Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill: Irish League needs to develop more young talent
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has encouraged Irish League clubs to develop more young talent who can make the grade in the professional ranks and boost the international side in the future.
O'Neill himself started out at Coleraine before moving to Newcastle United in the 1980s at a time when players like Neil Lennon, Michael Hughes, Steve Lomas, Nigel Worthington and Tommy Wright made similar journeys and went on to win many caps.
In recent years numbers have decreased which is a cause of concern for O'Neill, who has completed detailed research on the matter.
"The Irish League has to become a greater pathway for footballers, first of all to help them have a professional career in England or Scotland and then to become international players," said O'Neill.
"I look at my own pathway. I went to Newcastle from Coleraine but that sort of thing doesn't happen enough now.
"Look at our current squad and we only have Gareth McAuley, Stuart Dallas and Liam Boyce who went from Irish League football to full-time football across the water. Niall McGinn also started out in the Irish League but actually made his move from Derry City in the League of Ireland.
"That gives us very few players to become professional footballers from the Irish League. We have to have more.
"I have drilled into all the data myself. I looked at players who are now playing professionally that came out of the Irish League and the figures are alarmingly low, yet in the space of the same four or five years Derry City sold five or six players alone.
"The demographics aren't any different to Derry than Belfast so what is the difference? Well, the players train more and the perception of the league is different from the outside.
"I would like to see the Irish League replicate what the League of Ireland are doing."
O'Neill, who will take Northern Ireland to their first European Championships in the summer, adds that he would welcome seeing more of the country's kids being given an opportunity to play first-team football in the Irish League.
He said: "I've suggested the clubs play more youngsters. Imagine three young players playing in every team, that would be 36 under-21 players playing every Saturday in the Irish League and suddenly you would have lots of clubs in England or Scotland thinking it's worth their while to come over and see games in the hope of finding a player they may sign.
"Then you are changing the perception of the Irish League.
"We have to get our young players into the game earlier and start to see them flourish domestically as a route to professional football.
"Also I would like to see Irish League clubs try and be more professional.
"Most clubs are doing two nights of training per week and a game every Saturday. That's the exact same scenario as when I left 30 years ago!"
O'Neill added that he hopes Irish League clubs will embrace the IFA's Club NI programme which offers kids dedicated training and numerous matches at international level.
He stated: "I'd like to see the clubs encourage their young boys to be part of Club NI and push their players towards it, giving the kids the best opportunity possible to go across the water or make the most of whatever talent they have."