Michael O'Neill warns: Northern Ireland must shape up and not risk Euro 2016 place
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has warned his squad they must be in the best shape possible when they turn up for matches with Qatar, the Republic of Ireland and Romania or face expulsion from the squad.
By the time the players meet for the friendly against Qatar in Crewe on May 31, leading towards the vital Euro 2016 qualifier with Group F leaders Romania at Windsor Park, many of those in O'Neill's 28 man panel, announced yesterday, won't have kicked a ball for a month, but according to the boss that will be no excuse for a lack of fitness.
With Northern Ireland closing in on a place in the Euro finals, O'Neill says that the players must be professional or risk the possibility of being dropped and missing out on a trip to France next year.
O'Neill said: "The players have all been given programmes to follow ahead of the squad coming together. The biggest thing is that if a player turns up and has not looked after himself or is not in shape he won't be in the squad going forward.
"That would be a very stupid thing for any player to do given what hopefully we could be involved with down the line. When we meet up the players have to be ready to play."
Strong words from the manager. Wise words too. Nothing should be allowed to jeopardise Northern Ireland's outstanding chance to reach the finals of a major tournament for the first time since 1986.
The headline news from O'Neill's squad announcement was places for Sheffield Wednesday's uncapped 22-year-old striker Caolan Lavery and Ross County's Liam Boyce, whose former Cliftonville team-mate Joe Gormley didn't make the cut. Also absent for the Qatar friendly at Gresty Road, the behind-closed-doors training game against the Republic of Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on June 4 and the June 13 Romania qualifier will be St Johnstone goalkeeper Alan Mannus who is getting married.
At IFA headquarters yesterday O'Neill revealed that he had been tracking the progress of Lavery and Boyce, and believes this is an ideal opportunity to look at them in the senior squad.
The manager admitted that he was tempted to select Cliftonville sharp shooter Gormley, but wants him to land a cross channel move in the summer, after which the striker will be considered again.
He said: "I have spoken to Joe and said to him this may not be the right time for him. I do get calls from clubs in England and Scotland about Joe for an opinion and it would be nice to see Joe get that opportunity, but the other lads in the squad are younger, full-time players and what we need at this point in time."
On Mannus, who has enjoyed another fine season at club level, O'Neill, who is also without the injured Ryan McLaughlin and Sammy Clingan, said: "Alan's wedding was planned some time ago and he did let me know that well in advance. Alan at this moment is prioritising his personal situation."
Roy Carroll remains Northern Ireland's number one with Michael McGovern and Trevor Carson, replacing Mannus, acting as back up.
O'Neill hopes to use as many of the 28 players listed as possible in the three matches, and is considering a back three involving Manchester United's Paddy McNair for the Qatar game.
He knows though that only one match really counts - the top of the table clash with Romania. Win that and Northern Ireland fans can start booking next year's holidays for France.