Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Latvia: You're playing for your places in France, Michael O'Neill tells players

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has declared that all of his squad are in the middle of a high stakes game with a spot in the team in the Euro 2016 finals the ultimate prize.

Eight months away from the the country's first major tournament in 30 years, already O'Neill has a mental note in his head of the majority of the 23 man panel he intends taking to France, but there are still some seats on the plane up for grabs.

And from here on in, during training sessions with Northern Ireland and games for club and country, starting tonight in a friendly at home to Latvia (7.45pm), he wants players to show they are not only worth a place in the squad, but also the starting XI in June next year when the European Championships kick-off.

"For the friendlies leading up to Euro 2016 be it in training or in the games I want to see that edge from all the players," said O'Neill (pictured), the first manager to guide Northern Ireland to the Euro finals.

"I've said to the players that every training session is high stakes. I can only put a maximum of 17, including substitutes, on the pitch against Latvia so players have to impress in training to get their opportunity in games.

"People who are in the squad but aren't in the team have to prove they deserve a place in the team. That's either with what they're doing at their club or how they do when they come here.

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"I'm not big on just changing the team for the sake of it. It is very much about players taking their chance."

The Northern Ireland boss used Leeds United winger Stuart Dallas to illustrate his point about a player bursting into his plans.

"Stuart is the best example of that," he said.

"When we brought Stuart in he was in a good run of form for his club but it was his performance in the Scotland friendly game in March that gave me the confidence to play him in the qualifier against Finland a few days later and subsequently start him in the Romania match a couple of months further on. From there he started in the rest of the qualifiers."

Tonight O'Neill wants to keep the feelgood factor going amongst the players and the fans on the back of last month's qualification, secured thanks to a famous 3-1 victory over Greece at Windsor Park.

That was quickly followed up with a 1-1 draw in Finland, guaranteeing top spot in Group F.

O'Neill said: "The priority for this game was that I wanted to play at home. We had a fantastic night here against Greece but we had to leave the next morning and then subsequently when the players returned from Helsinki they all went their separate ways to different parts of the UK and I wanted them to be at home to enjoy and get a feel for the impact they have made in Northern Ireland by qualifying.

"The opposition was not the key thing and I only wanted one game in this international break rather than two. That's because over the campaign the players had given so much that this was an opportunity, instead of dragging them somewhere else to play next week, to let them get back to their clubs as soon as possible. We can put our all into this game and look at a few different things and hopefully get another good result."

Belfast Telegraph