Ian Baraclough was sacked as Northern Ireland manager in October 2022, having narrowly avoided relegation to the bottom tier of the Nations League; He feels his time was not done in the role, but is now looking towards the future in football management
Wednesday 1 March 2023 19:38, UK
In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with Sky Sports News' Paul Gilmour, Ian Baraclough speaks for the first time since leaving his role with Northern Ireland.
He was sacked as manager in October 2022, having narrowly avoided relegation to the bottom tier of the Nations League.
Baraclough spent just over two years in charge after replacing Michael O'Neill, who has now returned as Northern Ireland boss. The former Scunthorpe boss lost 14 of his 28 games in charge.
Four and a half months after his departure, Baraclough reflected on his time as the national team manager, his dismissal and what the future holds for him...
Paul Gilmour: How do you look back at how your time at Northern Ireland ended?
Ian Baraclough: "I felt it was cut short and that my time wasn't done. I had one World Cup campaign so to be compared against anyone is unfair in my mind. I was told I was to be judged on World Cup and Euros campaigns.
"Looking back at the World Cup campaign we came third behind European champions Italy and a top-10 European side in Switzerland so it was difficult.
"I look back with pride at not conceding a goal at home in that campaign. It was great for a team that was still building, with some young players alongside great senior role models."
PG: Looking back on the draw at home to Italy, did that give you belief that things were going in the right direction?
IB: "There was so much on that game for Italy. Speaking to the late Gianluca Vialli afterwards he said that we defended like Italians. I took that as a great compliment because of the way we set up and the way the players implemented that game plan. We created chances as well and it felt like we were on the right pathway.
"For it to come to an end after a Nations League campaign which was obviously disappointing with the results, but for a lot of people it was still a development period.
"I'd just signed a new contract and it was all about preparing for the Euros qualifying campaign. To attend the draw and get a favourable one, I'm sure there was confidence we could qualify. To not get the chance to continue was a disappointment."
PG: What went against you towards the end? Was it Nations League results, Michael O'Neill becoming available, a kind Euros qualifying draw or a combination of all those things?
IB: "It's difficult for me to answer that one to be honest. After the June games, when we had 11 or 12 players unavailable, I can say it now that some players look at the Nations League as glorified friendlies.
"Quite rightly some players needed a rest, especially after Covid. The amount of pressure the players were putting their bodies under during that period made it tough. It was difficult for players and to manage during that period was challenging.
"By June, players were fatigued. Fortunately,we still had Jonny Evans and Steven Davis because they were coming back from injuries, but the likes of Craig Cathcart needed a rest and I'm sure he'll be back for the Euros. It was a situation that you had to take the players' thoughts into consideration.
"I knew the results in June weren't good enough. I was always in conversation with Patrick Nelson and my superiors at the IFA and they said results need to improve. Beating Kosovo at home after being a goal down showed that the players were invested.
"Having had time to reflect on that I feel a little hard done by, but I understand they had to make a decision. We got a favourable [Euro qualifying] draw and Michael was available. They obviously felt that was the way they wanted to go and that's their prerogative."
PG: Do you feel you're a better manager for the experience?
IB: "Definitely. Not working with the players for weeks on end to get ready for two or three games and getting them in on the Sunday at best for maybe a Thursday game. You have to wait for the assessment from the medical staff to see if they can train.
"I've got players I want to see in my team so it might be you walk through things in training. I was fortunate that I had top players who knew how to look after their bodies and who could take on information without necessarily going into it in depth on the pitch, so we could do things in the meeting room.
"You're then working with younger players who haven't been in that environment and helping them settle in, giving them the confidence that they're good enough to be here. These are players as young as 17 who haven't even played a first-team game for their club.
"There are also players like Ali McCann and Daniel Ballard, who are still young, but viewed as established squad members now because they've applied themselves so well and they've had time to develop."
PG: You had to develop young players, but also knew Republic of Ireland were interested in some of them. How did you manage that?
IB: "Even before me, it was a challenge to compete with Republic of Ireland for young players. I think there was a real surge in the recruitment from down south and we knew there were certain players they were targeting. I knew they were all over the likes of Conor Bradley, Paddy Lane, Charlie McCann and Shea Charles.
