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Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough ready to put play-off prep into action

Northern Ireland v Norway – UEFA Nations League – Group 1 – League B – Windsor Park
(Image credit: Liam McBurney)

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough can finally put months of preparation into action next week when he takes his side to Sarajevo to face Bosnia and Herzegovina in a crunch Euro 2020 qualifying play-off.

The fixture was originally due to take place back in March, with Baraclough’s predecessor Michael O’Neill getting as close as naming a squad for the trip but never getting on the plane as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Now, almost seven months later the game is due to be played on Thursday night and Baraclough has been dusting off the blueprints.

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“Some of the preparations have been put on the backburner but you come back to it every so often,” Baraclough told the PA news agency. “When Michael had been in charge I was part of that preparation anyway so I’ve had it on my mind for a good while and it’s finally come around.

“You pick up the notes again and have the conversations with coaches, and you start to feed some of that information into the players, even now while they’re still with their clubs.

“Hopefully it all comes together when we meet up on Sunday and then we can fully focus.”

Both teams have changed their manager since Bosnia beat Northern Ireland home and away in the Nations League in 2018 but Baraclough does not expect too much to have changed, with Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic still central to Bosnia’s plans.

“The squads are fairly similar to what you would expect,” he said. “There might be slight differences but nothing too much. We’ve just got to get our heads around it now that it’s here, but we’re excited for it.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina v Northern Ireland – UEFA Nations League – League B – Group 3 – Grbavica Stadium

Edin Dzeko scored twice when the sides last met in 2018 (Tim Goode/PA)

Baraclough began his Northern Ireland reign last month with a 1-1 draw in Romania before a heavy 5-1 defeat to Norway at an empty Windsor Park.

Those games were played before the club season was under way for several members of the squad, but since then there have been encouraging signs with Bailey Peacock-Farrell finally getting some game time at Burnley and Baraclough’s strikers getting amongst the goals.

“It’s good seeing all the players now playing regular games and more players now within our squad getting games,” Baraclough said. “Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis and Conor Washington are all playing games and have all started off scoring so hopefully that will continue.”

After the Bosnia trip come back-to-back Nations League games, at home to Austria on Sunday and then away to Norway in Oslo as part of a packed schedule.

Northern Ireland v Norway – UEFA Nations League – Group 1 – League B – Windsor Park

Fans could be allowed in to Windsor Park soon (Liam McBurney/PA)

UEFA’s announcement that some fans will be allowed back into international matches subject to local restrictions has offered hope that there could be a number in attendance for the Austria game, something that Baraclough would wholeheartedly welcome.

“I think it would be massive,” he said. “I really do. It was one of those with Norway where the whole experience of it, not just for the result, but the whole eeriness of the build-up to it, not having fans and wondering what it would be like on the night.

“When we came out and started playing, you could hear the players giving information all over the pitch, that’s strange. You want to hear the fans.

“As a nation we’ve built a rapport with the fans that’s massive, they know they have a part to play, and when they’re not there we’ve lost a certain edge. We want fans back in as quickly as possible.”