Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Michael O'Neill: Northern Ireland's Euro hopes start here

Turkey clash vital to Northern Ireland's build-up

Raring to go: Northern Ireland are put through their paces at the Ocak Stadium last night

They aren't building towards next summer's World Cup finals, a handful of first choice players are missing from both sides and no points are at stake.

It's hardly a surprise then that many people, including club managers, are looking at Northern Ireland's game in Turkey tonight and viewing it as another of those meaningless international friendlies.

Suggest that to Michael O'Neill though and he'll fix you with a Roy Keane glare. To him this match matters.

Handed a two year contract extension by the Irish FA, the Northern Ireland manager's task in that time is to guide a side that has finished fifth in their previous two campaigns – Nigel Worthington's last and O'Neill's first – considerably closer to the promised land of a major championship.

The Northern Ireland boss (right) sees the trip to the Turkish city of Adana, less than 200 miles from Syria, as crucial on the path to Euro 2016 qualifying.

And with possibly just two more friendlies to come before the group games begin in September 2014, he intends making every second count with his players.

O'Neill's arrival at the pre-match press conference may have started in comical fashion, with local reporters quizzing him on Norman Whiteside and whether or not he had ever holidayed in the country (he hasn't), but when talk of tonight's encounter finally came around, the visiting manager had his game face on.

"It's not a night where we can afford to just use this match to try things out. Games like this are essential for us," he said.

"We have to treat this game properly and pick a team that can A) put in a performance and B) get a result, which will be extremely difficult.

"The next international date is in March and after that there is possibly an opportunity at the end of May, with teams preparing for Brazil, we'll look at options there. So these games are invaluable.

"Three friendly games amounts to about nine days with the players, I think that puts into perspective the challenge we face.

"I understand some of the clubs have difficulties with them but for us to be able to build and develop a team we have to be able to avail of these fixtures.

"It can be difficult at times because you don't always get the ideal scenario or the ideal fixture but I'd rather come and play the likes of Turkey– a difficult game with an edge to it – than a less meaningful friendly."

O'Neill's plans have inevitably been affected by withdrawals, with the likes of Chris Brunt, Shane Ferguson, Craig Cathcart and Jamie Ward on the injured list while Gareth McAuley and Kyle Lafferty, who is awaiting the birth of his second child, are also unavailable.

It is not all doom and gloom, with Jonny Evans, Aaron Hughes, Roy Carroll and captain Steve Davis ensuring there is no lack of experience in the party.

Outside that core group, O'Neill will have the chance to assess the claims of less established players who may yet be needed given the limited resources he is playing with. One of those is New York Red Bulls midfielder Jonny Steele poised for his debut.

"The lads who are on the fringe are watched regularly for their clubs and that's what you go on but the thing is, until you bring someone into a squad you don't know how they will adapt to that and integrate," said O'Neill.

"We have the likes of Jonny Steele here, James McPake is back in, Ryan McGivern hasn't been with us for a few games so it's an opportunity to see them first hand and let them know they are still in the picture.

"It's up to them to show enough while they're here to make sure they are selected on a permanent basis."

There are just 17 players on duty this week – partly due to O'Neill's desire to work with a smaller group on this occasion, but also as a result of the various drop outs.

He admits that if a similar situation occurred in qualification, he would be struggling to make up the numbers.

"The reality is the next couple of players to be called into the squad would be from League Two," he admitted.

"Before you look at that level of football, without being disrespectful, you're essentially looking at a possible squad of about 27 players.

"We have 11 players unavailable to us for this game," said O'Neill.

"Going forward into the campaign we cannot have that level of unavailability if we're to have a fighting chance."

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