Michael Walker: Ian Baraclough staying on trend, from Sligo to Windsor Park

New Northern Ireland boss provides continuity and has a wealth of youth to tap into

Ian Baraclough steps up from Northern Ireland Under-21s to take over the senior side. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Inpho

Ian Baraclough steps up from Northern Ireland Under-21s to take over the senior side. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Inpho

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It was late June 2013 and at the Showgrounds in Sligo, Ian Baraclough and his assistant Gary Stevens were sitting in their office talking about winning a League of Ireland title, the possibility of the Champions League, Dixie Dean and all the rest of it.

Baraclough was enthused. “The town is football mad,” he said. “It’s littered with stories – Brother Walfrid founded Celtic; Sean Fallon, Jock Stein’s assistant, has just died; Dixie Dean getting off the train and being carried all the way from the station.”

In Baraclough’s first season, Sligo Rovers had won the League of Ireland for the first time in 35 years, building on the fine work done by Paul Cook – thriving at Wigan Athletic until Wednesday’s administration explosion.

Baraclough and Cook were part of that English managerial tradition at Sligo and it was a recommendation from a previous English manager, Steve Cotterill, which led Baraclough to the Showgrounds.

Almost 20 years earlier, Lawrie Sanchez had sat in the same chair as Baraclough and discussed similar things – Sligo passion, quality of life in the West, the standard of domestic Irish football. And Dixie Dean.

Ian Baraclough with Sligo Rovers supporters in 2012. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Ian Baraclough with Sligo Rovers supporters in 2012. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

As of this week, Baraclough, 49, has followed Sanchez again. This time Baraclough has become manager of Northern Ireland and on Tuesday he used the term “trend”.

Partly, this was because on the announcement of his appointment by the IFA, Baraclough’s phone pinged. “I got a text from Stephen,” he said. It was Stephen Kenny, 48, offering congratulations, having no doubt thought back to when Baraclough was in Sligo and he was at Shamrock Rovers. On that day in 2013, Baraclough said he had applied for the Dundalk job a year earlier, without getting a reply.

Lock horns

Should the two Irelands be successful in their Euro play-offs, the two men will “lock horns again”, as Baraclough put it, in November in Belfast. A guess is that “lock horns” would not quite capture the fraught nature of that night.

As with Kenny and the FAI, Baraclough was promoted to the top job having worked as the national Under-21 coach, where, like Kenny, he oversaw change – Northern Ireland beat Spain, in Spain, for example.

Baraclough referred to Gareth Southgate’s promotion from the same post with England and to Romania appointing Mirel Radoi from the same situation. This is the trend: coaches moving up through their domestic system.

As seen in Sligo, there are others. One is that Baraclough’s Under-21 players, eleven of them, have been given senior debuts by the departed Michael O’Neill. It means there is an element of continuity to Baraclough’s appointment, which also applies to the staying-on senior players such as Steven Davis, Jonny and Corry Evans.

Stephen Kenny and Ian Baraclough ahead of the 2014 Setanta Sports Cup final, in which Sligo Rovers beat Dundalk. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Stephen Kenny and Ian Baraclough ahead of the 2014 Setanta Sports Cup final, in which Sligo Rovers beat Dundalk. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Those Under-21 players such as Gavin Whyte at Cardiff City, Jordan Thompson (now with O’Neill at Stoke) and David Parkhouse at Sheffield United – on loan at Derry City last season – have seen a rise in cautious optimism about the calibre of player coming through the IFA youth network.

Under the nurturing supervision of Jim Magilton, the IFA’s technical director – and formerly O’Neill’s assistant at Shamrock Rovers as well as Ipswich Town manager – there has been a renewed focus on youth development. This has brought an IFA Academy at Jordanstown University outside Belfast.

Magilton was once one of these hopefuls, making an Irish League debut for Distillery at 15 before going to Liverpool in the late 1980s. But that trend, of Irish boys joining top six English clubs, waned.

This week, though, Baraclough also mentioned the work below Under-21 level. It is imperative to be restrained about teenagers’ potential but four northern 16 year-olds – Charlie Allen, Conor Bradley, Charlie Lindsay and Dale Taylor – have just moved across the water to Leeds United, Liverpool, Rangers and Nottingham Forest, respectively.

Ethan Galbraith, just turned 19, is part of the U-21 squad at Manchester United and made his senior debut in the Europa league against Astana in November. On Thursday the former Glentoran goalkeeper Ollie Webber signed his first professional contract at Crystal Palace.

Ethan Galbraith is one of a number of promising young Northern Ireland players who Ian Baraclough could call upon. Photograph: George Wood/Getty
Ethan Galbraith is one of a number of promising young Northern Ireland players who Ian Baraclough could call upon. Photograph: George Wood/Getty

Think of these players and then add other young Irishmen - Gavin Bazunu at Manchester City, Troy Parrott at Tottenham, Adam Idah at Norwich and Jason Knight at Derby County. It is apparent the island is producing talent.

Kevin Zefi at Shamrock Rovers was part of a Republic of Ireland U-15 team which defeated England away last December and Leigh Kavanagh and Andrew Moran are two 16 year-olds due to go to Brighton from Bray this summer. There they will link up with Aaron Connolly who, remember, is only 20.

Significant experience

Moran played for Bray at 15, just as Lindsay played for Glentoran at 15. Both Allen and Taylor have already played for Linfield. This is significant experience and we could do with talking it up.

Ireland’s two domestic leagues may be in flux – a generous description – but imagine if over time the Irish League and League of Ireland can earn themselves a reputation for youth development and opportunity. Then, to return to Sligo Rovers, the likes of Seamus Coleman would not depart for a paltry sixty grand, as the Everton song goes.

Nor would boys have to fly at 16. Children, which is what they are, develop at different speeds physically and mentally. Baraclough spoke this week of his Under-21 players being “battle-hardened” by staying at home and starting in the Irish League. It is different from England’s Academy football, often criticised as formulaic and sterile. It could give Irish boys something else.

It could be a trend, and one that extends to developing coaches. The example of the new national managers, Kenny and Baraclough, is there: you can work in Ireland and get big jobs.

Ian Baraclough celebrates Sligo’s League of Ireland title in 2012. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Ian Baraclough celebrates Sligo’s League of Ireland title in 2012. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

It will not be easy for Baraclough to follow the heroics of the O’Neill years, though there may be reduced expectation. Either way one imagines it will not disturb him.

Baraclough has not had it easy. When we spoke in Sligo those years ago he talked calmly about his family upbringing in Leicester. He was the youngest of five brothers; his mother died when he was eight-years-old; he was raised by his father. Although Baraclough joined his boyhood club Leicester City as a striker, his playing career was at Lincoln City, Mansfield, Notts County, QPR and Scunthorpe as a defender.

Nigel Adkins was his manager at Scunthorpe and when he left, Baraclough was offered the job. As he said: “Gary Hooper, Matt Sparrow and Grant McCann were all sold. I went in at the deep end. I was sacked after six months.”

He signed on the dole after that. But he coached his way back and as he said this week, he has been “on the island of Ireland for a good six, seven years. I’ve been made welcome.”

There’s nothing trendy about his route; in another six, seven years, we will review if he was on trend.

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