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Baraclough calls on Northern Ireland side to 'lift spirits of nation'

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Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough

PA

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough

Defiant Ian Baraclough has backed his players to get the job done tonight and create another piece of Northern Ireland football history.

Excitement and anticipation is at fever pitch ahead of the Euro 2020 play-off final, their winner-takes-all battle with Slovakia at Windsor Park.

Just over 1,000 fans will be in attendance due to Covid-19 restrictions but Baraclough believes they will go home with golden, life-long memories.

Victory would see Northern Ireland qualify for back-to-back European Championships for the first time and it would be only the fifth major tournament in their history after World Cup final adventures in 1958, 1982, 1986 and then Euro 2016.

In only his sixth match in charge after succeeding Michael O'Neill, Baraclough would become only the fourth manager to steer the team to a major finals after Peter Doherty, Billy Bingham and the current Stoke City boss.

The former Sligo Rovers and Motherwell manager knows the stakes are high but he's confident his troops will hold their nerve.

"It's something I always try to remind players: go and try to create history, whether that's at club level or with the U-21s or now with the seniors," said the Leicester man who turns 50 next month.

"By winning certain games, you put yourself in that position. It's for other people to judge but we know that to get to the Euros would be an unbelievable achievement for this group of players who started this two years ago.

"To go through the round of games, qualifying, now put ourselves in the play-off position, everyone who has been involved in those two years deserves a lot of credit.

"When you start off, you want to be able to look back on your career and say: I managed to win this or that, it would be a massive achievement for this team to make it to another Euros.

"It would be a piece of history that they could look back on at the end of their careers, and say 'yeah, I was part of that group'.

"That is important for players. People forget. They think that footballers are mercenaries and are just interested in money but I think if you get to know footballers more, they want to go on and achieve things, they want things to look back on and to share with their families, and this group can go and say in a few years that they have gone on and achieved something together."

It's been a tough year for everyone as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to bite and Baraclough hopes his side can be a "ray of sunshine" during the darkness.

"I want the fans to try and enjoy themselves as much as they can, whether that's in front of a television or whether it's the 1,060 that come to Windsor Park," he added.

"The lads know that the nation is fully behind them. We love the responsibility of that, to try and put a smile on people's faces. Stick with us, it's not for the lack of trying and I think eventually that hard work and toil that everyone's had over seven or eight months, hopefully there can be a ray of sunshine at the end of it."

Slovakia are also aiming to reach the Euro finals for a second time after their debut appearance in 2016.

Stefan Tarkovic is the new man in charge after Pavel Hapal was sacked just eight days after beating the Republic of Ireland on penalties to make the play-off final.

"We know that if we perform to anywhere near our best level, we're going to be a force to be reckoned with. That's what we've tried to concentrate on," Baraclough added.

All the big names have reported fit and raring to go, apart from the injured Corry Evans.

"We have the responsibility of lifting a nation, having 1,060 fans adds to the occasion . . . we want to put a smile on the faces of the people."

Northern Ireland also have Nations League matches in Austria on Sunday and at home to Romania on Wednesday, but they are occupied by more pressing matters just now.

Northern Ireland v Slovakia

Live, VM Two/Sky Sports, 7.45pm


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