A friendly wedged between two crunch World Cup qualifiers certainly did not feel like a burden to Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough after Shane Ferguson’s super strike earned his side a 1-0 win in Tallinn on Sunday evening.
Before kick-off, the match with Estonia arguably appeared an unwelcome distraction and a stretch of already limited resources, but a victory, a clean sheet, and no fresh injuries meant this was a job well done on all fronts for Baraclough’s men.
And coming on the back of Thursday’s 4-1 qualifying victory over Lithuania, it gives Baraclough back-to-back victories for the first time and a sense of momentum going into Wednesday’s meeting with Switzerland who will head to Windsor Park only three points above Northern Ireland in Group C.
“I’m always enthusiastic about matches, it gives me a chance to get game time for players who haven’t been playing,” Baraclough said. “I’m more than happy to play friendlies and always happy when we win.
“We’ve talked about getting on a roll and making sure we continue that upward curve. That’s three wins in the last four. It’s never a chore winning games of football.”
Northern Ireland were already without Jonny Evans, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, Josh Magennis and George Saville for this trip, leaving Baraclough with limited options as he sought to rest key men ahead of Wednesday.
He made nine changes to his side, with Paddy McNair – suspended for the Switzerland game – keeping his place along with Jamal Lewis, who started due to an injury concern for Ferguson, who would instead make the most of his second-half substitute appearance as he collected a 50th cap in style.
Instead there were starts for the likes of Tom Flanagan, Liam Donnelly – back from a year out following knee surgery – and Kyle Lafferty, who was not initially part of the squad before Magennis’ injury.
“It was difficult because we brought players who haven’t been together for a while and some players who haven’t been in the squad for a while,” Baraclough said.
“It’s all about giving people experience and game time so that when they’re called upon in a qualifier they know what it’s all about.”
To that end, there was also a first start for Alfie McCalmont as the 21-year-old, on loan at Morecambe from Leeds this season, earned his fourth cap.
“He was a little terrier breaking up the play,” Baraclough said of the midfielder.
McCalmont was originally due to be in the Under-21s for this window, but was added to the senior squad as injuries bit.
“The gaffer told me in training (on Saturday) I was starting and I was delighted,” McCalmont said.
“Just getting my first start and showing what I could do, to go out and enjoy the occasion, play my normal game, I loved it.
“Definitely I just want to keep playing, keep getting called up. My aim is to get a place with the seniors. I’ve got to keep putting in good performances when I’m called upon and I thought I did that.”
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