Ian Baraclough has insisted Kyle Lafferty can still have a future in Northern Ireland after the veteran Kilmarnock striker was sacked from the squad on Friday morning.
Northern Ireland’s second-highest goalscorer is being investigated by his club after a video released on social media appears to show him using alleged bigoted language.
In a sometimes tense press conference ahead of the Nations League match against Kosovo, Baraclough said a back injury that had kept Laffery out of training since Tuesday and would have ruled him out of Saturday’s match had also played a role in the decision.
The back injury was also mentioned in a statement from the Irish Football Association released earlier on Friday, a statement which did not specify the specific reason for Lafferty’s withdrawal.
Questions about that statement were closed at the ensuing press conference, but Baraclough said there was a way back for Lafferty, 35, who scored the last of his 20 international goals in 2016, and who has been in and out of the Northern Ireland squad for the past two years.
“It’s not necessarily the end,” Baraclough said. “It will be reported in some quarters like this and it will be sensational but I am here for Kyle.
“The thing is, Kyle hadn’t practiced since Tuesday. He has a back problem and that was something that was part of the thinking behind it as well.
The Irish FA will not carry out their own investigation into the matter, leaving it in the hands of the Scottish Premiership.
“He’s not our contracted player,” Baraclough said. “He is with us at the moment, but he is hired by Kilmarnock. They pay his salary, they own his contract and it’s up to them to investigate.
Regardless of the outcome of this investigation, the controversy threatens to undermine the cross-community work the IFA continues to do. Baraclough said he wanted football to continue to be part of the solution in Northern Ireland.
“Although I didn’t live here growing up and having lived with what happened during the Troubles and the way society deals with what happened, I hope that in the future, it’s a stronger and more united nation,” he said.
“For me, we play a part in that by bringing together a group of fans who like to support Northern Ireland and the football team. If you win football games, that makes everyone happy.
Northern Ireland would certainly need a win on Saturday to change the narrative on several fronts, with an away game against group leaders Greece to follow on Tuesday.
Baraclough has heard fans calling for his exit after a winless run in June left Northern Ireland battling relegation from League C – and they are desperate to turn a corner in what could be the two final games before the start of Euro 2024 qualifying in March.
“It’s huge for us, two really important games,” said captain Steven Davis. “We want to get a win here for the fans, they have continued to support us. The results have not been what we would have liked so far but we are just focused.
“We’ve had a full week of training, which we don’t usually get, so hopefully some of the things we worked on in training will show in the game, we get a positive result and I hope this can be a catalyst for us.”
Baraclough said he understood fans’ frustrations but insisted his team could turn the corner.
“When you’re not winning football games, you have to expect that,” he said. “I cut out the noise – I don’t read the press and listen to every little sound bite on the radio or television.
“I know the work we are doing, the work the players are doing, is something that will pay off.”