Wins over Bulgaria and Mexico in the past week impressed Northern Ireland U21s manager Ian Baraclough.
But he was also enthused by the attitude of his squad on and off the pitch during a training camp in Spain which included the encounters against the Bulgarians and Mexicans.
Baraclough said: “With several new faces in the squad we arrived in Spain not really knowing what to expect, however it went really, really well. The players, old and new, integrated very well.
“We have introduced a more possession-based style of play and that suits the group. I think the training sessions and the performances against Bulgaria’s U21s and Mexico’s U22s have given us a good platform to build on.”
Falkirk striker Shayne Lavery, on loan from Everton, scored the only goal in the 1-0 win against the Bulgarians and followed it up with the winner in the 2-1 victory over Mexico’s U22s. Fellow striker David Parkhouse scored the other goal against the Mexicans.
Both Lavery and Derry City player Parkhouse, who is on loan from Sheffield United, were among seven players at the training camp in Estepona who featured in the U21s’ last campaign when theyfinished second to Spain in Qualifying Group 2 for the 2019 U21 Euros and narrowly missed out on a play-off.
The rest of the squad in Spain included eight players who stepped up from the U19s as well as some new faces.
Baraclough said younger players such as Manchester United midfielder Ethan Galbraith (17), Leeds United midfielder Alfie McCalmont (19), Dunfermline Athletic striker Lewis McCann (17), who was a late addition to the panel, and Rangers defender Daniel Finlayson (18) had “stepped up and handled it really well” when they got game time.
He was also impressed by players who operate in the NIFL Premiership and Championship week in, week out.
The U21s boss said the likes of Kofi Balmer (Ballymena United), Glentoran midfielder Chris Gallagher and Glentoran full-back Nathan Kerr, plus Portadown goalkeeper Declan Dunne, who is on loan from Cliftonville, had shown good quality in both training and during the matches.
Baraclough said the camp had given him food for thought in relation to the make-up of his panel for the next qualification campaign. He still has six other players from the last U21 Euro qualifiers - they did not travel to Spain for various reasons - who he can consider for selection.
Two of those players, centre back Daniel Ballard (Arsenal) and goalkeeper Conor Hazard (Partick Thistle, on loan from Celtic), were actually called into Michael O’Neill’s senior squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers during the recent international break – and Baraclough believes it shows once again that O’Neill is willing to give younger players a chance.
The training camp on the Costa Del Sol was stage one of preparations for the 2021 U21 Euros qualifying campaign. It gets under way with a game against Malta in September and Ian Baraclough’s side will also face Denmark, Romania, Ukraine and Finland in Qualifying Group 8.
Next up for the U21s is a training camp at the FA’s St George’s Park complex in England in June.
“I am enthused by what I saw in Spain and I am looking forward to the next campaign,” added Baraclough.