Uefa Nations League C, Group 2, round 6: Greece v Northern Ireland (Georgios Kamaras Stadium, Athens, 7.45pm Irish time)
CALMNESS under pressure is a quality long associated with Northern Ireland’s latest soccer centurion, Jonny Evans – but it’s also been demonstrated by his international manager.
Ian Baraclough could, probably should, have spoken out more strongly in condemning the stupidity of words apparently spoken and sung by two of his players, Kyle Lafferty and Conor McMenamin – but at least he spoke.
The utter absence of any leadership, indeed their utter absence from public view or hearing, from either IFA President David Martin or chief executive Patrick Nelson, was a damning indictment of both men.
At least NI know they can rely on much better from Evans, who will captain his country tonight on the occasion of his 100th cap.
McMenamin was withdrawn from the squad shortly before Saturday’s dramatic comeback victory over Kosovo at Windsor Park – and then restored to the panel and flew to Greece on Sunday.
Baraclough acknowledged that the 27-year-old was “distraught” when told he could not be considered for selection at the weekend, pending an IFA investigation.
That inquiry confirmed that McMenanim’s faux pas occurred years ago, and he was punished by his club at the time. Baraclough insisted yesterday that the Downpatrick man was in the right frame of mind to feature this evening in Athens, if required.
Lafferty remains out of the fold after his more recent remark, which occurred last Tuesday night after a team meal at a restaurant.
Baraclough accepted that lessons could be learned, with the major one being that players had to be ultra careful about their utterances:
“When I was playing, there was no social media, tells you how old I am. You have to give yourself a chance of just not slipping in any sort of way. You know, even if you go to a coffee shop, maybe there's someone with a phone that’s maybe trying to catch you out, someone saying they’re taking a photo of you but they're actually taking a video when they speak to you; it's so easily done nowadays so you've got to be very careful as players especially.
“When you’re in the public light you're always there to be tripped up, I suppose; it's a shame that you have to be on your guard all the time because most people that speak to you do it in genuine good faith.
“Clubs have to play a big role in that, which they do. I know in many clubs that I go into the media officer speaks to the players regularly and makes sure that they're doing the right thing. The easiest thing though? Don’t be on social media.”
As for Evans, now 34, he commented: “I'm not a big social media personality, influencer, whatever. I don't even know Conor posted that video himself, for example. But there's always situations where you can be caught out on numerous things.”
Unfortunately the controversies have somewhat overshadowed the achievement of Evans in reaching 100 caps.
Baraclough paid tribute to the Rathcoole man, saying: “It’s just a privilege to manage him, both him and Steven [Davis] and the older players are an inspiration.
“I just try and pick their brains and without these boys, the younger lads can’t perform the way they have done. It’s invaluable to have someone like Jonny still playing at the highest level and we lean on him as much as possible.”
Evans himself admitted: “I’m very proud of where I am today and it gives me even greater respect for the three boys, Pat Jennings, Aaron Hughes, and Steven Davis, for what they have achieved.
“I’m getting a lot of accolades for reaching 100 caps, but every cap Steven Davis plays over 100, is even more incredible. He’s on 139 now, he’s going to hit 140. He’s a big inspiration for everyone.”
As for tonight’s match, Cyprus also won at the weekend, beating Greece 1-0, so NI may need to pick up at least a point tonight to avoid a relegation play-off. The Cypriots, now under the management of former Newcastle United star Temuri Ketsbaia, are away to Kosovo.
Ex-Chelsea man Gus Poyet led the Greeks to four wins, and promotion, in the summer, and Baraclough insisted that pride rather than any affinity with Cyprus would be spurring the hosts on tonight:
“I'm sure Greece won't want to lose two games on the trot as well, similar to us wanting to win two games on the bounce. I’m expecting a real tough encounter. Gus [Poyet] will want to want their team to bounce back from that disappointment and we've got to be ready for it.”
Barring any other social media shenanigans emerging before kick-off, the visitors will probably stick with a winning formula – and should just about avoid the drop down to League D.