Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough has acknowledged the concerns of club managers over player burnout as he prepares for an intense international window with three competitive matches and two away trips in the space of seven days.
Northern Ireland travel to Sarajevo next week for their long-awaited Euro 2020 qualifying play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Thursday, then return to Belfast to face Austria before jetting to Oslo to play Norway in a pair of Nations League contests.
The unprecedented schedule prompted Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock – who has two players, Paddy McNair and George Saville, in Baraclough’s squad – to warn of a potential “catastrophe” in terms of injuries.
The message is not lost on the Northern Ireland manager who said he had spoken to a number of club managers ahead of announcing his 26-man squad on Friday.
“I think it’s important to have those conversations,” Baraclough told the PA news agency. “I don’t want to upset anybody. I’ve been in their shoes where you have players go off to international duty and you hope and pray they come back in good health.
“That’s no different now and I’m in the same boat in that I hope they all get through this weekend’s round of games to be able to play next Thursday.
“You can’t have it always but I don’t want to make an argument with the likes of Neil or Brendan Rodgers.”
The mention of Rodgers comes with Jonny Evans back in the frame after the Leicester defender missed both of Northern Ireland’s games last month despite being named in the squad.
The 32-year-old did not travel for the draw in Romania for personal reasons and then withdrew before the home defeat to Norway with injury.
He has played for his club only once since, starting in Leicester’s 5-2 win at Manchester City at the weekend, though he was substituted 10 minutes from time after feeling his calf.
“I’ve spoken to him and Leicester had been looking to give him 70 minutes given the work he’d done back at the training ground,” Baraclough said.
“Manchester City was always going to be a big test but he made 76, 77 minutes, he just felt his calf tighten up a little bit but it was purely fatigue and he’s hoping to play a part this weekend.
“He’s a top, top defender in Europe. He’s one in that bracket of players that any nation would miss having, and especially us because we’re not blessed with players playing through the Premier League.
“To have Jonny back involved is massive for everybody and hopefully he can line up against the likes of (Edin) Dzeko and (Miralem) Pjanic when it comes around on Thursday.”
Sunderland defender Tom Flanagan is also back in the squad after missing last month’s internationals for personal reasons, while there is a new face in the form of St Johnstone’s 20-year-old midfielder Ali McCann.
Aberdeen’s Matty Kennedy is out with an injury while there is no place for Linfield’s Shayne Lavery. Corry Evans is included despite a lack of game time with Blackburn as he deals with a foot injury but Baraclough is optimistic he can be involved – with every player having a role to play in such an intensive period.
“It’s a situation no other Northern Ireland manager has had to deal with so we’re treading new ground,” Baraclough said of the fixture list. “We have to make sure we’ve got a strong squad to cover all three games.
“I know many club managers will be worried about players going to play all three games but I’m not sure it’s possible to roll out the same team game after game every three days.
“For the smaller nations it means our chances are lessened a little bit because we don’t have the same quality in depth.”
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