Ian Baraclough has urged Northern Ireland’s youngsters to seize their chance after Stuart Dallas was added to an already lengthy list of absentees for Thursday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania.
Dallas has not travelled to Vilnius for personal reasons, adding to Baraclough’s worries with Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Josh Magennis and George Saville already missing for a crunch fixture Northern Ireland must win to get their campaign on track.
But Baraclough said it was now an opportunity for the likes of Ali McCann and Dan Ballard to build on the impressive starts they have made to their international careers and prove they belong in his starting XI for the long-term.
“We all know how good a player Stuart Dallas is but we’ve also got players desperate for a chance to play,” said Baraclough.
“As soon as they came in, the first meeting, we said make sure you’re ready to play. Don’t come in thinking you’re going to be a bit-part player. Everyone knows they’ve got a chance of playing.”
McCann and Ballard have both shone in the handful of opportunities they have been afforded to date, with the former’s star continuing to rise as he secured a deadline-day move from St Johnstone to Preston on Tuesday.
Baraclough believes both can now take the next step.
“It’s time to see them fly,” he said. “We had a period where we were talking about bringing young players into the squad – they’ve been integrated very, very well. They know what to expect.
“At some stage you have to say to them, ‘Now you need to kick on and cement your place in the squad and in the team’.”
Just shy of a year after his first game in charge, Baraclough is still seeking a maiden competitive victory inside 90 minutes.
With only one point from their opening two qualifiers, Thursday’s game looks a must-win fixture to keep hopes of challenging alive, but Baraclough is optimistic the position could be very different by the time Switzerland visit Windsor Park next week.
“If we can take three points from this game, the Swiss have to play Italy (on Sunday) so by the time we play the Swiss we could be two points behind,” he said.
“By the end of this international window we could come out ahead of the Swiss if we can get the right results. It’s a massive window for us and hopefully we can get the right results out of it.”
A goalless draw with Bulgaria in March was all the more disappointing given Northern Ireland had earned plaudits but not points in a 2-0 defeat to Italy a few days before.
But captain Steven Davis, back in Baraclough’s squad after sitting out June’s friendlies, insisted there was plenty of build on.
“I don’t think we got the result our play deserved, that’s the frustration, but definitely there were signs of improvement, signs we’re on the right track,” he said.
“We just have to stick to our principles and if we do that hopefully things will turn in terms of results.”
With Lithuania in miserable form, and now under the guidance of new manager Valdas Ivanauskas, there is certainly an opportunity on the artificial surface of the LFF Stadium.
Davis admitted experience had taught him the difficulty of winning away from home in international football, but said Northern Ireland remained full of belief.
“(The mood) is positive,” the Rangers midfielder said. “We’re coming here with the mentality that we have to win the game. We want to put ourselves in the position where we are going to be challenging come the latter stages so we know how important the game is going to be.”
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