Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough hopes to have the right sort of selection headaches ahead of him next month after a number of young players stepped up to stake their claim over the last week.
Baraclough was missing key regulars in this international window, with Jonny Evans Stuart Dallas, Corry EvansJosh Magennis and Liam Boyce among those unavailable.
But his side still managed to take four points from their World Cup qualifiers against Lithuania and Switzerland with a friendly win over Estonia in between.
Bailey Peacock-Farrell saved a penalty for a second qualifier in a row in Wednesday night’s goalless draw with Switzerland, but Northern Ireland were arguably the better side on the night, creating more chances from open play at Windsor Park.
“I thought we looked solid, compact,” Baraclough said. “I didn’t feel as though we were in trouble of losing a goal other than the penalty, which was clearly a big chance for them. From open play I didn’t feel as though we were in danger.
“We’ve brought players together who haven’t been playing together for that long, who don’t know each other, and they’ve put in a performance that has sent the fans home very, very happy.”
That was in large part down to the displays from young players like Ali McCann, Shayne Lavery and Daniel Ballard – who look ready to make regular starting places their own.
“I think they all want to be part of the squad next month and it will be such a difficult decision to leave people out,” Baraclough added. “If players get fit again, it’s a great conundrum for me to have. For sure the pool of players is stronger now, definitely.”
Ciaron Brown made his first competitive start, replacing the suspended Paddy McNair in Baraclough’s back three, while 18-year-old Liverpool right-back Conor Bradley came on for Michael Smith in the second half for his own first competitive appearance.
Baraclough said that pointed to the success Northern Ireland have had over the last 12 months in expanding their pool of players to increase competition in the squad.
“You’ve seen a lad who is 18 years of age and I’ve no hesitation in throwing him in as one of the first substitutes,” he said of Bradley.
“He’s come in and handled himself way beyond his 18 years, and he dealt with the pressure in a near-enough full house playing his first competitive game. He lifted the crowd, he enjoyed the crowd, and these young players are not fazed by it.
“That gives us something to look forward to. We have to show patience, let’s not expect it to happen all at once. I think we’ve been working towards that for over a year and I think there’s more to come because we’ve got more young players desperate to step up.”
Wednesday’s draw leaves Northern Ireland third in Group C, still three points behind the Swiss ahead of next month’s re-match in Geneva.
Switzerland boss Murat Yakin had selection headaches of his own with Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka among a number of players unavailable this week, but Baraclough said his side can head into next month confident of being able to compete.
“Switzerland were missing three or four big players but we’re missing five or six,” he said. “Their pool of players is probably five times as big as ours, (players) playing at big clubs, and we’ve gone and matched them and more.
“They’re ranked 14th in the world, a good side, and that’s testament again to what our players have done and that excites us for the future.”
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