Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Michael O'Neill banking on Northern Ireland's big guns

Jonny Evans is returning to fitness

Michael O’Neill got the Christmas present he dreamed of when he was appointed as Northern Ireland manager last December.

He’s been like a kid on Christmas Eve ever since.

Eight months of expectation, anticipation and — he’s not afraid to admit — frustration have been endured, but finally he’s got this far.

The countdown to the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign is now down to single figures in terms of days and O’Neill is getting excited.

Friendly internationals don’t get the juices flowing anywhere near as much as the real thing and when the battle to reach Brazil kicks-off in Russia on Friday week it’ll be like unwrapping all of Santa’s goodies for O’Neill.

He just hopes that everything on his list is there.

When he named his squad for the trip to Moscow and the home game with Luxembourg four days later the 43-year-old former midfielder had all his big names in there.

And if Russia — and later Portugal — are going to be met head on to keep us in contention for the long haul, then O’Neill will need all his big guns on board.

Kyle Lafferty proved why he is so important when he scored in the 3-3 draw with Finland a fortnight ago.

Although none of the three goals conceded could be blamed on individual defenders, having former captain Aaron Hughes and Manchester United’s Jonny Evans back is a major fillip as O’Neill prepares for the biggest games of his managerial career.

They aren’t just key men for Northern Ireland, they are Premier League regulars who between them have kept some of the top strikers in the world quiet, while playing for both club and country.

And while Gareth McAuley — and possibly Craig Cathcart — will also be in the mix, rest assured the team that walks out at the Lokomotiv Stadium on Friday week will have both Evans and Hughes in it.

“There is a sense of anticipation. As a manger I believe that I have everything to gain with this group of players and I think they have everything to gain as well,” said O’Neill (pictured).

“The weight of expectation and of what we can achieve must be realistic, though .

“If we can continue to mould the experienced players that we have with the younger players that we are introducing we have the makings of a good squad and the makings of a good side.

“We obviously need the availability of players, that’s a key thing throughout the campaign and that’s the one thing that I’d be praying for more than anything else — that the experienced players stay fit and healthy throughout.”

Evans has both youth and experience on his side. He is just 24-years-old, but is now playing under his third international manager with 29 caps over a six year period. He also has two Premier League medals, plus a few other pieces of silverware, in his collection with United.

His importance to both the present and future for Northern Ireland can’t be underestimated. His absence from the Finland friendly wasn’t something that O’Neill lost too much sleep over, but he had been fretting over Evans’ availability to travel to Russia.

Seeing him take a place on the bench for United was a welcome sight and now O’Neill is hoping that Sir Alex Ferguson gets him onto the pitch when United play Southampton on Sunday.

“Jonny has had his injuries and he had to have surgery but he's made progress with his return and he was on the bench on Saturday,” said O'Neill.

“There are 10 days before the Russia game and we hope his fitness can really improve. He is vitally important to us.

“Jonny is very hopeful and optimistic that he will be ready to play.

“I have spoken to Sir Alex Ferguson but I also keep in touch with the players directly.”

O’Neill added: “The last two fixtures, one in February and one in June, were difficult with the gap between games.

“I believe I’ll get a true sense of the squad now that we’re playing competitive games.

“Everyone wants to play international football, particularly in the competitive environment of World Cup qualifying campaigns.”

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