It says a lot when you face the European champions who need to get a result in World Cup qualifying, and are left disappointed with a goalless draw.
That is exactly how Northern Ireland and Ian Baraclough felt after Monday’s result against Italy, who in turn missed out on an automatic place at the World Cup finals in Qatar next winter.
“I had a few words with Gianluca Vialli at the end and he said that was a typical Italian masterclass defensive performance,” said Baraclough.
“I’ll take that and the boys can be proud of that. To be compared to a performance that the Italians would normally churn out, you know you are probably doing something right.”
The high praise from Roberto Mancini’s number two Vialli, a giant of the game in his own right, states a lot of about Northern Ireland’s showing in Belfast.
Looking at the stats before the game there was plenty to fear for a Northern Ireland side who had little to play for. This was a formidable Italy side who had lost just one of their last 40 games, which included a 37-game winning streak, and brought extra impetus as European champions.
Mancini’s slick Italian machine was expected to come out and remove any possibility of losing out to Switzerland in the race for automatic qualification, yet when the Swiss took the lead against Bulgaria the Italians had no response.
They arguably should have already booked their spot at the World Cup next winter. Two missed penalties by Jorginho, on both occasions against Switzerland, have ultimately cost them.
Yet, right from a rousing rendition of both anthems, by British-Italian soprano Carly Paoli, decked out in a full Northern Ireland kit, it was the underdogs who looked up for the fight.
There were a couple of close shaves when Federico Chiesa and Di Lorenzo tested Bailey Peacock-Farrell, but Northern Ireland, who had earlier chances through George Saville and Stuart Dallas, should have won the game when Conor Washington was denied by Leonardo Bonucci’s goal-line clearance in injury-time.
Overall, it was an up and down campaign for Northern Ireland under their new manager, but the result against Italy harked back to the glory days under Michael O’Neill and the David Healy-inspired famous nights at Windsor Park against England and Spain.
The noise and passion among the 16,000 sell-out crowd was raucous, and in truth the visitors looked slightly shell-shocked. This Northern Ireland team was expected to lie down yet, backed by the Green and White Army, almost created the biggest of upsets.
“I don’t think there are enough words to describe how I feel after that,” said Baraclough.
“It is actually tinged with disappointment, if it wasn’t for Bonucci on the line there we could have been talking about a historic win.
“With the game plan, the boys have gone and worked their absolute socks off and all credit goes to them.”
Third place in the group isn’t a lot to shout about, but it gives Northern Ireland something to build on moving forward and Baraclough has taken great confidence in the fact that his side did not concede a goal at home in the campaign.
“I’m not sure how many teams will have got through a home campaign without conceding a goal,” he added.
“We talk about beating one of the bigger nations and being able to compete, and it is work rate and togetherness like that we are trying to forge with new players coming in.
“We are trying to build for the Nations League and the Euros, and we can compete on any given night. As a group together, along with the supporters, we can go a long way.
“We aren’t going to get carried away with ourselves. It is a great result for us, it could have been better, but we will take it.”
Despite the questions in the build-up to the game about the future of captain Steven Davis, Baraclough believes he will add to his 132 caps and Monday’s draw with Italy “wasn’t his final salvo” in a green shirt.
“I just wanted to thank him for his efforts again on a great night. He deserves the accolades he gets from everybody in the group,” he added.
“Everyone loves him and knows how important he is for us all. He can play on until he is 40 at least.”
It was just a rubbish connection – Washington
Washington, a second-half substitute, came on and gave Northern Ireland a second wind as the starting legs began to tire. His late chance was a missed opportunity to write himself in NI’s folklore, but the Charlton Athletic striker says he is still taking the positives from his cameo.
“It is one of those as a striker, as you go past him you think should I pull the trigger but if the way I did take the chance goes in then nobody questions that,” he said.
“That’s just the life of being a striker. My job is to get in those positions and put the ball in the net, obviously I haven’t done that but I’ve come on and managed to get into a couple of good positions. I will try and take those positives.
“I bet he [Baraclough] wishes I had snatched at it now. It was one of those where you get in that position and you think you’ve done everything right but it was just a rubbish connection, I just didn’t get enough on it. It has nearly snuck in, anything in the corner or higher goes in. I’m disappointed but it was nice to get in there and keep my composure until that point.
“As I’ve gone past him I’m looking across and I’m thinking someone has to be there to tap this in but to be fair the lads had put in such a shift that they couldn’t manage to get close to me.
“I genuinely felt like I’d done everything right, I managed to get it on to my left but it was a connection issue. Any sort of clean strike and it goes in.”
So close, yet so far summarises Baraclough’s tenure to date, and now the challenge, with the bar set by the Italian performance, is to push on from here.