Belfast Telegraph

Miserable Michael O'Neill has empty feeling

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is not a happy bunny. Frustrated, disappointed and bemused more like.

Intending to use the upcoming South American tour as preparation for the 2016 European Championship qualifiers later this year, he had hoped to have his strongest squad boarding the plane on Sunday.

Instead, recently he's been forced to listen to a range of excuses from some of his most important players declaring why they couldn't make the trip.

"Sorry boss, can't go. I'm off on my holidays. Dubai's lovely this time of year."

"Uruguay and Chile? A chance to test myself against some of the best players in the world? No thanks Michael, I've a wedding to attend. Bought the suit and everything."

"You want me to play football in June? You've got to be kidding gaffer! That's the best one I've heard in ages!"

Okay, the conversations may not have been exactly like that when certain Northern Ireland players were turning down the opportunity to play for their country in glamour internationals, but you get the drift.

For years Northern Ireland managers have had to deal with this post-season problem.

O'Neill is the latest one.

Put simply, too many of our players don't like playing in June.

Clearly they aren't fussed on May 30 either because that's when Northern Ireland face Uruguay in Montevideo with a game in Chile five days later.

Those who O'Neill takes with him to South America won't include a number of regular squad members because they are on family holidays or have family weddings to go to.

O'Neill told me Alan Mannus and Chris Brunt are in the former category with Will Grigg, Ryan McGivern and Caolan Lavery, who would have won his first cap on the tour, in the latter. Gareth McAuley is out for 'family reasons'.

There are injuries to Jonny Evans, Alex Bruce and Lee Hodson while Craig Cathcart and Paddy McCourt won't be travelling due to contractual issues, which basically means they are out of contract and are hoping to get signed by a club.

Having been in the original squad named on Monday, Martin Paterson opted out this week following a series of injuries this season and Jamie Ward did the same, feeling it was not in his or the squad's best interests to go after his extended club season. He features in the Championship play-off final for Derby against QPR on Saturday.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

For the record the players knew the trip was on the cards in February, so they weren't short on notice.

With so many absent for one reason or another, maybe we should be congratulating those who are turning up.

Well, no, we shouldn't because some of them have pulled out of previous tours and in any case surely they are only doing what they should be doing... namely taking up the invitation to represent their country, supposedly the greatest honour a sportsperson can have.

O'Neill genuinely felt our players would embrace this opportunity more to face teams who are dark horses for World Cup success.

He added: "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."

That comment was in reference to the fact that next year Northern Ireland have a potentially crucial Euro 2016 qualifier on Saturday, June 13 at home to Romania.

O'Neill is in a difficult position. On the one hand he is fuming with players for not going to South America for what he sees as ridiculous excuses yet on the other, when the qualifying campaign begins in September – with limited quality to choose from – he'll need most of them in order to put points on the board.

Obviously there are personal circumstances for individuals that we may not know about that should be respected, but too often when there are mass withdrawals, the Northern Ireland fans are left wondering if the players really can be bothered.

And they have every right.

Northern Ireland rarely win games these days but internationals still offer the chance for our footballers to achieve what they imagined as kids when kicking a ball about in the garden... that opportunity to play at the highest level and take on the finest players on the planet like Luis Suarez and perhaps even beat them to record one of the greatest victories ever.

Maybe some of our players don't think about the potential glory any more and just see appearing for Northern Ireland as a hassle they can do without, especially in the summer.

Imagine what they would do if we ever qualified for a major tournament again? I wonder would playing in June be okay then!

Belfast Telegraph


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