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Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough insisted he was ready to shoulder the criticism coming his way as he called on fans to allow the younger players in his squad time and space to develop.
Baraclough has asked for patience during a rebuilding phase with several senior stars out and teenagers Shea Charles and Brodie Spencer, plus Irish League forward Conor McMenamin, having been handed debuts this month.
But the manager left the pitch in Pristina on Thursday night with angry fans chanting ‘Cheerio’ after a 3-2 defeat to Kosovo made it now 13 Nations League matches without a win, and only one point from three games in a group in which Northern Ireland started as top seeds.
Though negativity has spread through sections of the fanbase ahead of Sunday’s match against Cyprus, Baraclough said it was vital that did not impact the young players in his squad.
“It’s part of my job to make sure those kids are shielded from it and it doesn’t affect them, that they can go out and play their own game,” he said. “If they can do that we can be good enough to win the game.
“Put the criticism on me. Don’t have a go at them (players). They’ve got to go and perform. This Northern Irish crowd have shown time and again their backing is there. I’ve got broad enough shoulders to take it.”
Though booing has been evident at recent games, Baraclough said fans who had seen the squad at the airport travelling back from Kosovo had offered their support.
“You’re always going to have mixed views,” he said. “It’s one of those things, you’ve got to take the criticism as well as the praise. I never try and get too high and never get too low, I learn that pretty quickly…
“(Fans) have got every right to say what they say. They turn up, pay their money and support the team. It’s disappointing to hear that, clearly. We’re in a rebuilding phase. No disrespect to the players that have come into the squad but there’s a lot out injured that would make us stronger.
“Come September we’ll be stronger for these games.”
Baraclough, who had initially targeted 12 points from this month’s four games, reiterated his view that his side should be judged not now but how they get on in next year’s Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, but he is aware a good result on Sunday would go along way to easing tensions.
“I and we don’t want to go into September mulling over having not got a win in any of these four games and thinking about it for four months,” he said.
Frustration at recent results comes after the high bar that has been set in recent years, though it is worth remembering that Michael O’Neill struggled in his first two years before the turnaround that saw Northern Ireland reach Euro 2016 and come close to both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020.
Captain Steven Davis, who has seen plenty of highs and lows in his 137 caps to date, said it was important to retain that perspective.
“Playing for Northern Ireland, you know there are going to be difficult moments,” he said. “Ultimately we need to hit a high level as a group to get results consistently and we’re not always going to get that level of consistency.
“We know the challenges ahead of us and the positive from this group has been the young players coming in and doing well.
“Ultimately when you go out on the pitch, you want results and that’s what it will be about tomorrow.”