Ian Baraclough admitted a series of late changes had hampered Northern Ireland’s preparations before they suffered a 5-1 rout at the hands of Norway at Windsor Park on Monday night.
Though Steven Davis made his 119th appearance to equal Pat Jennings’ Northern Ireland caps record, the team-sheet was more notable for the absence of Jonny Evans and Jamal Lewis as Baraclough was forced to employ a makeshift backline.
Up against an attack led by Borussia Dortmund’s rising star Erling Haaland, it proved costly as Norway scored three times in the opening 20 minutes on their way to a comfortable Nations League victory.
“Over the last 24 or 36 hours the team has changed about five times,” Baraclough said. “Little niggles, little strains that we’re never going to take a risk with…
“Maybe we could have played a couple of other players, if it was a Euro play-off we may have had more of a full squad to pick from, but we’re not going to take any chances. That’s my responsibility, I’ve made that decision and hopefully that will bear fruit.”
As the game played out amid the echoes of an empty Windsor Park, it was hardly the night Baraclough would have hoped for in his first home game in charge.
Evans missed Friday’s 1-1 draw with Romania in Bucharest for “personal reasons” but had trained with the squad over the weekend before withdrawing on the eve of the game.
Baraclough said his eyes were on next month’s Euro 2020 qualifying play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and making sure his players remain fit in the build-up.
“There’s a bigger picture and we’re never going to take a risk that someone could carry a knock and they could make that worse,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer every time.
“I’ve told the lads to be honest, there’s no judgement, and I think we’ll be stronger for it next month.”
Lewis’ absence comes as a prospective move from Norwich to Newcastle draws closer, which Baraclough admitted was a factor.
“With Jamal it was perhaps a bit of both,” he said. “It’s been a tough week mentally. He was feeling something, a little niggle and we couldn’t take a chance but he wanted to play.
“He’s got the high probability of seeing his move to Newcastle come through so hopefully he comes back in a different frame of mind. He’s had a lot to contend with over the last week or 10 days and it’s not helped matters.”
With Evans and Lewis missing, Northern Ireland were exposed at the back by a number of diagonal balls, with Mohamed Elyounoussi, Erling Haaland and Alexander Sorloth all scoring early on before the latter pair doubled up in the second half.
“Tonight we’ll take on the chin, we’ll take our medicine,” Baraclough added. “It’s not too many times you come up against a strike force like that.
“We’ll come back in a few weeks with more competitive games and training under their belts and better conditioning.”
With the strikeforce at his disposal, Norway manager Lars Lagerback does not need to worry about too many opposing defences but he had singled out Evans in advance of the match.
“I know him maybe the best of all the Northern Ireland players, I know his skills both from (Manchester) United and Leicester and what he has done for the national team,” said the Swede.
“Of course I can’t say I was feeling sorry for our team when I saw he wasn’t on the team sheet.”