Manager Ian Baraclough believes Northern Ireland will be in a stronger position going into the remainder of their World Cup qualifying campaign after blooding youngsters and testing regulars in a positive end-of-season training camp.
The campaign ended with a 1-0 friendly defeat to Ukraine in Dnipro on Thursday night, and Baraclough said there was plenty to draw on ahead of fixtures against Lithuania and Switzerland in September.
He could point to a strong second half in which Northern Ireland threatened to dampen the party atmosphere inside the stadium as Ukraine prepare for Euro 2020, and to the experience gained both by young players and regulars asked to play out of position.
Sam McClelland made his debut – following on from Conor Bradley on Sunday – while the likes of Gavin Whyte, Niall McGinn and Daniel Ballard were deployed in different roles to gain experience.
“We have to be patient, we can’t just expect these young players to come in and hit the ground running suddenly at a level where it’s taken years for Jonny (Evans), Craig (Cathcart) and Stuart Dallas to get to – they’re at the top of their game at this level for us,” Baraclough said.
“You do have to have a good bit of patience, but we’ve seen one or two in different positions, we’re asking players to do something they’re probably not used to but that’s something we need to do.
“If you’re asking someone to go and fill in for 15-20 minutes at the end of a game you’ve got to know whether or not they can do it and a lot of players have done themselves the world of good on this trip.”
Cheered on by the 15,000 fans allowed into the Dnipro Area, Ukraine made a fast start and took the lead 10 minutes in through Oleksandr Zubkov’s header.
Northern Ireland look overwhelmed early on, but went close through Ciaron Brown’s header late in the half before enjoying the better of the game for long periods of the second half.
“We knew the game was going to be a tough one,” Baraclough added. “When they were warming up and the crowd was being whipped up, with the noise they made we knew they’d come out of the blocks fast and there were periods in the start when they could have hurt us more.
“We had to pull together for long periods of the first half, although we ended up having probably the best chance of the game and their goalkeeper pulled off the best save of the game.”
A change of shape at the break helped Northern Ireland, who also seemed to cope better with the usual rush of substitutions in the second half of the friendly.
“We changed it to a 3-4-3 to try to get more of a foothold in midfield and I thought the lads dealt with that fantastically,” Baraclough added.
“If you take into consideration Ukraine have only lost once in their last 15 games at home and that was to Germany…they’ve beaten Spain here, drawn with France and taken some decent scalps. They’re getting ready for the Euros and had something to really fight for.
“But we were by no means embarrassed, we created little half chances of our own and maybe could have hit the target on a couple more occasions, been a bit more incisive and believed in ourselves a bit more.
“But I can’t fault the players for effort. They’ve come off shattered after a long double season, they’ve gone to the well once more and gained a lot of respect from me and the staff for the effort they’ve put in.”