Ian Baraclough boosted by performance of Northern Ireland youngsters in Austria

Ian Baraclough praised the performances of his young players as he picked out positives from Northern Ireland’s 2-1 Nations League defeat to Austria on Sunday night.

After taking the lead through Josh Magennis in the 75th minute, Northern Ireland conceded twice in the last 10 minutes – with Louis Schaub appearing offside for his 81st-minute equaliser – to slip to a defeat which leaves them on the brink of relegation in the Nations League.

It was another painful night three days after hopes of reaching Euro 2020 were dashed in a extra-time defeat to Slovakia.

But if that loss had raised questions about the long-term futures of some senior players, there were signs of the next generation on Sunday as Ali McCann made a strong debut in midfield and Dan Ballard again looked assured in defence.

Following 120 emotionally and physically draining minutes against Slovakia, Baraclough made eight changes in Vienna but a side featuring several younger players held its own against an experienced Austria side.

“There were so many positives,” Baraclough said. “There were a lot of questions thrown at the group after the other night, but speaking to their manager very quickly then, he complimented our mentality.

“They expected us to be down, feeling sorry for ourselves but far from it.”

Baraclough said he had no hesitation in naming the 20-year-old McCann in his midfield with the St Johnstone youngster having made a positive impact in the group since getting his first call-up last month.

“He’s so measured in the way he goes about his work,” Baraclough said. “He puts in a lot of hard yards and is prepared to go the extra yard too. His use of the ball is simple and good.

“He’s a quiet lad, very unassuming, very humble. You don’t know he’s about at times. He’s just feeling his way into the group but what better way to go and do that than going to show yourself like that.

“He’s gained a lot of respect from the other players.”

With Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart both on the bench there was a fourth cap for Ballard after he made his debut in September and the Arsenal defender, on loan at Blackpool, did not look phased by facing Austria’s powerful attack.

“He’s another one that’s got an old head on young shoulders,” Baraclough said of the 21-year-old. “He’s dealt with stepping up, coming into the team last month for a couple of games where he could have been startled but no.

Norway v Northern Ireland – UEFA Nations League – Group 1 – League B – Ullevaal Stadion
Norway v Northern Ireland – UEFA Nations League – Group 1 – League B – Ullevaal Stadion

“His mentality is so measured. The lads love him, the way he goes about his work. He’s the same on the training field, he does it the right way.

“It’s a credit to him, a credit to Arsenal and his family. He’s someone I’ve enjoyed working with at the Under-21s and I’ve no hesitation bringing him into the group.”

Northern Ireland must now await a ruling from UEFA on the cancelled Romania-Norway match to learn their fate in the league.

Romania are expected to be awarded a walkover win – a decision that would relegate Baraclough’s men before the two sides meet in Belfast on Wednesday – though other options including the drawing of lots are also possible.