Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill is urging McLaughlin to prove he has the quality to shine at a higher level

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has challenged Ryan McLaughlin to move his game to another level for club and country.

The 22-year-old has been included in O'Neill's squad for the huge World Cup qualifier against Norway at the end of this month and even if he doesn't feature against Lars Lagerback's side, it's a clear indication that the Northern Ireland boss believes the versatile player can deliver on the international stage.

Earlier this week, O'Neill expressed his frustration at the lack of young talent coming through the international ranks but former Liverpool youngster McLaughlin is getting regular game time at Oldham and his career is back on track after injury woe.

There were high hopes for McLaughlin when he left Glenavon for Liverpool in 2011 but there was no magical chapter in Merseyside and after loan spells at Barnsley and Aberdeen, the Belfast man is finally performing a key role at the League One side aiming to steer clear of relegation.

"I think it has to be his time," said O'Neill ahead of the Norway clash at Windsor Park on Sunday, March 26.

"With Ryan it got to a point where you can stay too long at a big club and it doesn't happen for you. You have to go out and find your way and Ryan has done that.

"Injuries possibly stopped him doing that 12 or 18 months sooner but he has played at right-back for Oldham, he's played up front and wide on the right and we know what he brings in terms of pace and energy. When we look at our younger players we ask, 'Can they progress? and I think Ryan can and being in the squad will hopefully help him do that.

"His club situation is that he will miss a game on Saturday which is far from ideal as Oldham are fighting to stay in the division but the experience of their difficult season and change of manager has made it a bit of a baptism of fire in terms of consistently playing first-team football but we have watched him quite a bit and I'm keen to see more of him. Reports are good and hopefully through involvement with Northern Ireland he can progress to a higher level."

Watford defender Craig Cathcart is named in a 24-man squad after missing the first four games of the campaign with a groin injury.

Burton Albion defender Tom Flanagan is the only uncapped player included.

O'Neill, who is without the injured Will Grigg, is thrilled to welcome Cathcart back.

"It's a big boost to have him back," said O'Neill, who is now in the running for the Norwich City job after the axe fell on Alex Neil.

"When I look back at my time in charge, it's very rare we've had Craig, Jonny (Evans), Gareth (McAuley) and Aaron (Hughes) fit and available at the same time, four really experienced centre-backs.

"It's a big factor having Craig back (in terms of formation).

"With Aaron's situation playing in the Indian Super League, it was tricky with what we played. Do we play three at the back, as we did in France in some of the games?

"When you don't have Craig available - or Jonny or Gareth available for that matter - it forces your hand a little bit.

"What he has shown in the past two years is the fact that he is a really established Premier League player and a top international player as well."

Shane Ferguson is suspended but Corry Evans is chosen despite having been out for two months with a groin complaint.

"Corry has carried this injury from the Euros," said O'Neill.

"He had a groin operation before the tournament and then he's carried it since then.

"He's a player I like having in the squad and he's had a great Euros but it's a big ask to expect a player who has been out for four to six weeks to deliver in terms of consistent play.

"The great thing is that he is desperate to join us and his club Blackburn have been supportive of that as well which is sometimes not always the case."

Linfield goalkeeper Roy Carroll returns to the squad and O'Neill has stressed the importance of the clash.

"It's massive," he added. "We know victory in this game will give us a seven-point gap over Norway which is a lot to make up over five games. Czech Republic will beat San Marino, you would expect Germany to beat Azerbaijan so we can really strengthen our hold on second spot and stay ahead of the Czech Republic and distance ourself from Norway."

Goalkeepers - Michael McGovern (Norwich City), Alan Mannus (St Johnstone), Roy Carroll (Linfield).

Defenders - Aaron Hughes (Hearts), Gareth McAuley (West Brom), Jonny Evans (West Brom), Chris Brunt (West Brom), Craig Cathcart (Watford), Conor McLaughlin (Fleetwood Town), Lee Hodson (Rangers), Ryan McLaughlin (Oldham Athletic), Tom Flanagan (Burton Albion).

Midfielders - Steven Davis (Southampton), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Oliver Norwood (Brighton), Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Jamie Ward (Nottingham Forest), Stuart Dallas (Leeds Utd), Paul Paton (St Johnstone), Matthew Lund (Rochdale).

Forwards - Kyle Lafferty (Norwich City), Josh Magennis (Charlton Athletic), Conor Washington (QPR), Liam Boyce (Ross County).

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