Belfast Telegraph

Magilton gives Milk Cup stars the chance to shine

By Stuart McKinley

Jim Magilton will reward three of Stephen Craigan's Milk Cup winning squad with under-21 caps this afternoon.

Jamie Harney of West Ham United captained Northern Ireland's under-20s to Milk Cup success in July and he will be joined in the team to face Serbia at Shamrock Park by Watford's Josh Doherty and Aaron McEnuff of Tottenham.

They are joined in the squad by Paddy McNair (Manchester United), Liam Nolan (Crewe Alexandra), Cameron Dummigan and Luke Conlan (both Burnley) as Magilton uses the last match in the 2015 European Championship qualifying campaign to blood those who will form the nucleus of the next under-21 squad.

"We have brought a lot of under-19s into the squad early, to give them a taste of what it will be like when they move up," said Magilton, who doubles up as the IFA's elite performance director and under-21 manager.

"They will come in with a winning mentality because they have won games at that level and that will be a help to them.

"They are going to be up against a top class side, because Serbia have some quality players, but it is important that we bring them through.

"I have no doubt that the experience will be great for them."

Northern Ireland lost their first five matches in the group, including a 3-1 defeat in Serbia last October, in which James Gray scored, but can still avoid finishing bottom of the group with a win if Cyrpus lose their game in Italy.

Gray has since gone on to gain experience with Michael O'Neill's senior international squad, although he didn't get onto the pitch during the two-game trip to South America in the summer.

Conor McLaughlin stepped up to the senior ranks and excelled against Hungary on Sunday, while Luke McCullough also seems to have left his under-21 career behind him.

And Magilton hopes that trend continues as the knock-on effect will boost senior boss Michael O'Neill. "We want to have good under-19 players who can move up to the under-21 and then under-21s who are capable of playing at senior level because it's good for the country," said Magilton.

"If we have exceptional players who can bypass the under-21s altogether then even better.

"When I played we didn't have the benefit of an under-21 team and the more matches these boys can play and the more experience they get under their belts the better."

The strength of the under-21 squad hasn't been helped by the fact that players like Kirk Millar are no longer in full-time football. Now at Linfield, he is in the squad, but as a result of returning home from their careers in England, his recently arrived Windsor Park team mates Seanan Clucas and Paul McElroy aren't in this time.

Northern Ireland will go into today's game looking for only a second win in three years at this level.

A 1-0 win over Cyprus last November brought to an end a run of 14 successive defeats for the under-21s.

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