Ian Baraclough likens replacing Michael O’Neill to following Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, such was his predecessor’s achievement of taking Northern Ireland to Euro 2016. But victory over Switzerland on Saturday would raise hopes of something even better.
The generation that revived the national team is ageing now but a new group has emerged during World Cup qualifying, an encouraging mix of youth and experience. The group includes talent from some of the most famous academies in England.
“We are on a new cycle now, with a younger element,” Baraclough tells Sky Sports. “For the Euros, I was probably working with Michael’s team. The pool of the players is greater now, there is more energy and I think the senior players welcome that.
“With the senior players nurturing these youngsters, there is a good blend. People thought it would be the end of an era. They wondered what we were going to do for the next 10 years. Hopefully, people now see that this does not necessarily have to be the case.
“Replacing Michael was a privilege and a massive challenge. But we are in a really good place and we have an opportunity now. To go there and get a result away in Switzerland would rank alongside anything that I have achieved in football.”
Baraclough is speaking in the lobby of a hotel in Leicester, where he is checking in on star player Jonny Evans. This is also the city in which he was born in the winter of 1970.
Nevertheless, his use of the first-person plural is frequent and significant. He feels Northern Irish now. “I do not say that lightly,” he adds. He talks of the hairs standing up on the back of his neck as supporters sing Sweet Caroline. “A Northern Ireland anthem not an English one.”
He is aware that there would have been more popular appointments when he was named as O’Neill’s replacement last year. There were homegrown options. But he is the continuity candidate in his own way after some remarkable results as U21 coach.
Four points from the last international window have won supporters around, according to a recent poll, and there is optimism again. World Cup qualification would be some achievement for a man who has had to scrap for everything that has come his way.
Baraclough lost his mother when he was eight, learned to cook and iron for himself at nine. “We all had to muck in,” he says of life with his four elder brothers. “Losing a parent and dealing with that, it teaches you life-skills. It toughens you up.”
It was difficult for his father, a pattern-maker working with wood and metal at an engineering firm in Leicester. “As a father to four daughters now myself, I understand much more what my dad had to go through to help us all to become men,” says Baraclough.
“I was going out with my dad when he went on his second job at night, which was collecting money off people on council estates. In effect, he was a debt collector. I do wonder what he must have gone through just to put food on the table for his boys.”
His work ethic was established early, his talent too. It was honed in the garden with his brothers, earning an opportunity at Leicester where he marvelled at Gary McAllister’s abilities. “It was not just his talent, he made the most of that talent. He worked at it.”
Baraclough was not in that league. “I knew I was not the best player in the world.” But he had a fine career as a striker, left-back and centre-half before finishing up in midfield. “I was a jack of all trades, master of none. But I maximised everything. I have no regrets.”
There were no guarantees of a coaching career. Instead, he opened a women-only gym with his wife. “I would go in there a couple of days a week as well as playing and coaching. It was about understanding their goals, whether that was weight loss or toning up.”
When he reflects now, these were transferable skills. It was all good preparation. “It was about talking with people, listening and understanding what they need. It is much the same with players. What do they want to achieve? What goals do they have?
“With Jonny Evans and Steven Davis, they have been to a Euros, they have played at the top level. But they still have goals. It might be to play in a World Cup. It might be to achieve 100 caps. It might be for Steven to create a caps record that will never be beaten.”
David Pleat and Sam Allardyce were influences during his playing career, although it was Nigel Adkins who helped to alter his thinking at Scunthorpe.
“His work on players from the mental side, I learned a lot. He wanted to know their background, their mentality. Just from talking to them, it helped him to understand people better. You glean so much information about their lives and what drives them.”
It was there that Baraclough’s coaching journey began. He arrived as a player at 32, expecting his stay to be brief. But the team defied the odds to reach the Championship. “It was like pushing water up a mountain.” He took them back there as Adkins’ assistant.
