Kofi Balmer handed first senior Northern Ireland call-up for Nations League ties

·3-min read

Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough has handed Crystal Palace defender Kofi Balmer his first senior call-up for the UEFA Nations League matches against Kosovo and Greece.

Baraclough’s side play League C2 rivals Kosovo at Windsor Park on Saturday, September 24 and then face Greece in Athens the following Tuesday (September 27).

Balmer, 21, who joined Palace from Larne this summer, is the only uncapped player in Baraclough’s 24-man squad, while there are several other changes after the four Nations League games in June.

Wigan striker Josh Magennis, Sunderland midfielder Corry Evans, plus Rotherham’s Shane Ferguson and Newcastle’s Jamal Lewis are among those who have returned to the squad.

Key players Craig Cathcart and Conor Washington have not been included after recently returning from injury, while goalkeeper Trevor Carson was a late withdrawal – replaced by Luke Southwood – after initially being named in the squad.

Baraclough has come under pressure after his side lost to Greece and Kosovo and drew twice with Cyprus during a series of disappointing results in their previous four Nations League games in June.

When asked if he was still the right man for the job, the 51-year-old said: “I wouldn’t still be sat here if I didn’t.

“I knew what I was taking on when I first took the job and I knew it certainly wasn’t going to be plain-sailing.”

The former Scunthorpe, Sligo and Motherwell boss added: “It was a difficult June, a difficult four fixtures that we wanted to glean more from, but that’s gone now, we can’t do anything about that.

“I hope we don’t just get judged on the June window. That would be harsh on everybody.

“In the two previous windows we ended the World Cup (qualifiers) by beating Lithuania and drawing with the European champions (Italy).

A section of Northern Ireland fans called for Ian Baraclough to go during his side's 2-2 draw against Cyprus at Windsor Park in June
A section of Northern Ireland fans called for Ian Baraclough to go during his side’s 2-2 draw against Cyprus at Windsor Park in June (Niall Carson/PA)

“We then went away and beat Luxembourg in March and lost narrowly in a close game to Hungary, who then went and beat England twice in June.

“I think these June games, especially when they’re Nations League, can get a bit distorted.”

Some fans chanted for Baraclough to go in the previous two games, which ended in a 3-2 defeat in Kosovo and a 2-2 home draw against Cyprus.

Baraclough added: “Hopefully we can give them something to smile about, something to cheer about and to see there is a progression in this squad going forward.

Watford’s Craig Cathcart is not ready to return to international action
Watford’s Craig Cathcart is not ready to return to international action (Isaac Parkin/PA)

“We’ve said about it being a two-year cycle going towards hopeful qualification for the next Euros and we can look back on June and see it was part of the journey going forward.

“We got better as the four games went on, but still, clearly the results weren’t good enough for where we want to be and expect to be. We want to finish these two games on a high.”

On the omissions of Cathcart, Washington and Carson – Leeds midfielder Stuart Dallas is recovering from a fractured femur – Baraclough added: “Although they’re playing for their clubs they have one or two on-going issues.

“For instance Conor has to have regular injections, so not to risk anybody is the reason behind that.

“The same with Trevor Carson. Although he was initially named in the squad, Trevor is having to look after himself between games.”