Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough revealed he took a private moment to breath a huge sigh of relief after watching his side come from behind to beat Kosovo 2-1 and end their long winless run in the Nations League.
Josh Magennis headed in a stoppage-time winner after Gavin Whyte’s 82nd-minute equaliser had cancelled out a goal from Kosovo captain Vedat Muriqi just before the hour.
When Kosovo took the lead, it threatened to be a thoroughly miserable day for Northern Ireland.
Less than an hour before kick-off the Irish FA announced Glentoran winger Conor McMenamin had become the second player in as many days, after Kyle Lafferty, to be sent home due to historic videos on social media.
With his side trailing, fans had again called for Baraclough to be shown the door but the late fightback changed the mood inside Windsor Park entirely and the manager instead went to applaud supporters at the final whistle.
“I enjoyed celebrating the goals,” Baraclough said. “It is just a relief the players got their reward for a hard week’s work they put in, and the concentration they put in. And the togetherness. They are still building within a new group.
“I applauded the fans after the game and then went into my office and just sat down and took a big sigh, a big breath. We will enjoy this win and move on and prepare for Tuesday.”
Baraclough had also heard calls for his head during a winless run of four games in June, when optimism built in previous international windows drained away in draws home and away to Cyprus and defeats to both Greece and Kosovo.
This result will only go part of the way to ending those frustrations, but Baraclough believes positive signs are there.
“It’s part of the game,” Baraclough said of the chanting. “I just tried to block it out. I don’t think it helps because I think it can get onto the players, and that’s something I’m saddened about.
“I understand we have got to win games of football, but I’m building and developing a squad and that takes time. Of course, you have to win games along the way, and today we did that.
“Hopefully the fans can see what we’re trying to do and they show some patience, because I believe that when we’re at our strongest we’re a match for anybody.
“Today was an example of a squad that is close together. They’re a close-knit bunch who enjoy performing for the fans. They need that backing from the fans.”
McMenamin was withdrawn from the squad after a video circulated appearing to show the Glentoran winger singing a pro-IRA slogan. On Friday, Lafferty was sent home amid an investigation by his club Kilmarnock into a video in which he appears to use alleged sectarian language.
“It’s a distraction you’d rather not have,” Baraclough said. “To happen so close to kick-off time. I thought we did the right thing in pulling Conor out of the squad.
“It needs to be looked at. Clearly it’s an historic video from social media, from when he was 16 I think. I’m not sure where it’s going to go at this time.”
Instead, Baraclough will focus on the positives from this result, and what he hopes can be a building block ahead of next year’s Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.
“The character from going 1-0 down was immense,” he added. “We’ve seen that before but it could have gone flat, it could have gone horrible.
“Clearly we made substitions that we thought would benefit the game and it came off tonight and credit to the lads that came on and went on to win it.”
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