He would have joined his boss when Southampton came calling. “My bags were packed.” But Saints chairman Nicola Cortese only allowed Adkins to take one assistant with him so Baraclough stayed on as Scunthorpe manager, trying to keep the club in the Championship.
“It was a steep learning curve,” he admits. Sacked when Iron dropped into the relegation zone for the first time, that might have been that. “I knew the stat about first-time managers that 50 per cent of them don’t get a second chance.”
Instead, almost a year later, there was a call from Sligo Rovers “out of the blue” in 2012 with the League of Ireland club looking for a new manager on the eve of the new season. Steve Cotterill had recommended him. It was a turning point in Baraclough’s career.
“There were pressures at home, the need to put food on the table. We still had the gym. I could have drifted into that but I still clung to that dream of working in football, maintaining a player database. I didn’t know where Sligo was but I knew it had to work.”
The season started in a hurry. “I signed the deal on the Thursday and we started against Shelbourne on the Friday so I did not have a pre-season. We had to go with the group. You are in at the deep end.” But it ended in glory. A first league title in 35 years.
Baraclough’s father and brothers came over for the dramatic victory over St Patrick’s Athletic that sealed it. “It was a massive achievement for a club outside the suburbs of Dublin, a special day for everyone. The celebrations went on for weeks.”
These are the experiences that have shaped him. The day, in 2015, that he kept Motherwell in the Scottish Premiership by winning a relegation play-off against Rangers. They won the second leg 3-0 after winning 3-1 in front of 50,000 at Ibrox. “And 49,700 of them were baying for blood,” he says.
“The press leading up to that was all about how they could not wait to get the Old Firm back. It was a foregone conclusion. We stalled it for another year. That probably showed that we had the tools to deliver on a big occasion. It was like international management.”
When he did it for real, things went even better. That most recent step, as Northern Ireland U21 boss, was surely the most significant. In his one full qualifying campaign, his team won six matches, three times as many games as they had managed to win in the previous three campaigns combined, even beating Spain away.
“It was a change of mindset to take the game to the opposition,” he explains. Now, he is attempting to achieve something similar with the senior side. It was a tough start. A 5-1 defeat to Norway stands out. “Erling Haaland blew us away. He just took us apart.”
But the rebuild started in March and bore fruit in September. There was a 4-1 win over Lithuania, victory in Estonia, and that goalless draw with Switzerland, as young players stepped up in the absence of key senior figures. This was why Baraclough was hired.
“To get that victory in Lithuania, four goals away from home in a World Cup qualifier on what could have been a difficult night, with young players playing key roles, was massive.
“We had almost sacrificed results in the Nations League to get them that experience so that when they came up against a Switzerland when they were needed, as we were without five starters, they were ready. We finished with nine under the age of 25.”
Among them were Arsenal’s Daniel Ballard and Liverpool’s Conor Bradley. Baraclough has been in touch with Jurgen Klopp to follow the latter’s development. There is Sam McClelland at Chelsea, Ethan Galbraith at Manchester United and Alfie McCalmont at Leeds.
The talent is there. Baraclough is committed to bringing it through, aware that, perversely, it might be the role of the international manager to provide these players with the game time to show they are ready for their clubs. Importantly, there is hope once more.
For England, Germany, Spain and France, it happens every two years. For us, it will come in cycles. For us, we have to nurture a group. The challenge is to show the public that there is life there and we can be back there where Michael took us in a couple of years.”
O’Neill is still a sounding board. The pair both live in Wilmslow. “We do meet up over a beer.” With Baraclough’s contract up next month, he just hopes that is doing enough to convince everyone that he deserves the opportunity to see the job through.
“Michael had to go through some heartache,” he adds.
“Hopefully, the Irish Football Association can see what we are trying to do as well. It is just pleasing to see we are on the right pathway.
“What we are doing is right.”
Watch Switzerland vs Northern Ireland live on Sky Sports Football from 7.15pm on Saturday; kick-off 7.45pm