typically tricky section, with Greece just one place below in the current Fifa World Rankings, in 55th, and Kosovo and Cyprus both not far outside the top 100, at 105th and 107th respectively.
The campaign begins at home to Greece next Thursday, June 2 before visiting Cyprus three days later. NI move on to play in Kosovo on June 9 before returning to Belfast and hosting Cyprus on Sunday June 12.
Baraclough will have former England U21s and Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd as part of his backroom staff with Leicester coach Adam Sadler unavailable for personal reasons.
The boss feels the four games will be daunting challenge: "Greece will be a massive test and then we've got to travel to Cyprus and Kosovo and play in heat.
"There is promotion and relegation on these games, and possibly getting to a play-off for the Euros is something we are striving for. But we also have to temper that by giving experience to some younger players.
"I've got to manage game-time for players and bring younger ones through into a bigger squad.
"We've been working towards expanding the player pool. I've been in charge for nearly two years and many players have made their debuts and been called up for the first time.
"We have 13 players who have five caps or less and they could go on to have longer international careers.
"Nine players who could potentially be playing for the under-21s are in this squad and we have six who haven't been capped at all. It's a real mix of youth and experience."
Northern Ireland senior men's squad, Nations League v Greece, Cyprus (twice), and Kosovo:
Goalkeepers: Peacock-Farrell (Sheff Wed), Carson (St Mirren), Southwood (Reading), Clarke (Glenavon);
Defenders: Ballard (Arsenal), Bradley (Liverpool), Boyd-Munce (Middlesbrough), Brown (Cardiff), J Evans (Leicester), Hume (Sunderland), Lane (Fleetwood), McNair (Middlesbrough), Spencer (Huddersfield);
Midfielders: Davis, C McCann (both Rangers), S Charles (Man City), Donnelly (Motherwell), McCalmont (Leeds), A McCann (Preston), McGinn (Dundee), Saville (Millwall), Thompson (Stoke);
Forwards: D Charles (Bolton), Lafferty (Kilmarnock), Lavery (Blackpool), McMenamin (Glentoran), Washington (Charlton), Whyte (Cardiff).