Dan Ballard has admitted Northern Ireland are far from where they need to be to achieve their goal of qualifying for Euro 2024.
The 22-year-old defender scored his second Northern Ireland goal on Thursday night to offer hope for a late fightback against Kosovo, but that was not to be the case as the match ended in a 3- 2 in Pristina.
Northern Ireland have started this Nations League campaign as top seeds targeting top spot in League C Group 2, but are yet to end a winless record in the competition that s now stands at 13 games, showing few signs that she could challenge for a place at the Euros. the pressure is mounting on Ian Baraclough.
Responding to the disappointment of Sunday’s goalless draw in Cyprus, Baraclough had said his side should not be judged by results now but in the next qualifying campaign, but big improvement will be needed.
Ballard, the Arsenal defender who spent last season on loan at Millwall, echoed the manager’s point that several key players – Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, Josh Magennis and Craig Cathcart among them – are missing, but know that more is needed.
“We are missing a lot of key players in our team and we can be proud of the way we played,” Ballard said.
“Of course, it’s far from the level where we want to be. We want to qualify for the Euros and for the World Cup and we still have a long way to go.”
After flat performances in the 1-0 home loss to Greece and the goalless draw against Cyprus, Northern Ireland at least showed more threat in Pristina, although they came too late after Kosovo took a 2-0 lead in 20 minutes thanks to goals from Vedat. Muriqi and Zymer Byqyti.
Shayne Lavery pulled one back on the stroke of half-time, but Muriqi’s second in the 52nd minute could have been the last word before Ballard’s header from a Jordan Thompson free-kick sparked a late charge.
“As a team, I felt the performance was much better, compared to the last two games,” Ballard said.
“We felt we were dominating for long periods of the game and looked really threatening. It was three really sloppy goals and we were frustrated by that, but the performance was better and hopefully we can move on and the results turn.
“I thought we were quite threatening from set pieces, which was another positive. I was probably happier scoring in front of the fans. It was really good not to give them anything to celebrate.
“I know we lost again and we’re hugely disappointed, but at least we gave them something to cheer about.”
After Baraclough received an angry welcome from supporters at the end of the match, with several supporters chanting ‘Cheerio’ to the man who replaced Michael O’Neill two years ago, Northern Ireland must respond in Sunday’s home game against Cyprus.
Ballard said: “Sunday’s game is hugely important and coming back to Windsor we expect to win the game.
“After the game against Kosovo, we will go home with much more confidence. We played Cyprus away and on our ground with a better performance, we should get a result.