Ian Baraclough: 'When Northern Ireland offered me the job, Oldham didn't want to release me - normally, clubs can't wait to get rid of me!'

Tue, May 29 2018

Baraclough guided Sligo Rovers to their first league title in 35 years. Credit: Eddie Lennon (ETPhotos)

Ian Baraclough didn’t experience sustained achievement as a player until a stint with his final club Scunthorpe United, but he can arguably be viewed as Sligo Rovers’ most successful manager.

Baraclough, who currently oversees Northern Ireland's under-21s, bridged a 35-year gap when he led the Bit o' Red to the Premier Division title in his first season.

On the brink of the 2012 League of Ireland season, the Englishman inherited Paul Cook’s vacant managerial role, with the emphasis on continuing his predecessor’s impressive work.

The achievement was all the more remarkable as he only took over on tin late February following the surprise departure of Paul Cook for Accrington Stanley.

With little time – or leftover budget – to bring in his own players, Baraclough concentrate on continuing the processes put in place by his predecessor – with startling success.

He won the FAI Cup in his second season, alongside a second-place finish in the league, and the Setanta Sports Cup in his third but was sacked without warning on the eve of a Europa League campaign.

“I looked at what Sligo had done in previous seasons,” the Englishman tells extratime.ie.

“I knew the club was on the up and had success in cup competitions, but the league eluded them.

“Paul’s timing was a shock to everybody, but he’d put good things in place and it was a case of not changing too much. You feel pressure going into any job, which you put on yourself.”

Despite bridging a 35-year wait for Premier Division supremacy, amongst other silverware, Baraclough parted company with Sligo in 2014, feeling more feats could have been accomplished.

“It came as a surprise. We won the league that first season, came second and won the FAI Cup the next and the following year won the Setanta Sports Cup.

“We were mere weeks away from playing Rosenberg in the Europa League and I wanted us to prevail in that.

“Then I got the phone call about ending my tenure. They won that tie and it was disappointing I wasn’t part of it.”

Baraclough’s playing career saw him on the books of hometown team Leicester City, Grimsby Town, Lincoln City, Mansfield Town, Notts County twice (capturing the 1997/98 Fourth Division in his first spell) and Queens Park Rangers.

With retirement seemingly approaching, Brian Laws snapped up the veteran defender on a free transfer in 2004, moving him to Scunthorpe’s central midfield, which proved to be a masterstroke.

“I signed at 33, thinking that it was to be my last year or so. I’d dropped down into League Two, so I was prepared for life after football. That first season, we got promoted into League One.

“We started that okay and cemented our place. Then Brian went to Sheffield Wednesday and Nigel Adkins took over. I was asked if I’d support him, not knowing how long for.

“Nigel ended up full-time and I was assistant/player. We won League One in 2007, then got relegated and promoted again via the play-offs, beating Milwall at Wembley. My career highlight, at 38.”

Concentrating on coaching from 2008 onwards, Ian succeeded a Southampton-bound Adkins as the Iron’s manager in September 2010, but six months later got dismissed, surprising many football observers.

“I had discussions with the chairman because I was wary of taking over. The team hadn’t been invested in, as much as other Championship clubs. We were bending spoons and overachieving.

“We brought in strikers and sold them: Billy Sharp, Andy Keogh, Martin Paterson, Gary Hooper. For massive profits and weren’t able to bring in the same level of player.

“If I was taking over for the season’s remainder and got relegated, as was expected, I was to be manager in League One.

“When I got sacked, it was the first time we dropped into the bottom three. Disappointing, but it put me on the road to management.”

It wasn't to be the last time Baraclough was to be unceremoniously dropped despite being satisfied with the job he was doing, as he'd discover after three years of a largely successful spell in Ireland.

Upon leaving Connacht, Ian scouted for Huddersfield Town before taking over the reins at Motherwell.

He led the Steelmen to 2014/15 Scottish Premier League survival following a play-off victory over Glasgow Rangers.

Once again, Baraclough found himself to be a victim of his own success, to an extent, when a poor start to his second season in charge led to his swift removal.

“It was some achievement. They didn’t understand the work required going in there. I felt I had to take the job, but with an ageing squad that needed overhauling.

“It was about bringing in fresh players and building the club up again. We ticked the box of staying up by beating Rangers. Nobody wanted to be there, but we did it.

“To be only given seven games in the second season dismayed me. Handing over to somebody else, benefitting from our labour.

“It was never a short-term project, but I wasn’t allowed to see that through.”

These days, the Leicester native is in charge of Northern Ireland’s under-21s, preparing players to step up to Michael O'Neill's senior squad.

It was a personal connection made during a brief stint at Oldham Athletic after leaving Motherwell that paved the way – with a little help from his fellow League of Ireland alumnus O'Neill.

“I was contracted to Oldham Athletic as assistant manager to Stephen Robinson, who previously worked for the IFA.

“Having an up-and-down season with Oldham, Stephen, halfway through, got moved on. John Sheridan came in for the remainder of the campaign.

“I was still number two, but felt that the club or John was going to make a change, bringing his own backroom team in.

“When this opportunity came, I hadn’t worked in international football and it appealed to me, having spoken to people about the role.

“Michael O’Neill said that lots of candidates had applied, but to throw my CV in, and I was chosen as one of six to be interviewed.

“When I was offered the job, I went to Oldham and they didn’t want to release me from my contract, which is unusual. Normally, clubs can’t wait to get rid of me.”

His role as under-21 coach does, from time to time, require Baraclough to navigate the contentious area of player eligibility.

Baraclough recognises Northern Irish-born players’ option to represent the Republic, if they wish to do so, and prefers to focus on what he can offer them in the Northern Irish set-up.

“I’m not going into the politics of both countries, but there are certain rights and laws in the Good Friday Agreement that impact on the sporting side.

“When I took the job, I didn’t realise that anyone born in Northern Ireland could declare for the Republic, but not the other way around. It narrows the pool of players.

“I think it’s a case of getting players when they’re younger, bringing them through the system and making sure they know that there’s a pathway through to Michael’s senior team.”