Boss Ian Baraclough eyes four wins from NI's first four Nations League games
IAN Baraclough has set his Northern Ireland side a target of winning all four of their upcoming fixtures as he looks to change the conversation around the Nations League.
Northern Ireland have had a miserable record in this competition since its inception in 2018, drawing two and losing eight while scoring six and conceding 18.
Having avoided relegation the first time around thanks to a change in format, Northern Ireland suffered the drop into League C last time around but now go into their Group Two campaign, opening against Greece at Windsor Park on Thursday night, with new ambitions.
"I think I'm a winner," Baraclough said. "Everyone is a winner who's in this dressing room. Nobody likes losing games of football. I'm as desperate as anyone to say we've won a game in the Nations League so you can go on and talk about something different."
After Greece, Northern Ireland travel to Cyprus and Kosovo before returning to Belfast next week for another fixture against Cyprus.
Asked if he had set a points target for the four matches, Baraclough did not hesitate.
"Twelve," he said. "Why wouldn't you? I think we've got a squad that can go and win all four games. We know we've playing against opposition who are also targeting 12 points but I don't think it's a bad thing for me to be demanding four wins."
With the prospect of a play-off spot for Euro 2024 qualifying on offer to nations that top their groups – something which looks a much more realistic prospect in League C – captain Steven Davis said Northern Ireland have a different approach to the competition now.
"I think the mindset has shifted," Davis said. "When the Nations League started we didn't know what it was all about and the benefits but we've seen that with other nations, there's a play-off spot up for grabs.
"Coming into this campaign now, the start of the Nations League, we've got real high expectations of ourselves. We've got the younger lands to integrate, we've got four games in 10 days so that's another challenge. We want to get off to a good start against Greece and build on that."
Baraclough may have his lofty points target, but he also said Northern Ireland would continue to use the competition to blood youngsters.
His 28-strong squad is a mix of familiar faces and new blood – Kyle Lafferty,34, is back for the first time in almost a year while Shea Charles, Brodie Spencer and Charlie McCann step up from the under-21s and 26-year-old Glentoran forward Conor McMenamin gets his first call-up.
"They're here to play," Baraclough said of the new faces. "They've not come to make up the numbers or be training fodder. They're here because they're good players and we see a future.
"We've always used this tournament as a chance to give them experience and we still see it as a tournament like that, even though we also know the benefits of winning games and going for top spot.
"It's about trying to find that balance, bringing new players into the squad, but also for us it's the bigger picture of qualifying for European Championships and World Cups."
One big absentee from the group is Stuart Dallas, who faces up to six months out with a fractured femur.
Baraclough revealed he had been in touch with the Leeds midfielder, who could attend Thursday's game to cheer on his team-mates.
"It's a long road for him now," Baraclough said. "We're supporting him, we want him to get fit again before what is being predicted and if anyone can, you know he'll battle through that.
"As and when we feel he needs to be chief cheerleader, with his pom-poms, he'll be there. Though he won't thank me for that!"