Michael O’Neill excited by next generation of young Northern Ireland stars
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Michael O’Neill believes the next generation of Northern Ireland players beginning to come through is more exciting than anything he saw during his previous reign.
O’Neill has been forced to name a number of youngsters in his first squad since returning to the job in December, with the likes of Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans and Liam Boyce all injured for the opening Euro 2024 qualifiers away to San Marino and at home to Finland.
Everton teenager Isaac Price is among four uncapped players within the 26-strong squad, which also includes Manchester City prospect Shea Charles, teenaged striker Dale Taylor, as well as Conor Bradley and Trai Hume.
When O’Neill took charge for the first time in 2012 the vast majority of those who would lead Northern Ireland to Euro 2016 had established themselves in the side, but as O’Neill looks for the players who can eventually replace Davis, Evans et al, there is much cause for optimism.
Price – a player O’Neill has monitored since seeing him play alongside Charles as part of an academy fixture at the age of 14 – sealed his call-up with a strong performance in front of the watching O’Neill when he played for Everton Under-21s against PSV Eindhoven last Thursday, albeit in a losing cause.
“I was very impressed by how he played, hence his inclusion in the squad,” O’Neill told the PA news agency.
“Those are the little things that as an international manager excite you. The first time around I didn’t feel I had young players like that.
“If I look back, the equivalent of that was probably Shane Ferguson trying to break through at Newcastle. Shane has gone on to earn over 50 international caps and that’s hopefully what these boys aspire to as well.”
This was not the squad O’Neill envisaged naming when he returned to Windsor Park in December.
Dallas, who broke his leg at the end of April last year, had set himself the ambitious target of being fit for this window but is not yet fit, while the long-term injuries to Davis and Corry Evans both occurred since O’Neill returned.
With Ali McCann also out, Northern Ireland’s midfield options have been hit hard.
“The challenge has been around making sure we’re equipped in midfield, and then padding out the squad a little bit,” O’Neill said. “I’ve chosen to do that with young players predominantly but I don’t think I’ve done it at the expense of players people would say should be in the squad.
“Those younger players do excite me. They’re in the infancy of their careers, trying to establish themselves as first-team players…
“I think we’ll ask a lot of a number of younger players throughout the campaign but we have to believe they are ready and are capable of being able to contribute, and I believe they are.”
A trip to San Marino is an opportunity to start strongly in Group H – which also includes Finland, Denmark, Slovenia and Kazakhstan – but with expectation comes pressure.
“Those games are never the ones you enjoy in international football if I’m honest,” O’Neill said. “We’ve enjoyed over the years being the underdogs and Northern Ireland always punched above their weight as the underdog.
“We’ve played in San Marino before in 2018 and though it was a sticky enough game we won 3-0 in the end, but it’s never as straightforward as everyone thinks.
“San Marino will be hugely motivated to get a result. They don’t win many games so we have to prepare for it as we would for Germany or France. The game plan can be different but the focus is the same.
“It’s the first game of the campaign and we have to make sure we do everything properly, get the result, and roll that into the second game against Finland.”
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