Belfast Telegraph

Different world for Michael O'Neill

No Brazil 2014 means Northern Ireland are missing stars for South American odyssey

By Stuart McKinley

Had Michael O'Neill been in the same situation as the man he will face in the early hours of tomorrow morning, Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez, things would have been different.

Very different indeed.

If, like Tabarez, he was preparing his team for the World Cup finals in Brazil, every player with the remotest qualification for Northern Ireland would have been ringing the international boss begging to be selected

Others would have been frantically searching for that Ulster-born granny that they'd been told about as a kid in the hope that they'd get a seat on the plane.

As it is, O'Neill is in South America, but for friendlies against Uruguay and Chile rather than football's greatest global showpiece and not with the group of players that you would call his first choice either.

There is more than a full team missing. Alan Mannus, Lee Hodson, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Alex Bruce, Craig Cathcart, Ryan McGivern, Chris Brunt, Paddy McCourt, Kyle Lafferty, Martin Paterson and Jamie Ward are all unavailable for various reasons, leaving O'Neill to delve deeper into his already limited resources.

The challenge for the six uncapped players – goalkeeper Trevor Carson, defensive trio Ryan McLaughlin, Luke McCullough and Liam Donnelly, plus Paul Paton and James Gray – is to do enough in training and whatever minutes they may get on the pitch to convince O'Neill that they have a future in the international squad beyond tomorrow morning's clash with Uruguay and next Thursday's meeting with Chile, with the Euro 2016 campaign starting with a trip to Hungary in September.

The same could be said for the likes of Johnny Steele, Billy McKay and Josh Magennis, who have yet to establish themselves.

"I'd like to have more experience out here than I do, but we have the likes of Steven Davis, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird, Roy Carroll – the spine of the team has decent experience and then we have the opportunity to introduce some of the younger players," said O'Neill.

"As we go into the Hungary game it's not beyond the realms of possibility that some of these younger players will be needed.

"From their point of view they're not coming in cold. If they come in again they know what we're looking for."

Even aside from the summer friendlies, the problem that O'Neill faces – similar to most of his predecessors – is that the lack of Northern Ireland players performing week in, week out at the top level has made it too straightforward for youngsters to make it into the senior ranks in recent years.

Previously Aaron Hughes bypassed the under-21s and Jonny Evans only played three times at that level after skipping the under-19s before he was fast-tracked into the senior squad.

Others have been put in before they were ready, when serving their time in the underage squads would have been better for them, but O'Neill doesn't see things changing any time soon.

Although he is happy that there are positives to be taken from such a scenario.

"If I'm honest I wish it was harder for them to get to this level," he said.

"It would benefit them more if it was more difficult to get to this level.

"They're probably getting their chance a little bit easier than they should do, but of course it's exciting to have the chance of working with them.

"The ones who are here are in a pool of players where the next generation of international players will come from.

"The only ones outside that pool will be through eligibility and they're not coming out of the woodwork.

"So while they're very young they're not that far from being involved."

Which is why – even though he knew that some of the regulars wouldn't be in the squad – O'Neill was more than willing to accept the trip to South America.

The experience gained from facing two nations who are just days away from playing in the World Cup, in front of passionate crowds in their own backyard to boot, could prove invaluable further down the line.

And for the manager it's not the outcome of the matches that is the main focus, but rather what they learn from the experience ahead of a European Championship group containing Greece, Romania, Hungary, Finland and the Faroe Islands, which O'Neill believes Northern Ireland are capable of qualifying from.

"The friendlies have been disappointing, but people have to realise this team has played away from home for basically a year, with more to come," said O'Neill.

"That's not easy and we're not going to get a glamour friendly, but to play in Cyprus in front of 400 people doesn't get you overly excited.

"I don't read too much into a game like that because I've seen how they can respond against Israel, Portugal and Russia.

"I know in my head the team I'd like to play in Hungary now, but it's so far away, the reality is that until the Sunday night before the Hungary game that's when the preparation starts."

Belfast Telegraph


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