Dan Ballard admitted Northern Ireland are a long way off where they need to be to reach their goal of qualifying for Euro 2024.
The 22-year-old defender scored his second Northern Ireland goal on Thursday night to offer hope of a late fightback against Kosovo but it was not to be as the match ended in a 3-2 defeat in Pristina.
Northern Ireland began this Nations League campaign as top seeds targeting top spot in League C Group Two but are yet to end a winless record in the competition which now stands at 13 games, showing few signs they could challenge for a place at the Euros as the pressure mounts on Ian Baraclough.
Responding to the disappointment of Sunday’s goalless draw in Cyprus, Baraclough had said his side should be judged not on results now but in the coming qualifying campaign, but a vast 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 knows more is required.
“We are missing a lot of key players in our team and we can be proud of the way we performed,” Ballard said.
“Of course it is nowhere near the standard of where we want to be. We want to be qualifying for the Euros and qualifying for the World Cup and we have a long way to go.”
After flat performances in the 1-0 home defeat to Greece and the goalless draw away to Cyprus, Northern Ireland at least showed more threat in Pristina, although it came too late after Kosovo took a 2-0 lead inside 20 minutes through 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 might have been the final word before Ballard’s header from a Jordan Thompson free-kick sparked a late charge.
“As a team I felt the performance was a lot better, compared to the last two games,” Ballard said.
“We felt we dominated through large periods of the game and looked really threatening. It was three really sloppy goals and we were frustrated with that but the performance was better and hopefully we can take that forward and the results will turn.
“I thought we were quite threatening from set pieces which was another positive. I was probably more happy to score in front of the fans. It has been really though giving them nothing to celebrate.
“I know we have lost again and we are extremely disappointed but at least we gave them something to cheer about.”
After Baraclough received an angry reception from fans at the end of the match, with several supporters singing ‘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 extremely important and going back to Windsor the expectation is to win the game.
“After the Kosovo match we will go in with a lot more confidence. We played Cyprus away and on our turf with a better performance we should get a result.”