Northern Ireland on mission ‘Ray of Sunshine’ in play-off against Slovakia

Northern Ireland on mission ‘Ray of Sunshine’ in play-off against Slovakia

Ian Baraclough has urged Northern Ireland to make history and bring “a ray of sunshine” to a country in lockdown by reaching the European Championship finals.

Northern Ireland can qualify for a second consecutive European finals and the fifth major tournament in their history with victory over Slovakia in Thursday’s play-off final at Windsor Park.

It would be a momentous achievement for a country of Northern Ireland’s size and resources, and by a team who finished third in their qualifying group behind Germany and the Netherlands, lost the manager Michael O’Neill during the campaign and whose only competitive win in 17 months was on penalties against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the play-off semi-final.

Baraclough, who succeeded O’Neill in June, would be only the fourth man to lead Northern Ireland into a major tournament should they prevail against Slovakia, who defeated the Republic of Ireland on penalties in their play-off semi-final.

The former Sligo Rovers and Motherwell manager said the significance of the occasion will not be lost on his team. “It’s something I always try to remind players: go and try to create history,” he said. “I think that is important for players. You want to be able to look back on your career and say: ‘I managed to win this and achieve that,’ and it would be a massive achievement to make it to another Euros.

“It would be a piece of history that they could look back on and say: ‘Yes, I was part of that group.’ People think footballers are mercenaries and just interested in money but if you get to know footballers more they want to achieve things they can look back on and share with their families.

“To get to the Euros would be an unbelievable achievement for the group of players who started this two years ago. To go through qualifying and now put ourselves in the play-off position; everyone who’s been involved over the last two years deserves a lot of credit.”

Baraclough has received a text from O’Neill while his players will be backed by 1,060 socially-distanced fans inside Windsor Park following talks between the Irish FA and the Northern Ireland Executive.

“Any number of fans in the ground is good,” he said. “There were fans at the Bosnia game and that made it more like normality for the players. We had 600 for Austria and it gave the players a lift. I hope the fans increase the noise and go home hoarse but with a smile on their faces.

“We have the responsibility of lifting a nation and having 1,060 at Windsor Park adds to the occasion. The lads know the nation is fully behind them. We love the responsibility of that. Hopefully, after all the hard work and toil everyone’s had over the past eight months, there can be a ray of sunshine at the end of it.”

Slovakia have had a poor run of results despite reaching the play-off final and possessing the midfield talent of Marek Hamsik. The shootout victory over the Republic of Ireland did not save the manager Pavel Hapal from the sack. Stefan Tarkovic is in temporary charge of a team who have won once in nine matches, penalties against Stephen Kenny’s Republic excluded, and Baraclough said there is uncertainty over the approach of the Slovakia manager.

“All we can do is prepare as well as possible for every eventuality and any changes, and I feel we’ve done that,” he said. “Tarkovic is not a complete unknown to us, he was an assistant to the previous manager when they went to the Euros [in 2016] and had their good run of games. He knows the players and he’s probably a safe pair of hands. But I think we should focus more on ourselves.

“We know if we perform to anywhere near our best we’re a force to be reckoned with. I’m calm and comfortable. I’ve seen the players in training and around the hotel and I can see they are fully on it.”