|Venue: Windsor Park, Belfast Date: Sunday, 11 June Kick-off: 14:00 BST|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Ulster, live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app, watch highlights on BBC1 NI (22:30 BST)|
Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough has urged fans to aim any criticisms they have at him and not at his players – insisting they will come through their tough spell as a group.
Travelling Northern Ireland fans chanted ‘cheerio’ at Baraclough after Thursday night’s 3-2 defeat by Kosovo.
That loss followed hugely disappointing performances in their loss to Greece and draw with Cyprus, meaning NI go into Sunday’s visit of the Cypriots to Windsor Park knowing that defeat would send them to the bottom of Group C2.
“I think everybody gets disappointed with criticism. Everybody wants to be told they’re good at something and they’re doing well. It doesn’t matter what age you are,” said Baraclough, who has fit-again Paddy McNair available for Cyprus but is without the injured George Saville.
“There are criticisms in all walks of life and we are in a privileged but exposed position, where it’s done through the media, on the terraces or on the street. That’s the nature of the business. If you don’t like it you shouldn’t be here.
“That’s always why the senior players play a big part, to shield the younger ones, so they can go out and play their own game. If they do that, we’ll be good enough to win the game.
“I said to someone the other night to put the criticism on me, not the players. The Northern Ireland fans have shown their backing for the players time and time again. I’ve broad enough shoulders to take it and we’ll come through it as a group.”
A lot of the build-up to Sunday afternoon’s meeting with Cyprus, the last of a quadruple-header in the space of four days, has focused on supporters’ criticisms of Baraclough and whether they feel he is the best man for the job.
The manager said he has no fears about how the Windsor Park crowd might react on Sunday, and also added that he has had well-wishes from supporters also.
“The crowd have every right to say what they said, they turn up, pay their money and support the team,” continued Baraclough, who reiterated his view that his side should be judged on how they perform in next year’s Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, and not now.
“It’s disappointing for me to hear that because clearly we are in a rebuilding phase and clearly we have players out of the squad who would make us stronger.
“We will have a bigger pool to choose from in September and I’m sure we will be stronger.
“I’ve had a lot of well wishes as well. Supporters in the airport with glum faces but they still wanted to come up and say ‘we know what you’re trying’ and they have been appreciative of the players.”
Relegation ‘has not crossed our minds’
Baraclough, who has just three wins in 18 competitive matches in charge, had set his team a target of four wins from all four of these opening Nations League matches, but they have just one point from three going into their fourth game.
They are third in the table, above bottom side Cyprus on goal difference, but – with a trip to Greece and a visit from Kosovo to come to complete the group in September – the former under-21s boss said they are not worrying about relegation.
He also insisted that, despite having made a number of changes for each of their three games, he has always selected what he considered to be the strongest side for each match.
“It [relegation] is not something that has crossed our minds to be honest. It has been a case of ‘on to the next game, concentrate on that one and try to win that next one’,” he explained.
“I sat here a couple of weeks ago saying that I had no thoughts on what my team was going to be beyond Greece and that I will react to every situation.
“Before the Greece game we lost Conor Washington, before the Kosovo game we lost Paddy McNair, so you can have things in your mind but you have got to be very quick to adapt.
“You’d like to have continuity as well, players like continuity, that breeds the confidence and the cohesion. Looking at the games and yes we have had to chop and change, for reasons of fatigue and injuries.
“I 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.”
Senior players must take ‘massive responsibility’ – Davis
Sunday is likely to see Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis make his 138th international appearance on a day when Windsor Park will remember legendary former manager Billy Bingham, who died aged 90 on Thursday, with a minute’s applause before the match.
Davis has experienced a number of highs and lows during a 17-year international career and insisted that the senior players in the squad must take “massive responsibility” as the side look to end a 13-match winless run in the Nations League.
“I think we just need to focus. There’s no hiding away from it, we’ve been disappointed with the results, it wasn’t what we aimed for,” the Rangers midfielder admitted.
He added: “I think for the senior players within the squad, we need to take massive responsibility. We haven’t been happy with the results and some of the performances within the games.
“I certainly think there are positives we can take from Kosovo, certainly after going 2-0 behind and the disappointment, it would have been very easy to let our heads drop, especially off the back of the two previous results and not getting what we wanted, but we showed the crowd we want to keep doing the right things, we got a couple of goals.
“Obviously it was not enough in the end but we just have to remain together, believe in the quality we have. Ultimately we should be doing better and we need to take that on the chin.”