Ian Baraclough wants Northern Ireland to take encouragement from their most recent Nations League performances as they target a place at the 2022 World Cup.
Baraclough's side suffered relegation in the Nations League in November, failing to win any of their League B1 fixtures, but the manager saw promise in the performances if not the results.
Last month Northern Ireland were handed a tough World Cup qualifying draw with Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Lithuania in Group C, but Baraclough remains optimistic of reaching the Qatar finals.
"I know it’s going to be tough, however we played well in quite a few of our UEFA Nations League games towards the end of 2020 and we can take great heart from that," Baraclough said.
"Our aim is to qualify and everybody involved in the set-up is focused on that. We haven’t been to a World Cup since 1986 and we would love to rectify that."
Only the group winners will be guaranteed a place in the finals, with second place securing a play-off berth.
"I firmly believe the coming years could be special ones for Northern Ireland if these players are allowed to come through and flourish"
Baraclough’s only victory since taking over from Michael O’Neill last April came in a penalty shootout against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Euro 2020 qualifying, though their hopes of reaching the finals were then dashed against Slovakia.
The former Under-21s manager, while navigating a tough run of fixtures, has handed game time to youngsters including Dan Ballard, Ali McCann and Ethan Galbraith as he looks to the future, and said nurturing the next generation was a key part of the task ahead.
"I would like to build up game time for the younger players," he said. "I firmly believe the coming years could be special ones for Northern Ireland if these players are allowed to come through and flourish."
The pandemic has meant Baraclough has only twice had any sort of crowd present for his games in charge in Belfast, with 600 fans witnessing the Nations League defeat to Austria and a little over 1,000 fans on hand for the Euro 2020 qualifying final loss to Slovakia.
Now Baraclough is looking forward to a time, perhaps later in the year, when he can finally lead out the side before packed stands at the National Football Stadium.
"I don’t want to be the Northern Ireland manager who only got to see his team play in front of just over 1,000 fans in Belfast. I want the chance to lead the team out in front of a full house," he said.
"We are, of course, still feeling the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and I would urge everyone to work together to beat it. Sporting organisations have previously stepped up to support the battle against the virus and I am confident they will continue to do so."