Belfast Telegraph

O’Neill opens the door to senior status for Northern Ireland young guns

By Stuart McKinley

Michael O’Neill has challenged Northern Ireland’s rising under-21 stars to earn a fast track into his senior squad.

O’Neill has travelled with Stephen Robinson’s squad for today’s Euro 2013 qualifier in Macedonia and with a squad to pick for next month’s friendly against Holland, the youngsters have every incentive to impress the senior boss.

Like his predecessor Nigel Worthington, O’Neill will approach a summer friendly without a number of his established players.

Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt and Steve Davis are all ruled out and while Jonny Evans declared himself available for the game in Amsterdam, he is now likely to miss the game through injury.

“It’s not every game that the senior manager gets to travel with the under-21s, so I’ve come to Macedonia to get to know the players face-to-face,” said O’Neill.

“Given that we don’t have big numbers to pick from there is always the opportunity for under-21 players to step up into the senior squad.

“There are already some members of this squad who have a few

senior caps, like Oliver Norwood, Ryan McGivern, Shane Ferguson, Lee Hodson, Johnny Gorman and Adam Thompson.

“There is a chance for anyone to step up in this game and with the friendly against Holland coming up in a few weeks time I’ll be looking to see who catches the eye.”

This is Robinson’s first game as under-21 boss and he will be looking to end a goal drought that has lasted for the last three games.

Robinson has a strong starting line-up available to him, with the squad boasting over 40 senior caps between them — Ryan McGivern having 15 on his own.

There is also a sense that the new boss is building for the future, with just three games left in the current campaign.

“There are three or four 17-year-olds in the squad and we want to see how they intergrate into the squad with the more experienced players,” said O’Neill.

“They are in the squad because they are good players who have the potential to be important members of the Northern Ireland squad in years to come.”

Manchester United midfielder Norwood, who spent the second half of the season on-loan to relegated Coventry City, is attracting attention from another Championship side, Barnsley.

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