Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland chief O'Neill urges more local footballers to follow Dallas

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has challenged more Irish League players to follow the path of Gareth McAuley, Alan Mannus, Stuart Dallas and himself by progressing from the local game to full-time football.

O'Neill was speaking after naming Brentford winger Dallas in his squad for next Wednesday's friendly against Scotland at Hampden and the home Euro 2016 qualifier with Finland four days later.

Dallas has one cap from 2011 when he was with Crusaders. He played against Wales in the ill-fated Carling Nations Cup, a tournament where it seemed like every decent Irish League player won a cap.

The next international appearance for Dallas, and his first under O'Neill, could propel him towards a place in the Euro 2016 finals.

Dallas, who joined the high-flying Championship outfit from Crusaders three years ago, deserves his chance after a series of impressive performances for the Bees this season.

West Brom defender McAuley, who has risen through the ranks of English football since leaving Coleraine behind, and ex-Linfield goalkeeper Mannus, now a huge favourite at St Johnstone, are now established members of the Northern Ireland squad.

Niall McGinn, of course, started out at Dungannon Swifts, though the Aberdeen star's move to cross-channel football came via Derry City like his pal Paddy McCourt.

O'Neill, who transferred from Coleraine to Newcastle in 1987 at a time when more deals like that were being completed, wants to see other Irish League players show they are worthy of a move to the professional arena and progress from there all the way to the Northern Ireland team.

"Stuart Dallas is a good example of a player we need more of," said O'Neill.

"He has taken the route from Irish League football to professional football which is fantastic to see. Gareth McAuley and Alan Mannus did the same but we don't have many others which is a shame.

"It is the route I took myself and I really would like to see more follow that particular path because it would give us more players at professional level and me more players to choose from.

"Stuart has been called into the squad before, but he has had to withdraw through injury.

"He is playing for his club on a regular basis and has played wide on the left, left-back and on the right side of midfield, so he gives us good options and is a player I wanted in the squad before now."

Also included is Jonny Evans, currently serving a suspension at club level after being found guilty by the FA of spitting at Newcastle's Papiss Cisse. The Manchester United star will play his first Northern Ireland game in 18 months against Scotland.

"I've spoken to Jonny. He is an excellent professional and it is great to have him back. I have no concerns at all about his mental state," said O'Neill.

Evans, his club colleague Paddy McNair and Brighton's Aaron Hughes, who will join up with the squad having had limited game time, will all feature against the Scots. Back-up goalkeepers Mannus and Michael McGovern are set for a half each at Hampden with Roy Carroll returning for the Finland qualifier.

One man highly unlikely to be involved is Shane Ferguson, even though he was included in the 27-man squad yesterday in a dual announcement with Gordon Strachan's Scottish panel at Hampden.

Ferguson, who has yet to play for Rangers since his loan move from Newcastle, is rated as an "extreme doubt" by O'Neill for the double header.

New Ibrox boss Stuart McCall stated he was "astounded" that Ferguson was in the squad adding he was under the impression the Eglinton native wouldn't play again this season due to injury.

Another missing out is the injured Martin Paterson, who scored the winner for O'Neill against Russia in the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. The former Burnley man recently moved to the MLS side Orlando City.

O'Neill says Paterson may be out of sight, but he is not out of mind.

There is no Liam Feeney in the squad this time, though the manager hopes that will change in the future.

The Bolton star qualifies for Irish FA duty due to his Londonderry family background. O'Neill has spoken with the player and club manager Neil Lennon and hopes he will choose Northern Ireland over the Republic and Jamaica, his other options.

Meanwhile, as expected, Northern Ireland will play Qatar in a friendly on Sunday, May 31 in preparation for the Euro qualifier in Belfast against Romania on June 13.

The Qatar game will kick-off at 5.00pm at Crewe's Gresty Road ground. Northern Ireland will also travel to Wales to play in a friendly in June ahead of the Romania game.

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