Winning their UEFA Nations League group and preparing for the next Euros campaign will be the focus for Northern Ireland this year, according to Ian Baraclough.
The Northern Ireland senior men’s team manager said 2022 is “massively important” for his squad’s development.
And he insists the players must maintain standards and find consistency as they strive to win Group 2 in League C of the 2022-23 Nations League competition.
Northern Ireland are top seeds in a UNL group that also features Greece, Kosovo and Cyprus or Estonia.
The Northern Ireland boss said while there was disappointment at the two defeats in FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers back in October the team had performed well in qualifiers in September and November and he would like to see that level of performance once again on a consistent basis.
We have a whole host of players at all age levels in our squad, and they all know they have to be at the top of their game to get into the squad
He believes the squad is in a good place and that competition for places is hotting up following the emergence of several young players during the World Cup qualification campaign.
If the boys in green and white win their Nations League group they could possibly seal a play-offs berth for a place at Euro 2024 in Germany.
Edition two of the UNL saw teams from all four qualifying groups play off for places at Euro 2020, however UEFA has still to confirm if those rules will apply for the third edition.
The first of six Nations League matches this year for Baraclough’s boys will see them take on Greece at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park on Thursday 2 June.
Northern Ireland’s second C2 game is set to be against Cyprus or Estonia away on Sunday 5 June. Cyprus will be up against Estonia in a play-off in March to determine which nation takes the final place in the group and which one drops to League D.
On matchday three Northern Ireland are away to Kosovo on Thursday 9 June, and a busy schedule that month will finish with a game in Belfast against Cyprus or Estonia on Sunday 12 June.
The final two group games for Northern Ireland, who were relegated from League B last time around, will take place in late September.
Their matchday five opponents are Kosovo and the game at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park is scheduled for Saturday 24 September, while their sixth and final game in the group stage will be away to Greece on Tuesday 27 September.
The four group winners in League A are set to advance to knockout finals in June 2023, while the group winners in the other three leagues (B to D) will all be promoted for the 2024-25 competition.
The Northern Ireland boss said he will be using the UNL games and friendlies scheduled for March and October/November to mould his squad ahead of Euro 2024 qualifiers next year.
The manager further revealed he keeps a close eye on how players in the U21 team are developing, while the U19 and U17 international teams are on his radar, too.
Baraclough welcomed deals this month which have seen U21 international Trai Hume sign for Sunderland from Linfield and striker Callum Marshall (17) switching from the Blues to West Ham United.
He said the challenge for both players, and other young players from Northern Ireland who have ambitions to break in to the senior squad, was to build on their potential, establish themselves at their clubs and play games regularly at a decent level.
“We have a whole host of players at all age levels in our squad, and they all know they have to be at the top of their game to get into the squad these days. We choose players based on form,” he added.