Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill angry as players say no

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has revealed his frustration and disappointment that some of his key players have chosen to miss the upcoming South American tour which takes in glamour friendlies against World Cup hopefuls Uruguay and Chile.

In announcing his squad for the trip yesterday, the names of those NOT on the list were just as interesting as the 22 who will board the plane on Sunday.

From the absentees O'Neill could comfortably have selected a starting XI which would have arguably been stronger and more experienced than the teams he will be able to put out on May 30 in Montevideo when Uruguay are the opposition and on June 4 when Chile will act as hosts in Valparaiso.

Manchester United's Jonny Evans, Hull City's Alex Bruce, who shone in his side's FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal, and Lee Hodson from MK Dons are injured while West Brom's Gareth McAuley is unavailable due to family reasons.

O'Neill says that McAuley's Baggies team-mate Chris Brunt and goalkeeper Alan Mannus, fresh from helping St Johnstone win the Scottish Cup at the weekend, won't be involved because of family holidays while Brentford's Will Grigg, Hibs defender Ryan McGivern and young Sheffield Wednesday striker Caolan Lavery, who was set to earn his first cap, won't travel as they have opted to attend family weddings.

Palermo striker Kyle Lafferty was not considered as the Serie B season in Italy has not yet finished. Using the trip as preparation for the 2016 European Championship qualifying campaign, which starts in September away to Hungary, O'Neill had wanted all of his big hitters, injury permitting, in South America.

It's not the first time a Northern Ireland manager has been left feeling let down by certain players ahead of matches at this time of year.

O'Neill said: "You can't do anything about injuries but I am disappointed with some of the reasons given for players not being able to travel. I have had conversations with those players and they know how I feel.

"In my time as manager we haven't had a lot of withdrawals and I really thought our players would embrace this opportunity more. After all, how many times are our lads going to be in this position to go to South America and play this standard of opposition?

"They were all given plenty of notice, back in February, that this tour was potentially going to be on. Shortly afterwards everything was confirmed but some people had put plans in place and were not prepared to change those plans which is disappointing."

Asked if the players who made themselves unavailable for South America will be out of his thoughts for the Euro qualifiers, O'Neill, knowing he only has a limited pool to choose from, replied: "I can't go cutting off my nose to spite my face and when our first qualifying game comes around in September I will still be picking my strongest side possible.

"There would be no benefit to the country to leave out the best players if they were available. I would add though that players want loyalty from managers, but it is a two way street and managers want loyalty from players as well.

"If you are going to be an international footballer nowadays you have to realise that games are played in June and that includes the qualifying process which is something our players will have to get their heads around."

It's a point well made by the Northern Ireland manager who will look to captain Steven Davis, Roy Carroll, Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird to provide experience and leadership for the younger players on what promises to be an extremely testing tour.

Uruguay and Chile will be keen to deliver confidence boosting performances in front of passionate home crowds ahead of the World Cup finals in Brazil.

"We have to be realistic about the results out there," added O'Neill. "The games are all about building up to the Euro campaign and making ourselves more difficult to beat which will help us when we are away to Hungary, Romania and Greece in our group. Once September comes around we will be as ready as we can be and I'll make sure the team is well prepared."

On Saturday O'Neill was in Glasgow to see his good friend Tommy Wright guide St Johnstone to Scottish Cup glory.

I wondered if the weekend and the woes with his squad for South America gave him the urge to return to club management.

He said: "There is no international manager in the world who doesn't get frustrated because you do not have the same amount of control as a club manager but I am fully committed to Northern Ireland for the next two years."

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