Ian Baraclough was left frustrated as he blamed rustiness for a below-par performance which saw Northern Ireland start their Nations League campaign with a 1-0 home defeat to Greece.
asos Bakasetas got the only goal with 39 minutes gone as Northern Ireland were punished for a flat first half, unable to muster a response after two 34-year-old substitutes, Kyle Lafferty and Niall McGinn, belatedly added some spark in the final half an hour.
It means Northern Ireland remain winless in 11 games since the inception of the Nations League, while Baraclough has only one victory in as many games at Windsor Park in all competitions.
“It’s a disappointing result,” Baraclough said. “I’m looking at the chances for both sides. I thought it was a fairly even game in that respect. They’ve taken theirs from a breakaway after a skirmish in the middle of the park and scored just before half-time which deflates you.”
With a squad of players drawn from different leagues, many of whom have not played a competitive match in several weeks, Baraclough said the fitness levels of his side played a role.
“I thought in the first half you could see a team of players that haven’t played for a little while,” he added. “Not everybody, but there was rustiness, we couldn’t get the first pass away, couldn’t find the through ball, the cohesion and the timing of runs.
“The intensity looked a little low. Some were holding back, not sure if they could make the 90 minutes. In the second half we had more intensity and that gets the crowd going a bit more and it takes us forward more.
“I’d have liked more crossing. I think we turned down crossing, and certainly when you bring a guy like Laff on who thrives on crosses, Dion Charles as well, that’s the impact of the substitutes that you’re looking for.”
Manchester City’s Shea Charles came on to make his debut with 10 minutes to go, the 11th player to be handed his first cap by Baraclough, but though there were several youngsters on at the end, it was Lafferty and McGinn who had offered hope of finding an equaliser.
“Sometimes you do need that experience,” Baraclough added. “Sometimes you give kids a chance and we will do – I thought Shea Charles looked very assured and that’s a credit to him – but some of the younger ones were panicking at times, not wanting to give the ball away. You are going to make those mistakes but you need to learn from it.”
The final whistle was greeted by some boos from the Windsor Park crowd as they saw their side suffer more frustration in this competition.
“I think we’re all disappointed,” Baraclough said. “I understand the fans come here and want to see us win games of football. We’re all frustrated as a squad, as a coaching staff, and I have to go away and look at it, show those players where they can improve.”
Defeat looks like a major setback in Northern Ireland’s bid to get out of League C, with Gus Poyet able to celebrate victory in his first competitive match in charge, three points that could set them up to boss the group.
“It’s a very, very important win,” the former Chelsea midfielder said. “I really liked the way that we won the game. Everybody knows the quality of the players we’ve got but the players suffered, they put energy and intensity in, their bodies on the line to play for their country so I’m very proud.
“(Northern Ireland) had more crosses but the best chance of the game was the goal and they didn’t have anything like that. I was nervous with all the balls coming into the box, you feel under pressure, but in reality our goalkeeper made only one save.”