"For me, it was about talking to their families, talking to the players themselves and their clubs. It was about encouraging them that the pathway was there to senior football. It wasn't a case of just giving them caps to tie them down. These players were given opportunities because of how we value them. They weren't given promises but they were given a chance."
PG: How good could Shea Charles of Man City and Liverpool's Conor Bradley be?
IB: "It's going to be difficult to feature for Liverpool and Man City regularly but they're on the right pathway. Man City have kept Shea in-house and playing with the U21s and training with the first team which is fantastic. What an education for a young player to learn from Pep, the best coach on the planet.
"It's probably harsh on Jurgen Klopp, maybe the second best! Conor has gone out having been with the first team and now he's playing at Bolton. I spoke to Conor and his family about that move and it's a good place to learn the trade. Conor is ripping it up. He's been very good and is showing he's capable of stepping up to the next level."
PG: How do you reflect on beating Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-finals, but defeat to Slovakia defeat in the play-off final?
IB: "Two very different emotions. We had five days building into the Bosnia game so the plan was very clear. Even with the penalties, I'm not one of these people who leave it up to the players.
"We picked the five best takers and that meant bringing on Liam Boyce and Conor Washington specifically to take a kick. I was scared that the ball wasn't going to go out of play to get them on! They were stood there for about two minutes before they came on.
"The players were fantastic on the night. Niall McGinn has gone under the radar. He was fantastic for me and got the goal. Our preparation from the staff was perfect. I remember Steve Harper [then goalkeeping coach] ready to hold up yellow and red cards for Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who had instructions written on his water bottle.
"We felt capable enough to go on and win the final. If it was a full house I think we'd have gone on to win it. The Covid factor was there again but we got a well-deserved equaliser. I felt we would have gone on to win the game, but it didn't happen for us. It was fine margins and we were so close to going to the Euros."
PG: Do you have any regrets?
IB: "No. We were on a pathway. We'd talked about working with the underage groups. Everyone was aligned. That's where we were going. I knew there were times I had to take a hit with results to try and give players the experience. My record was the same as Michael's at this stage so it's difficult to compare what could have been."
PG: Will it be difficult to watch the March games against San Marino and Finland?
IB: "I loved how I was received in Northern Ireland and I loved the Northern Irish people. I love what they stand for. They enjoy life and their sport. They want their team to win and I feel Northern Irish.
"Of course I want them to do well. There will be a part of me in March that will be hurting because you want to be there. I loved meeting the lads when we met up. I wanted to be a part of it, but that chapter is now closed and I need to move on."
PG: What is next for you?
IB: "A bit of education. I've not studied for anything since my LMA diploma and pro license. I'm going to take on a master's degree in sporting directorship. That interests me down the line but I want to get back into club football.
"I think I can build a young squad, work with young players and give them the confidence to put them on the right pathway."
PG: Would you consider international football again. Would you look at clubs abroad or in the UK?
IB: "Primarily I've looked at club football and I've spoken to a few chief executives since being out but it's not been quite right. I've got no divine right of getting in at any level. I've got no perceived level to choose from.
"For me, if it's the right time with people who would give enough time to build a squad is ideal. I feel like I've built up enough experience and I'm better at my job than I was five years ago."
PG: With the Kyle Lafferty and Conor McMenamin situations, how difficult was it to deal with social media in football management?
In September 2022, Lafferty withdrew from the Northern Ireland squad after video evidence emerged of him allegedly making a sectarian remark in a nightclub. A day later, McMenamin also withdrew after a historical video emerged in which he appeared to sing a pro-IRA slogan. However, he rejoined the squad a few days later after he was cleared by an Irish FA independent disciplinary committee.
IB: "It has become more prevalent. Social media can be helpful to promote your club, but it can be a hindrance. It can throw up things historically.
"You mentioned Conor McMenamin. To pull him into my room half and hour before leaving the hotel for the Kosovo game was heartbreaking. I'd given him his debut and he deserved his chance. He did well when he came in and I know what it meant to him. It was a difficult conversation to have but you have to do the right thing at the right time.
"At that moment, we were unsure of all the facts. As a head coach or leader, you are a teacher, a father figure, a social worker and have got to be ready for those times. Looking back, I think we got more right than wrong and you become better for those experiences. I'm a better person for it."