Ian Baraclough has hailed the team spirit within his Northern Ireland squad after they came through a tense night in Sarajevo to keep their Euro 2020 hopes alive.
Thursday night’s penalty shoot-out victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina sets up a qualifying play-off final against Slovakia in Belfast next month, with Northern Ireland still dreaming of a second consecutive European finals.
Bosnia’s home record made Baraclough’s side second favourites in Sarajevo, but Northern Ireland triumphed in what was the nation’s first penalty shoot-out as Liam Boyce netted the winning spot-kick after Bailey Peacock-Farrell saved from Haris Hajradinovic and Edin Visca hit the crossbar.
And Baraclough, enjoying his first victory in charge, put the success down to the character of his players.
“The spirit of the lads is fantastic, they’re selfless,” he said. “They don’t think about themselves, they think just of the team, that’s the group of players we’ve got.
“I’ve got a group of players I feel very comfortable with, they’ve worked very hard since coming in on Sunday. They enjoy working together as a group, they enjoy coming and playing for their country.
“I’m very lucky that I’ve got that type of squad.”
The match had finished 1-1 after 120 minutes, with Niall McGinn cancelling out a first-half goal from Rade Krunic.
McGinn revealed the victory had led to some wild celebrations with “pizza flying everywhere” in the Northern Ireland dressing room, but the players do not get long to enjoy their success with a Nations League match against Austria following quickly on Sunday in Belfast.
Baraclough may need to make changes after 120 tough minutes on the road, and with another game against Norway following in Oslo on Wednesday.
“Now we’re looking forward to Sunday, and then Wednesday,” the manager said. “We’ll have to look after players because a lot of energy has been put out there.
“Players have come off cramping up; we thought Paddy [McNair] had picked up an ankle injury but he said he’d cramped up after 80 minutes.”
But Thursday night showed Baraclough has options within his group as McGinn’s starring role came after he did not figure in either of Northern Ireland’s matches last month.
“I’m delighted the manager gave me the nod to come in,” the Aberdeen winger said.
“To be honest, I’ve been training hard and was disappointed I didn’t feature last month. I’ve always been the type of player that if I train well I get put in.
“That was the case under Michael (O’Neill) a lot of the time, and thankfully the gaffer has put me in and I’ve repaid his faith by scoring an important goal.”
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