Northern Ireland celebrated a first win of their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 4-1 victory over Lithuania which manager Ian Baraclough said was extra special given the hurdles they had overcome.
Injuries to the likes of Jonny Evans, Corry Evans and Josh Magennis, plus the unavailability of Stuart Dallas for personal reasons, left Baraclough relying on a number of youngsters but they delivered as Shayne Lavery and Dan Ballard scored their first international goals in Vilnius.
There was also a key penalty save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell as Lithuania threatened to come from 2-0 down and equalise in a chaotic start to the second half, while Conor Washington and Paddy McNair both scored from the spot.
It gives Baraclough a first competitive win inside 90 minutes, just two days shy of a year since his first game in charge.
Injuries have not been his only problem in this window, with assistant Austin MacPhee leaving at short notice to join Scotland before his replacement Adam Sadler was ruled out of the trip by a bereavement.
“I’m delighted with the result,” Baraclough said. “We’ve had a lot of disruption – as have Lithuania losing their coach (Valdas Ivanauskas, who tested positive for Covid-19 days after taking the job).
“We lost a couple of coaches through the week and we’ve had many injuries to top players. We’ve come here with a young squad, and to get a result like that away from home, score four goals and with that manner of performance, I thought it was excellent. I’m really pleased for them.”
After Ballard opened his account midway through the first half, Northern Ireland looked to be in control after Washington doubled the lead from the spot. But within moments the visitors failed to deal with a corner and were punished emphatically by Rolandas Baravykas.
When Lithuania were then awarded a penalty it threatened to all fall apart, but Peacock-Farrell denied former Hearts winger Arvydas Novikovas from the spot before Lavery made it 3-1 as momentum swung once again.
“It was a big, big moment in the game,” said Baraclough, who will now be without McNair through suspension for Wednesday’s qualifier against Switzerland as he was booked for tripping Justas Lasickas after a mistake by Craig Cathcart.
“Lithuania were on top of the game at that time. I’ve looked at it again, whether or not it was a penalty is irrelevant now but I’m disappointed it was given and my man was booked.
“But when (Peacock-Farrell) was asked the question, he’s a big goalkeeper, it was a big performance. He’s done it before and he’ll do it again. He’s only a young lad, 24, he’s gone on loan to Sheffield Wednesday from Burnley and you can tell he’s getting regular games.
“It was a key moment and it shifted the momentum again. We had to go and make sure we worked hard to create the chances and take the chances when they came. It wasn’t easy like 4-1 might suggest.”